From the Archives: Former Omaha Television Photojournalist Don Chapman’s Adventures in Imagemaking Keep Him on the Move
Here’s another story from the dust covered archives, this time about Don Chapman, who was already a veteran commercial filmmaker when I did this Midlands Business Journal profile of him in 1990. He came out of the ranks of early television photojournalism to launch his own commercial production house and when I caught up with him he had already made the transition from film to video and analog to digital technology, in what was still very much a transitional time in his industry, and how he talks about one versus the other is quite interesting given how ubiquitious the video-digital platform is today. He clearly saw it as the new standard for his field and wasn’t fighting this new format, though he did express some regret about losing the romance of working in film. He covered some big stories as a newsman and once made news himself when he was detained in Cuba during the height of the Cold War. Most of his career was much more prosaic than that, but he had his share of adventures and he established himself as a journeyman imagemaker for large corporations.
Don Chapman with the famous photo of John F. Kennedy taken in Omaha in 1959. Chapman is the photographer just to the left of Kennedy. A year later, Chapman survived explosions on a ship in Cuba and was questioned by Fidel Castro. ©Courtesy Omaha World-Herald
From the Archives: Former Omaha Television Photojournalist Don Chapman’s Adventures in Imagemaking Keep Him on the Move
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Midlands Business Journal
Have camera, will travel.
Don Chapman has lived by that intrepid code since the U.S. Navy made a photographer out of him during his 1953-56 tour of duty.
The owner and president of Chapman & Associates, an Omaha film, video, slide and multimedia production company, paid his professional dues as a WOW-TV photojournalist in the late ’50s. He followed news trails throughout the Midwest, learning to tell compelling stories through pictures. The reporter became a newsmaker when, as a freelancer, a case of bad timing led to his becoming a political prisoner of a hostile Latin American government.
Since 1961 he’s applied his newshound instiincts, storytelling knack and adventuresome spirit to commercial photography and film production, which have taken him to Mexico, Spain and other parts of the world.
After a 20-year partnership with former WOW-TV colleague Robert Spittler, Champman formed his own production house in 1981. Chapman & Associates serves a national, mostly industrial client base. Video editing, optical and computer graphics design, slide processing and sound recording facilities are located at Chapman’s two-story location at 1912 California Street,. The site contains 10,000 spuare feet of office and studio space.
About 90 percent of the firm’s photography is shot on location, including some pretty far-flung places. Chapman handles a large share of field assignments himself.
“I still really enjoy going out and being busy in the field, no matter what it is,” Chapman said. “The most fun is doing the work, not everything else…I hate the drudgery of politics. One of the things about this business is that you start out with new challenges every day. Every job we do is a little bit different, and that’s probably what keeps us in the business.”
The photographer said crafting a well-told story via stills or moving pictures is what it’s all about. “It gives you a feeling you’re doing a good job. It can be anything from a freight train to a landscape – if the composition’s there and everything flows well, there’s a feeling of satisfaction and achievement.”
He said one of his favorite storytelling formats uses photography and music, minus any narration. In this way he recreated his 1976 white water trip through the Grand Canyon in a multi-screen show featuring 2,000 of his slides and music from Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. “I had all the right conditions — spectacular scenery, an action-packed subject, world class music scoring, and best of all, I didn’t have to get client approval. It was one of those things you do for yourself.”
Now in his 30th year as a film producer, the veteran photographer has traveled many varied roads in pursuit of images. In that period he’s seen video technology change the face of his industry, which like everything else in America is now computerized and online with our insatiable appetite for instant gratification.
Although he rues the lost romance of the old days, when he cut a dashing figure with his 35 millimeter Arriflex motion picture camera, he’s adapted to new realities. “We haven’t finished a project on film for a couple years. Everything is video now,” he said. “We’ve shot some projects in 16 millimeter but we always rank (transfer) the footage and finish it on videotape. It’s more client flexible.”
Serial killer Charles Starkweather in custody
Long before Nike made it fashionable, Chapman exemplified the “just do it” work ethic. He honed this work ethnic and storytelling ability while earning his color bars at WOW-TV, whose parent Meredith Publishing Corporation also owned WOW Radio. Because the stations shared a combined news operation, reporters like Chapman filed stories for both. Since TV was still in its infancy Chapman shot black and white still photos and motion picture film for later broadcast. The days of videotape and live feeds were far removed yet.
