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Leif Zurmuhlen

Final Edit
With his picturesque new video on the restoration of the Capitol roof, Steve Dunn’s 18-year career at WMHT culminates in personal and artistic success—and ends, thanks to the station’s budget woes
By Ann Morrow

Steve Dunn refers to Flood of Light: Restoring New York’s Capitol Roof, as an “epic,” and with ample justification. The high-definition video took more than 18 months to shoot and six months to edit, and utilizes both archival photographs and computerized animation. The WMHT documentary, which explores the monumental restoration of the state Capitol’s west roof, also benefits from Dunn’s artistic filmmaking style, which he describes as “poetry and prose.” For Flood of Light, the technological ingenuity and painstaking labor of the restoration is combined with atmospheric montages of the building’s many marvels, including breathtaking views from the vertiginously pitched roof.

The documentary premieres on Sunday, June 1, but this capstone of Dunn’s 18 years with WMHT is also his swan song. Along with nine other station employees, Dunn was laid off on May 21 in a cost-cutting effort that the award-winning producer calls draconian.

Producer, videographer and writer Dunn honed his atmospheric style in Sacred Places, a 2002 WMHT documentary about area sites of spiritual significance, which won the New York State Broadcaster’s Award for Best Regional Documentary. “I wasn’t always this good,” he jokes. “It was a learning process.”

That process came to an abrupt end on May 21, the day Dunn was putting the finishing touches on Flood of Light, and just one week before the video’s preview premiere in the Capitol’s War Room. The layoffs resulted from a budget shortfall of more than $300,000 [see sidebar]. “Yeah, there had to be cutbacks,” Dunn acknowledges, “but where do you cut back? With the guy that runs the mailroom, and the only graphic artist at the station, and the promotions producer? I think if the general manager, Deborah Onslow, were to make the really tough choice, she would have looked to the people directly around her in administration.” Dunn compares the company’s hierarchy to an inverted pyramid that is top heavy with management, and further qualifies that five of the 10 laid-off employees were in creative positions.

Being unexpectedly unemployed hasn’t dampened Dunn’s enthusiasm for Flood of Light, however, and he is quick to share credit with associate producer and cameraman Mike Melita (“He still has his job”), and computer animator Erik Sacino, a multimedia freelancer and former WMHT Web designer. Dunn brought in Sacino to visually simplify the complicated structuring of the Capitol’s roof, skylight, and interior lay light. “The first animation is a wire-frame animation that strips the whole building to a skeletal structure, to orientate the viewer,” Dunn explains. “The really cool thing is the way he was able to ‘match frame,’ like how we started with a wide shot of the Capitol on a bright blue day, and we dissolved to his animation, and he matched it. I love the way the building kind of dances as it moves to different points, and how the [viewpoint] flies around and goes in on the top of the tower, and then we dissolve to the tower being deconstructed. It adds a lot to it, and the colors are beautiful.”

Once oriented, viewers can more fully appreciate the restoration work, much of it undertaken from 185 feet in the air. Flood of Light covers the first phase of the Capitol’s eight-year, $40-million refurbishment, which was completed in August 2002, and tracks the restoration of the west roof from the installation of high-tech waterproofing to the rebuilding of the skylight. The skylight’s dramatic unveiling bathes the magnificent Great Western Staircase in “a flood of light”—in the words of Isaac Perry, the staircase’s architect—for the first time in half a century.

But first, the roof had to be disassembled piece by piece. Worn-out terra-cotta tiles were meticulously removed, and enormous blocks of ornamental granite were sheared from the masonry gutters with a gigantic hydraulic saw. Interviewees range from the Capitol’s current architect, James Jamieson, who is overseeing the project, to sheet-metal workers in full-body harnesses similar to mountaineer rappelling gear. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever been on,” says a roofer proudly. “Everything in scale is giant.”

The need for safety harnesses is made picturesquely clear by the video’s skyscraping footage. “Mike is an excellent photographer,” says Dunn. “He did amazing stuff getting up on the scaffolds—you do get a vertigo sense of height and distances and scale. You see the guys working in the foreground, but if you look in the background, you see these ants, these little worker ants, on the ground. Mike didn’t use a rope, and he had a heavy, digital camera to carry.”

While construction crews engage in their dexterity-defying tasks, bird’s-eye views of surrounding landmarks such as City Hall and the Empire State Plaza provide an aerial backdrop. “He mostly shot with a super-wide-angle lens,” says Dunn. “He got those really amazing shots at the tippety-top.”

Dunn, 50, cheerfully admits that he concentrated on the Capitol’s vaunted interiors and exteriors, leaving the high-wire shooting to his daredevil associate. Inspired by French chateaux, the Capitol roof is actually a complex of edifices that the producer describes as a series of peaks and valleys. The video offers the audience a rare opportunity to see the building’s rooftop architecture at eye level. Flood of Light also serves as a portrait of the Capitol, a National Historic Landmark famed for its imaginatively carved masonry and opulently arched staircases. “The building is the main character,” says Dunn. “There’s one shot where the skylight is covered in blue tarp, and the wind inside courses up, and when it breathes out, it’s like the building is alive.”

