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|| News Item: Posted 1999-08-30

Photography In The Squared Circle: Covering WWF Wrestling
By Tom Buchanan, World Wrestling Federation

Photo by Tom Buchanan

Photo by Tom Buchanan
"...We'll come up on six then three in ...5...4...3...2, ready six, take six. Pyro. Send him. Tom, Derk, duck on the right side. Take three, ready two, take two. Four, spin around and get the announcers. Take four. Ready two, take two. Tom, there is a yellow sign blocking two can you get it? Ready seven, SEND HIM, SEND HIM, take seven. Four get Kane. Ready four, take four. Ready three, take three. Ready two, take two....."

Every Monday night millions of folks are sitting comfortably at home watching the World Wrestling Federation production of RAW on the USA network. For fans it is an exciting program filled with action and compelling stories revolving around their favorite performers. For me, it is two hours of non-stop action photography in a city far from home, with the constant soundtrack of a television director, executive producer, producers, and associate producers blasting in my left ear, and crowd noise in my right ear.

As I stand at ringside shooting the action, I am plugged into a RF headset with the non-stop chatter of television production. While searching for the coolest action photos I am constantly thinking about what is on the air right now, and what each of the seven video cameras will be shooting in the next ten seconds. It is unusual for a still photographer work so closely with television, but that relationship defines my roll as the staff photographer for the World Wrestling Federation.

The television crew we use remains pretty much the same from week to week, so we all know each other, and spend hours hanging out backstage building the production, and waiting for showtime. The production environment is very similar to a major sports event except that there are no restricted "team" areas or separate working spaces.

Photo by Tom Buchanan

Photo by Tom Buchanan
Every member of the production and every superstar share the same working and catering space, and since we all see each other weekly, it has become like a large extended family. It is not uncommon to see television guys hanging out in the locker rooms, or have a top wrestler spend time in the production truck reviewing match tapes.

Most of the television production crew handles our account on a freelance basis. When the crew isn't working at our event they are shooting general sports and entertainment events, but in that role they have an almost adversarial relationship with still photographers. At the World Wrestling Federation we figured out that a still photographer needs to be integrated into the video production rather than remain as an adversary to the television side. The use of an RF headset allows me to know what each video camera is shooting so I can avoid blocking their shots, and also gives me a heads-up about the development of the story as it plays on live television.

The director has learned to use my extra set of hands and eyes to help out as the production rolls along. I can occasionally be called on for to help with quick segment producing, stage management, or other duties. Likewise, I can count on the television production crew to support my shoots, and help get front line access and action briefings at each location. When conflicts with television do arise I can easily sit down with the director or producers in our Stamford studios to review master tapes. We also have the ability to review ISO reels of several of the cameras that were not on air to see how a conflict developed, or check on the impact of flash hits from multiple angles and under different lighting conditions.

I actually began shooting for the World Wrestling Federation in 1985 while a staff photographer at the Utica Observer Dispatch, a Gannett newspaper in upstate New York. The freelance relationship grew, and within a couple of years morphed in to a staff job at the World Wrestling Federation. Over the years I have shot every major superstar in the industry at sports arenas in both small towns and giant cities. I've worked in 46 states and at least a dozen international markets, and traveled more miles than I ever thought could be covered in a lifetime.

Photo by Tom Buchanan

Photo by Tom Buchanan
I am the only staff photographer working for the World Wrestling Federation, and have the additional responsibility of managing all freelance photography that we assign. The general philosophy here is that I am responsible for generating all the images we use, either by shooting them or assigning them out.

World Wrestling Federation publishes two monthly full color magazines and provides images for all licensee use and promotional use worldwide, as well as photography for our various web sites.

While the core of the photography at the World Wrestling Federation is talent-driven action from ringside, we also generate a large volume of studio photography and off-the-mat features. I'm also required to handle the basic "business" photography of an aggressive multinational corporation.

The diversity of assignments keeps the job interesting, and the use of two primary freelancers keeps me sane. When I'm unable to find time to handle a job I can rely on Rich Freeda, an outstanding general assignment and corporate photographer in Stamford, Connecticut, or David McLain, a top shooter in Portland, Maine, who focuses his business on outdoor and adventure lifestyle photography. I also use other shooters around the country when a job or the schedule requires something more than I can deliver.

Our action is all shot with strobes mounted on lighting trusses. Our television production travels on nine trucks and one of those carries all my action strobes as well as a complete studio package. The strobes mount on rock-and-roll style television lighting trusses about 35 feet in the air. The package includes six, 30-amp circuits with dedicated XLR style control lines.

