The personal website of Chris Coyier

Mr. McCormick and the Case of the Very Large Television Set

My story from the brand new book Graphic Content: True Stories from Top Creatives, curated by Brian Singer.


I roll up to Scott’s house about seven in the morning. I think my text wakes him up. He has me wait outside while he gets ready to go. It’s the kind of house on the kind of street where the creaky gate has to push away some beers cans to open. Scott looks like he has seen better mornings – but his gear is absolutely ready to go.

About five hours later there is a TV the size of a European car about just about to shatter onto the sidewalk right as his camera shutter clicks.

Scott is a photographer buddy of mine in Denver, Colorado. I needed some photos taken of me for a magazine interview. I can’t imagine a more uncomfortable thing to do. I was driving through Denver on a road trip when it clicked that Scott could shoot the photos. That would be way easier and more comfortable than some Craigslist photographer, I thought.

I’m not sure what people who just meet Scott think of him. They might assume he’s a pretty hard living kind of guy. He was in touring bands for a long time. He’s gone through some tough family stuff. He’s still young but with some lines under the eyes. He has a huge natural beard, wears plaid shirts and cut-off shorts. Thick-framed glasses. As nice as the day is long.

We have no solid plan for this photo shoot. The first place we decide to head is Red Rocks. Google some pictures of it if you’ve never been there, it’s a crazy beautiful music venue in the middle of some huge rock formations. When there isn’t a concert you can walk around and check it out for free. We thought some photos there might be cool. We took about three photos before enough moms pushing strollers up and down the rows, runners bounding up the steps, and tourists staring at each other had us bolting for the exit.

Enough of that. Scott isn’t a “lets find a pretty brick wall” kind of photographer (by a long shot) anyway. He like to get weird. Lots of action, props, and compositing.

Scott has an idea to go to a Good Will. If they don’t have these in your area, it’s a re-sale shop where they take donated cloths and housewares and stuff and sell them in the stores. The plan is simple. We’re going to buy a truckload of crap, find a building, get the stuff on the roof, throw it off, and take pictures of it. I think it’s brilliant in the raw, sort of dumb, juvenile-ness of it. It’s sure to make for some fun photos. We’ll also get some photos of me walking past the building. Then Scott will composite the photos together to make it seem like the stuff is falling all over me. Like everytime I walk past this damn building I end up in the middle of some domestic dispute a few stories up.

I have to slam my shoulder into the truck door leaving Good Will to get it to close. We bought so much crap we almost had to make two trips. Of course it didn’t help that the bed of the truck was almost entirely taken up by this huge tube TV from the 80’s. I wish I had a photo of my dog Digby squished in the back seat. She wasn’t especially pleased.
The first hiccup in this plan is that we don’t actually have a building in which to throw this crap off. So we just start driving around different neighborhoods in Denver. Scott is looking at buildings judging them by how they would look in the shot, while I’m secretly a little more concerned about whether the owner of the building is going to let us essentially sprinkle broken glass all over their parking lot. Just rolling with it is key to hanging out with Scott.

We find the perfect building in a residential neighborhood. Only two stories, but tall, so you won’t be able to see the top or sides in the photos like Scott wants. He marches up and knocks on the door. Turns out it’s this old kinda hippy looking dudes house and the Scott even kinda knows him. Greg was his hame. He designed an album cover for a band Scott was in years ago. Small world. He didn’t hesitate to say yes.

The second hiccup is that there was no way to get onto the roof. He talks Greg into driving over to his brother’s to get us a ladder, and in the mean time, we pick up and move his garden shed up against the side of the building. When he gets back, he just kinda shrugs, and we put the ladder on top of the garden shed and that gets us on the roof. Hot tar, of course.

It gets a little tricky now. We were able to carry up bags of clothes and books and random junk up the ladder pretty easily, but this baby whale of a TV is another story. One guy couldn’t lift it on flat ground. The first idea was to take it apart a bit, but that was scrapped because we wanted the TV looking in good shape on the way down, and the easy parts to take off didn’t weight much anyway. The second idea was to tie it up with ropes and yank it up from the top. Scott and I were able to yank it up about half way before it was just too hard. I remember totally giving up at this point. It seemed really hopeless to me. But Scott already on the phone calling up other guys to come help. Just minutes later we have a third guy on the roof (“Punk Rock Tom”, of course) helping us yank this thing up. We get it to the top edge, but fail to realize how hard it’s going to be to angle it over the edge. Scott ends up kind of dangling off the side of the building to try and reach underneath it and heft it up. Wildly dangerous, but somehow it works and only cost him only a pinky fingernail.

Should we have thought about it longer, I think the third idea would have been sliding it up the ladder at an angle which would have made that last part a lot easier.

The actual photo taking process went like this: I’d walk by the building front doing something typical like talking on the phone, walking my dog, or just sitting on the curb on my laptop. Scott had is camera duct taped to another ladder in front of the house, so it was absolutely still and didn’t move between shots. Somehow the most cringe-worthy part of this story is imagining the duct tape residue that’s probably still on that multi-thousand dollar camera. Then as soon as the photo of me was snapped, I’d sprint around the house, up the ladder, and start chucking stuff off while Scott took those photos. If they didn’t look quite right, he’d chuck the stuff back up to me and I’d throw it off again.

The timing was everything. Scotts camera is awesome but it doesn’t have the “super sports mode” or whatever where it takes a ton of shots super quickly. He had to click it at just the right second. Not only did that need to be perfect, but the sun was setting. That effected the light in the shots. At noon, the light is relatively stable, but as it sets, the lighting changes more quickly, so we only had a few minutes in between shots otherwise they would have been impossible to composite together.

The TV was the last shot. By this time the neighbors had gathered in the streets to watch the shenanigans. They cheered when the TV was hefted onto the ledge. We figure out just where the TV was likely to fall, and then I sat in that spot on the curb for the first photo. Once we got that, I ran around the house, up onto the roof, and booted the TV off the roof like Gerard Butler booted that Persian emissary into the death well in 300.

click.click.click.click.

I don’t know if you’ve ever thrown a tube TV off a roof, but wow, if you land it just right it sounds like a bomb going off. People will hit the deck if they aren’t ready for it. The “tube” part is a “cathode ray tube.” I think Wikipedia says it best:

If the glass is damaged, atmospheric pressure can collapse the vacuum tube into dangerous fragments which accelerate inward and then spray at high speed in all directions.

Indeed.

We went and rented a shop vac and spent the next several hours vacuuming glass shards out of Gregs parking area. But hey, we got the shot!