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On the Prowl With Channel 11's Station-Identification Film Crew

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So, who's it going to be? The three-year-old charmer with the Ghostbusters visor? The man in the Musky Tale Resort sweatshirt? The plant-eating apatosaurus? Director Jonathan Cohen and his WTTW video crew are scouting the Dino-Rama exhibit at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, today's backdrop for the taping of a new batch of station-identification spots.

Broadcast during breaks between programs, the homespun Channel 11 ID has become a station trademark. Ordinary people, on the job, in the neighborhood, or posed before a distinctive Chicago scene, announce, "You're watching Channel 11, WTTW in Chicago," or variations on this theme.

In the shadow of the museum's electronically powered allosaurus, cameraman Cal Langenber and sound man Rick Wells compose a shot and check sound levels. Dwarfed by the "carnivore" are Ed and Kay Hoffman, an elderly couple. Kay was initially reluctant to be filmed ("No, no, I'd break the camera"), but her husband of 48 years and the crew prevailed.

While Langenber and Wells time the shot so that the prerecorded roar doesn't drown out the soft-spoken EA and Kay, Cohen patiently tries to relax them in front of the camera. "Hello, Chicago," begins Ed. "You're watching Channel 11," Kay haltingly finishes. Their smiles are pleasant, but forced, and after five takes, Ed and Kay are still not entirely at ease. Kay's eyes dart off-camera to see Cohen's reaction. A few takes later, Ed starts unconsciously mouthing his wife's portion of the ID statement while still trying to keep a smile on his face.

The FCC requires that a station visibly or audibly identify itself. WTTW's ID used to consist simply of the station logo burned onto a 35-millimeter slide depicting some pleasant image--the Chicago skyline, perhaps, or a couple huddled under an umbrella.

In 1981, Dick Bowman, vice president of programming, returned from a broadcasting seminar fired up with what was then a radical idea: Go to a school and film children announcing an ID. "The kids were cute," recalled Rick Kotrba, a veteran ID director. "We started talking about doing IDs with big people, too. Some thoughts were expressed that it's only cute with kids because kids are cute, but we decided to go out and try it."

Cohen and crew have ventured to the Academy of Sciences to augment the station's library of children-oriented IDs. Taping began outside the museum at 9:30 AM. With 30 minutes until Dino-Rama was opened to the public, Cohen and WTTW staff members surveyed the intersection of Clark and Armitage for prospective candidates. "I look for an interesting face," said Sue Klein, who schedules the IDs for broadcast. "You've got to find somebody whose personality comes through. If somebody puts too much emphasis into the read, it will sound phony."

Meanwhile, Langenber set up his camera at the foot of the museum steps.

Andy Warhol prophesied 15 minutes of fame for everybody. Channel 11 can make you famous for 15 seconds. Should you ever be asked to tape a station ID, remember these dos and don'ts:

1. Do not try to sound like an announcer.

2. Don't worry, be natural.

3. Keep your eyes focused down the middle of the lens.

4. Smile!

5. Continue to hold your gaze for at least five seconds after you finish speaking. This allows editors to freeze-frame the image.

It did not take long to recruit subjects. Lynn was waved down in mid-jog on Clark Street. Vince was sidetracked from his way to work at Walgreens. Joe, an interpreter at the Field Museum, was waiting at the museum's entrance. He wanted to spend part of his day off at Dino-Rama. Cheryl, her three-year-old son Ian, and her brother Scott were also biding time before being allowed into the exhibit.

"I always wondered how you got those people," said Lynn as she filled out the Program Participation Release Form. Noting the waiver's stipulation that she could not currently hold political office or contemplate becoming a candidate, she sighed in mock disappointment, "Does this mean I can't run for mayor now?"

The first camera setup was a simple one, a head shot with Lincoln Park West in the background. Sound man Wells shrugged off the periodic rumblings of trucks and buses bearing down on Clark Street. "Part of the ambience," he said.

In toe-numbing cold, participants gamely made the most of their brief brushes with celebrity. Thrust before the camera, they tried to concentrate on their lines while heeding Cohen's patient instructions. Lynn was perky, but her eyes tended to shift. Vince projected well, but he swallowed his words ("Channeleven").

Cohen had the most difficulty with a sullen and pouting Ian, who was impatient to see the dinosaurs. No amount of cajoling from his mother or clowning by Cohen could persuade him to smile. Take after take, he squirmed, stared at the ground, and looked as if at any moment he would erupt into tears. "The sun hurts my eyes," the temperamental star complained. It was up to museum publicist Carolyn Bresler to come to the rescue. She dashed into the gift shop and returned with a plastic toy dinosaur to divert Ian's attention.

With Ian placated, the cameras rolled again. "Hello, Chicago," announced Cheryl. "You're watching Channel 11, WTTT," flubbed Scott. Cut!

The remarkable dinosaur models in the Dino-Rama exhibit afford Cohen and Langenber the dramatic visuals that can help transform a simple ID into a treasured keeper. The best have been those that contained an element of surprise and spontaneity.

In recent years, ID directors have been encouraged to exercise their sense of whimsy. One of the most memorable of the playful IDs is the Lincoln Park Zoo sea lion, who blurts out the station ID before tumbling into the water (Kotrba supplied the cartoonish voice). Last summer at Oak Street Beach, an aspiring triathlete obliged the camera by announcing the station ID while performing a back flip.

It is the often frustrating case that IDs that look promising through the camera must later be rejected due to technical difficulties or other unforeseen circumstances. It was not until postproduction, for example, that editors spotted a woman shoplifting fruit outside a Polish grocery.

The converse is also true. A subject who seems lackluster or even difficult during the taping will shine thanks to the magic of editing. You never can tell. All you can do, said Langenber, is just "roll and roll and roll. Sometimes, nice moments are there."

Inside the Dino-Rama exhibit, the rolling continues with a succession of high school students, museum staff members, and parent-child combinations. Cohen prefers individuals or couples to group shots. Two or even three people can play off each other.

They can also play against each other. One hapless mom wrestled with her infant son and daughter, but they would not sit still. Finally, grandma had to be called in to carry off the girl during shooting. The child's wails drowned out even the allosaurus. Peace restored, the mother began, "I subscribe," but her son chose this moment to vigorously shake his head "no."

Elizabeth and her father were next, but Cohen could not persuade their relatives, who were visiting from the Soviet Union, to participate. "They won't go on," Cohen was told. "They're too paranoid." Five-year-old Elizabeth was seated on her father's lap, while behind them a long-necked apatosaurus "munched" on exhibit vegetation. Dad went into his announcement, and Elizabeth stared into the camera and sucked at her thumb. Her father finished and suddenly Elizabeth turned to watch the dinosaur. "Sometimes, you put it together, and it sparkles," smiled Klein.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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