We mount a Wizard radio to one of the daisy-chained packs on the truss and a back-up radio on a ground drop line. We generally hang two separate strobe packages, each using three Speedotron 2401 packs and four Profoto heads. My production day usually starts with a climb around the truss rig to check the work of the technicians that assembled the gear, and a quick focus of the strobes on the ring area. Most of the action is shot on Fuji Astia using Canon cameras.

The strobes allow us to shoot at f /6.3. Sadly, the light is very top-heavy and lacks the added reflection of an ice rink, or the warming reflection of a basketball floor. The primary action lens has become a Canon 28 - 105. It is a sloooooooow lens, but keeps the equipment load pretty light while shooting action. We also make heavy use of an 80 - 200, and have wider lenses available. It is rare to use glass longer than 200mm when shooting action.

The action is based in a standard wrestling ring that measures about 21 feet square. Our ring is "softer" than a boxing ring and has only three ropes, rather than four. We also define the 8-foot wide barrier between the ring and seating area as part of the action area, so our superstars are free to do whatever they like in that space. Photographers and their equipment are fair game for attack if a wrestler chooses to use us as added spice in a match. Unlike most sports, wrestling really has no "buffer zone" or "sideline" to separate ringside photographers from the action.

Photo by Tom Buchanan

Photo by Tom Buchanan
Back at home we have three additional strobe packages for use on arena catwalks when we are covering an event without television. One of those packages is a purebred Profoto system using the Freeze 6 packs, so we can shoot without power worries in international markets. The other systems are based on Speedotron packs and Profoto heads. Each is packaged in hard cases and staged so it can be easily shipped with a quick phone call.

The studio system riding on our television production truck has about five Speedotron packs and half a dozen heads, as well as a full package of grip gear. That system is available anytime we are shooting television action in any domestic town. When we set up a studio in the backstage area we can expect our friends in television to provide a clean power feed with about 100 amps of service.

We can also dig into their grip gear for a few extra Matthews stands, or whatever else we may need for a special shot. Studio work is mostly handled with Hasselblad cameras, and Fuji Astia remains the film stock of choice. The bulk of our studio photography is designed for multiple end users, so it tends to be simple and generic. Special projects and publication requirements will often drive us to create unique light or sets for specific shots. This can become a challenge in an arena area, but we always find a way to make things work.

The World Wrestling Federation also has a complete 1,200 square foot still photo studio at our television production facility in Stamford, Connecticut. When a project requires dedicated space or long set times we can easily use our studio without restriction. The "home" studio is also based around a Speedotron system, and has tons of extra capacity available from the road action strobe kits, as well as from a dedicated traveling studio package that is designed to easily fit in a rental car.

Photo by Tom Buchanan

Photo by Tom Buchanan
The Stamford photo studio space was designed as an integrated studio within the television complex, so we have both audio and video feeds to connect us to the rest of the building. The feeds allow our space to serve as an additional video studio when needed, and allows us to receive video from other in-house productions. Thus, we can easily monitor a video shoot to know when a superstar will either be needed, or become available for photography. Our still photo studio is also the home of a twice-weekly live streaming program on WWF.COM, our premier web site.

Action and conventional studio photography comprise the bulk of our imaging, but we also shoot a wide variety of special projects and features. A large part of our picture report is currently built around environmental portraiture designed to add a sense of character to each of the superstars. Freelancer Rich Freeda recently shot a strong black and white documentary-style feature following superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin for 48 hours.

David McLain recently shot an eight-page magazine feature profiling wrestlers tattoos using color infrared film. Not long ago Rich Freeda and I spent a few days on the beaches of San Diego shooting beauty photos of the women of the World Wrestling Federation, then switched gears and shot gritty street photos of Stone Cold Steve Austin in an abandoned factory. Through it all I can expect to have two photographers shooting ringside action at our TV productions someplace in the country every Monday and Tuesday, then pick up features and studio photography the rest of the week.

As seems to be the case in general sports photography, our workload begins with action, but makes strong use of character-building images to develop interest in the superstars. Our overall objective is to use photography to draw readers and viewers into complex stories that unfold at live events and on television, and to enhance the quality of our various media and merchandise offerings. Our facilities, equipment and staffing all work together to generate a level of photography that impresses our fans and talent, and enhances the value of all of our product categories.

(Tom Buchanan is the senior staff photographer for the World Wrestling Federation.)

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