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Capturing the Magic Moment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Through the Warner Bros. store they trooped Thursday morning, squeezing into a Tweety Bird- and Sylvester-adorned elevator for the ride to the 21st floor. From there, it was another four flights of steep stairs until the TV crews, lugging their 15-pound cameras on their shoulders, reached their goal: a narrow scaffolding high above Times Square.

With a clear blue sky above, and water tanks all around, they got their shots: the famous sparkling ball whose drop has become a worldwide symbol for the ushering in of a new year. As construction crews looked down from new skyscrapers rising even higher above, over and over the glitter ball rose and fell, its 504 Waterford crystal triangles gleaming and 696 lights flashing, for the journalists to capture the image, in advance of the real event tonight.

Up close and in daylight (gleaming through the night it will be a different matter), the 6-foot-diameter ball looks more impressive than it does from the six-tiered, three-story high-camera platform four blocks north where some 45 cameras--double previous years’ numbers--will be stationed during the 24-hour extravaganza that starts at 6:15 a.m. (EST). The space has been allocated for weeks, as a disappointed and somewhat hapless Eastern European TV crew found out this week when they showed up wanting to know where they could set up their gear.

Times Square, not surprisingly, is TV central for this year’s bigger-than-usual changing of the calendar. ABC and MTV have permanent windowed studios on the neon-blasted intersection; NBC and CBS are setting up in windowed hotels overlooking the scene, which is expected to draw 1 million people to the area. Image-starved camera crews are taking pictures of other camera crews. A publicist coordinating the cramped rooftop trips to the ball worries about being able to stop the stampede to the top.

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Nothing is being left to chance. Some five cameras from almost every conceivable angle, part of the Times Square Business Improvement District’s official TV coverage of the festivities, available free to all TV outlets worldwide, will be trained on the ball during its official New Year’s Eve run. A camera attached to the ball and/or 77-foot flagpole itself isn’t one of the options, however; after months of tinkering, David Stern, who is producing the official video feed, concluded that the high winds would buffet the camera too much and make viewers “seasick.”

Times Square BID officials are estimating Stern’s images could be seen by as many as 2 billion people worldwide. Four days before the event, he has a script of images he will be looking for during the final all-crucial minute before the New York midnight. “We know where the action is; it’s a matter of trying to pace it and tell the story. There’s always a moment--we look for the moment,” he says. Possible pictures he’ll use: New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani kissing the doctor who is the official ball-dropper, and children in the crowd.

Other elements are up in the air, however--or, actually, may not be in the air. The weather forecast is fairly good--eliminating one possible glitch--but Stern may or may not have pictures from two news helicopters; security hadn’t decided as of midweek whether the choppers would be allowed. The balloons will be heated to make them stay aloft longer, but ultimately, the amount of wind will determine whether Stern gets his magical pictures of swirling confetti floating through the air. “With the wind pushing everything down, it doesn’t look that good,” he says.

Stern will have 20 cameras, robotic and manned, at his disposal, double last year’s number, taking pictures from most every vantage point, including through the eyes of the oversized puppets that will parade through the square during the day and night.

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One element he declines to discuss, however, is what happens if the joyous scene he is charged with displaying to the world turns somber, through some crisis. “That’s a very delicate matter,” Stern says, but adds, “I’m more apt to find someone stark-naked than to have something happen.”


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