“We did our own motion picture processing and used the original 16 millimeter footage on the air,” he explained. “Many times we left stills in the hypo just long enough to let them fix, then pasted them against a board in front of a camera while they were still wet – just making the (live) news broadcast.
“It seems primitive today, but it was exciitng then because of the immediacy. You learned to react and make a decision, right or wrong. You didn’t have the luxury of time.”
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Iowa
Chapman and a colleague from those days, Bill Ramsey, often lugged around a 16 millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera, a Speed Graphic still photo camera and an audio tape machine to log TV and radio reports. “You were feeding a lot of different news purposes,” said Ramsey, president of Bill Ramsey & Associates Inc., an Omaha public relations firm. “Don was a good newsman.”
Together, they covered the Charles Starkweather murder spree and trial, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev‘s visit to an Iowa farmhoouse during his celebrated U.S. tour and John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. At a Kennedy campaign stop Chapman was indelibly linked with the future president when a French photographer snapped a picture of the candidate against a backdrop of paparazzi. Cropped for use on a campaign poster, the picture prominently featured Chapman poised with his camera behind the famous JFK profile. The picture’s been published countless times.
August 1959: Senator John F. Kennedy during session with the press in Omaha, Nebraska. ©Photo, Jacques Lowe.
The unexpected is the companion of any photographer. It took a dangerous turn for Chapman in 1959 when, after a photo tour of Europe, he was returning home on a Liberian freighter. During an unscheduled stop at Havana, Cuba to unload cargo, an explosion rocked the ship. Soldiers rounded up suspected saboteurs. Chapman was arrested.
Communist Cuba, still aflame with revolutionary fervor, was testing its new found status in the Cold War in terms of how far it could push the United States and its allies.
He had the double misfortune of being the only American aboard and carrying expensive camera equipment, which was confiscated. “Here I was in the middle of a great story, and no camera,” he said. “I was held incommunicado and interrogated many times. One of his interregators was Cuban dictator Fidel Castro himself, who not long before had led his revolutionary guerrilla forces in deposing the U.S.-backed Batista regime.
A Cuban prison
Chapman watched helplessly during two trials, unable to communicate with his Spanish-speaking “defense attorney.” I stopped worrying about losing all my camera equipment. It looked like I might lose a lot more. Fortunately, American government officials were able to intercede and convince the Cubans that I was at best an itinerant photojournalist traveling overseas. In this case I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
While that close scrape stands out, physical danger is a professional hazard he’s encountered his share of times. On an aerial shoot in the mountains near Santa Barbara, Calif., Chapman was strapped in a helicopter mount. As the chopper skirted over the 5,000 to 6,000 foot peaks, he filmed panoramic scenes from his exposed perch. It was a position he’d been in many times before.
“On one sharp maneuver the pilot stood the helicopter on end and the mount slipped and fell into space about four inches. I was just hanging there by my straps, looking straight down at the ground. While the mount only slipped a few inches, it was enough to cause concern,” he recalled, laughing at his own understatement. “The mount was safety-bracketed in and the safety bracket caught, so there was not problem. But from my standpoint I didn’t want to do any more filming that day.”
Some Champman clients have operations in remote places, where the terrain is less than hospitable. An example is Union Pacific Railroad, which hired Chapman to photograph a 10-minute film, The Rivers of Steel, for exhibition at the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair, The job took Chapman and cinematographer Roger Mazur all over the U.S., including the mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah, where they went in search of snow scenes.
Shooting from a helicopter mount
They found snow all right. Plenty of it. But the two men weren’t outfitted to negotiate on foot the deep snow fields they encountered. “We headed out to this area that was nothing but snow,” Chapman recounted. “Roger carried a 35 millimeter motion picture camera, which is not light, plus tripods. All of a sudden Roger finds himself in snow up to here,” he said, indicating his chest. Champman followed suit. “Every time we took a step we went down in to our armpits because of all the weight.” After wriggling free of the snow trap they “ended up going back to Salt Lake to buy snowshoes.”
According to Chapman, photographers are bound to “run across situations like that. That’s just part of the job. We’ve had to rent backpacks to get equipment into the back country.”