In some sequences, Dunn simply lets the moving pictures tell the story: The video opens with a hushed, horizontal pan of the building’s stone sculpturing seen through falling snow. “What I like about the piece is that it is not laden with narration,” he says. “There are moments where I just let the shot go, for like a minute, and it gives it a real-time feel. I like the long stretches where there’s just natural sounds, like the chains when they’re moving the massive stones around.” Throughout the video, restoration workers express astonishment at the building’s original construction, completed in 1899 without benefit of scaffolding or modern rigging. The Capitol’s 32 years of Herculean construction are illustrated by historical photographs. “The archival stills parallel what they’re doing now,” says Dunn, the photo editor. As the stills reveal, the work of 160-ton cranes originally was accomplished by horse-drawn pulleys.

The centerpiece of the restoration is the re-creation of the enormous skylight, an undertaking that required 39-foot-long panes of glass to be maneuvered into place by hand. Dunn presents the refurbishment of the underlying laylight almost as a single take, following the structure as it is fleshed out from a stripped-wood ribcage to a sunlight-suffused canopy. Accompanied only by mandolin music, the sequence achieves a beautifully heightened reality. “I edited with a nonlinear editor,” says Dunn. “It wasn’t really scripted, the program was organized in the editing room. It was a very organic process.”

Flood of Light received a generous $25,000 in underwriting, and is the first WMHT video to be available on DVD in addition to VHS. “They make a little money, and they generate local interest—the viewers really do enjoy these programs,” Dunn enthuses. “The Iron Horse in Schenectady did very well, and the Historic Views series did well, and they do well cumulatively. Historic Views of the Capital City has legs, in terms of they still use it during the beg-a-thons.” He adds: “They also get funding, and that certainly takes care of direct costs.”

Responding to the question of the cost-effectiveness of eliminating a revenue- generating position, Dunn waxes philosophical. “Not only do the programs generate income, but I feel they help in fulfilling the mission of the station, which is to provide good-quality local programs. A lot of the stations in the country never had the money to do this stuff; what they do is just show what PBS gives them, and they don’t even have a local production department. In my 18 years [at WMHT], I kind of created a niche for myself: I’m the man who does the local documentaries. But the thing is, these things take a long time. And I’m very conscious of quality control, I can’t just slap it together. Apparently, the company can’t support that, because they have to pay me a salary.

“So how profitable are [the documentaries] in reality? I don’t know. But,” he emphasizes, “they do provide something of value to the community.”

Considering the architectural, historical, and artistic merits of Flood of Light, it’s conceivable that the video will be very profitable indeed. “I have no idea how this one will do, it’s hard to call,” say Dunn. “I hope it makes money.”

He then adds with just a hint of embittered glee: “I hope it makes a ton of money.”

Flood of Light: Restoring New York’s Capitol Roof premiers on WMHT on Sunday (June 1) at 8 PM.

Layoffs Coast-to-Coast

When asked about the effect of the recent layoffs and job cuts on future local programming, WMHT director of communications Marcy Stryker insisted that the station remains commited to presenting locally-produced programs to the community, and said, “We’re hopeful that the changes will not have a dramatic impact.”

Though the in-house staff has been reduced, Stryker explained that the station has a good relationship with outside producers. This suggests that WMHT sees outsourcing as part of the answer to its problems.

The station is not alone in its economic difficulties. When WMHT first announced that 16 positions were being eliminated, its press release pointed out that PBS stations across the country were being forced to do the same thing.

“Public broadcasters around the country—including those in Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago—have reorganized and cut staff in anticipation of reduced federal support and greater reliance on individual and corporate support,” the press release explained.

In January, Chicago public TV station WTTW, where Roger Ebert got his start many years ago, laid off 21 staffers. In April, Seattle’s PBS affiliate, KCTS, terminated 11 employees—more than half from production jobs—and announced that 24 more might have to go by the end of 2003. On May 24, South Carolina Educational Television eliminated 35 positions statewide.

Most stations agree that the problems are the result of a weak economy, cuts in federal and state funding, and drops in both corporate underwriting and viewer membership. As KCTS board chairman Doug Beighle told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on April 18, the attacks on Sept. 11 had a devastating effect: “What we saw was that the bottom dropped out of corporate support for all of public television.”

Costs related to the federally mandated conversion to digital broadcasting—which all TV stations must undertake over the next few years—also hurt the Seattle station. This is not an issue with WMHT, however, which has a capital fund set aside for the digital conversion. As Stryker said, “[WMHT] is fortunate enough to have that pool of money.”

—Shawn Stone

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