Not all jobs are rugged or dramatic. In fact, much exterior location work involves setting up equipment, followed by long periods of inactitivty waiting for the precise light that only Mother Nature can provide. “I’ve sat for hours in some pretty bad environments waiting for the right moement,” Chapman said.
Having waited out more than his share of sunrises and sunsets on motion picture shoots, Champman said clients could afford a wait-and-see approach in the past.
“You’d go out and scout a day ahead of time to see where the sun would rise or set. Other times you had to guess where the sun was going to be. Sometimes it was exactly where you wanted it…that has to be instinct. Sometimes, though, the sun was a half-mile off – it didn’t come down between the two mountains the way your scripted it, it came down behind one of the peaks. That’s bad luck.”
When it comes to motion picture work today Chapman said most clients choose video because it is faster and less costly than film, key attributes in a leaner, faster-paced business age. He said video’s smaller budgets and shorter deadlines have diminished the maverick image and freedom motion picture photographers embodied. The romance of the old days is gone. “It’s not there like it was because everything is a rush today. There’s no playing around because there’s no budget to play around with. But I don’t think that’s anything unique to my business. The budget’s the bottom line of everything.”
He believes a major factor why video is the medium of choice today is the “instantaneous review” it permits. “There are a certain number of people who want to see results now. Managers don’t have the time to finish the project on film because it can take up to eight weeks. We can turn around a video project in less than a week in some cases.”
Chapman said the very fact that raw video footage can be viewed on a monitor in the field or back at the studio the same day has robbed photographers of the independence and mystique they enjoyed in the film era, when exposed celluloid had to be shipped off to be processed. Photographers were vagabond kings with highly specialized skills: few people could operate a 16 or 35 millimeter motion picture camera. The filmmaking process was regarded as equal parts craft, intuition and pluck and its practicioners were alchemists with film and camera.
Adding to their mystique was a lonewolf persona. As Chapman explains, “One man could go out and I still do on a motion picture shoot. You never worried about batteries or monitors. A lot of times you were so confident you didn’t even look at your footage for weeks. The clients trusted us. They never saw the results until they looked at the work print two weeks later. You just knew it was going to be. You knew you had something in the can. You were just very sure of yourself.”
Roger Mazur agrees. “We also had a thing called reliability. You had a camera that 99 percent of the time was going to work. In video you have a camera, a recorder and all these electronic components that can just go out. I cannot leave a location now without checking the tape because there could be a drop-out or glitch,” he explained.
Yesterday’s trust has been replaced by accountability. “Nowadays,” Chapman said, “clients look at everything immediately.” With VCRs and camcorders as commonplace as microwave ovens, he said, everyone believes they’re an expert.
“Today, because video technology is so accessible,” Chapman said, “anybody can go out and take a video picture. I’m not saying that’s the best video picture, though. A client who’s not knowledgable as to what’s good and what’s bad may buy a video service and not be satisfied with it. That may sour him on video for a while. Ten years ago there were only a certain number of quality motion picture producers around the country. Motion picture production seemed to take more technology and expertise compared with today’s video explosion, when everybody seems to have a video camera.”
A state-of-the-art audio-video production suite control board
Despite his nostalgia for the good old days, Chapman acknowledges video’s advantages. For example, he said video cameras are self-contained units that record sound while most film cameras are silent. “With a film camera you have take a separate piece of equipment and a sound crew. And video lighting’s much more portable than it ever was with film. You don’t need the big grip trucks and crews you did before.”
He added that “you can’t do the nice quality opticals and visual effects in motion pictures without spending thousands of dollars. But in video you can do it instantaneously. You can program a four-sided cube that spins. You can’t do that on film easily unless you’re producing Star Wars, but most people don’t have the budgets Hollywood productions do.”
About a year ago Chapman & Associates had a video post-production facility installed on site, including a DVE or digital video effects system that can create computer generated graphics. The editing facility capped a remodeling and expansion project by the firm.
Chapman describes the facility as a “boutique edit suite that has all the bells and whistles we can use in industrial production.” Before adding its own editing capabilities the firm used facilities at Editech, a local postproduction house.
“We put the post room in to do a lot of our own work. Part of the advantage of having your own post facility is that you can experiment a little bit and do a lot more for your client, rather than try and learn on somebody else’s time and money. It may cost $200 an hour to hire another post room. Then I can’t experiment at all because I’m working under a client’s budget.”
He said a typical post room is a $200,000 investment but larger facilities can cost “a lot more.” He continued, “The cost of doing business today is a lot more expensive than in the past. The biggest cost today is the overhead of equipment. A video camera will cost from $10,000 to $40,000 and because it’s very electronic there’s more up-keep. It’s a lot more expensive to send a crew out today.”
While video production is more economical than film, he said, “no one realizes what the true cost of a video is until they do it. Cleints don’t realize the equipment and post-production it takes.” He estimates video “can run from $10,000 to $60,000 for a 10-minute to 40-minute show, whereas on film you can run up to $100,000 without even trying.”
In an environment where costs are high, clients are penny-pinching and film/video competitors are numerous, Chapman said it’s vital for a production house to niche itself in the market. “But the biggest single problem we have is educating the consumers of our products of differences in quality. We have a broadcast quality component video system that takes reds, greens and blues and separates them. With the exception of one other house in town no one does that. This is the highest end of half-inch tape editing you can do. Everybody shoots on half-inch, but they edit on one-inch and they lose the component factor of quality. We feel we have to educate people to why our system is superior.”
Chapman uses digital Betacam tape and equipment. “Digital technology has taken over every large market area. On digital tape there’s no degradation of quality. You can run a tape thousands of times and it’s still first generation,” he said.
He said his company does a large amount of work for agricultural clients but does not concentrate in that area as it once did. Its clients today are a diverse group, including hospitals, community service organizations and trade associations. The majority are corporate and industrial giants such as BASF, Dow Chemical, Con Agra, Union Pacific Railroad and Mutual of Omaha. Although some of Chapman’s work airs on broadcast television, most is seen by a closed-loop audience of industria/corporatel clients and their customers and employees.
“Multi-image slide shows for national sales meetings are probably the most challenging jobs because you can’t make a mistake. It’s a one-time only performance and everything has to flow. It’s live,” he said.
Chapman’s produced such shows using up to 40 projectors at once. He added that the trend is moving away from multi-image slide shows to video because of the cost factor.
“As far as the most gratifying project we’ve done, it had to be Rivers of Steel because people clapped,” he said, referring to the Union Pacific film shown at the ’84 World’s Fair. He believes that film has probably had the largest viewing audience of anything he’s produced.
Chapman said the video boom that has flattened out the U.S. motion picture industry is a worldwide phenomenon. He keeps abreast of international trends through his participation in I.Q., the International Quorum of Film Producers.
“At our 1988 convention in Canada I was telling a group from South America to be careful because all of a sudden video is going to come in and overtake you. They acknowledged that, but they didn’t think it was going to happen very soon. Within the year the South Americans were complaining about how they had to get rid of all their motion picture gear because Brazil’s video industry had taken over the South American market. That’s going to be true in any Third World nation.”
Hungary was the setting for last year’s I.Q. meeting, giving Chapman a glimpse of Eastern Bloc technology. He said the state prodcution facilities he visited were out-of-date by Western standards.
“In Eastern Bloc countries such as Hungary video facilities are, from our standpoint, very quaint.”
He said the edit suite he visited was extremely hot because such basic enviornmental controls as ventilation and air conditioning were absent. Hungarian officials told him funding shortages are an endemic problem, stalling the installation and updgrading of needed equipment. Officials also acknowledged the impact video is having in Europe.
I.Q. provides a network of information and resources for member producers who share their stock of images with peers. If Chapman receives a request for agricultural or farm scenes he can access his computerized files of more than 50,000 slides and miles of videotape to find images that match the request. He can fax or mail materials as needed. Likewise, he said foreign producers provide him materials and help cut through the red tape of shooting abroad.
Chapman is in the midst of cataloging the vast stores of motion picture film he has accumulated over 30 years, which he hopes to market. “I have a ton of film that is historically some fabulous stuff, and nothing’s ever been done with it.” For instance, he said he shot much footage for Storz Brewery and other landmark businesses from Omaha’s past. “The film is extremely valuable for documentary purposes. It’s got a lot of potential. We’re getting a lot of requests from film stock libraries for any scenes of cities from a certain period.”
He said some of the footage has been transfered to videotape but the vast majority of it remains on film.
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