Saturday, October 11, 2008

"UFO Hunters" on Tikaboo Peak: Part I

Two days ago, I was up on Tikaboo Peak with a film crew from UFO Hunters, a History Channel series. (Here is a photo album of the expedition.) Apart from Larry King broadcasting live from Rachel in 1994, this was the biggest media production ever assembled on the doorstep of Area 51. Unlike the Larry King production, which set up a stage next to the highway, this crew had to haul their heavy equipment up a steep and rugged trail to a mountaintop shooting location—at night! In all, 13 people made it to the peak, along with sound equipment, three video cameras, a sturdy tripod and a big-ass telephoto lens.

Personally, I had a blast, and so did most of the crew (or they will have had a blast once they physically recover). That, to me, is what matters most. For me, the production was an excuse to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. The hike at night was almost foolhardy, which I tried to impress on the production company beforehand, but we managed to pull it off without any major problems. The crew was much more proactive than I anticipated, and they were highly resilient in the face of adversity. I came to like and respect all of them. Against the odds, the mission was accomplished, and everyone came back in one piece.

I felt invigorated by the whole enterprise. After almost ten years of refusing video interviews, I was "back in the game" as though I had never left. Even before we started the hike, I was being labeled as the "go-to guy" for information on Area 51 (an insult to the real go-to guys, since I've done no real research in a decade and don't care to do any more). I freely admit that my interest in what goes on inside the secret base has now fallen to less than zero, but I am still amused by the circus outside it, and after a decade-long sabbatical in the trenches of "real life" I don't mind performing again in that circus.

The only potential downside of the production was the little matter of, um, truth. I don't have a TV, so I have never seen UFO Hunters. Even some members of the crew told me that's probably a good thing. Friends who have seen the show have filled me in. Some love it; some hate it, but I recognize by triangulation that I am dealing more with an entertainment product than a journalistic one. The name itself tells us its focus. The existence of the show can only be justified by finding UFOs—or at least tantalizing suggestions of them. If UFO Hunters comes to your neighborhood, they're probably going to find UFOs there; otherwise, there would be no show.

The show doesn't employ skeptics, who are seen as too negative. Instead, it has a "science guy" (who I didn't meet). He typically sets up various new-fangled electronic equipment provided by companies seeking publicity (aka "product placement") hoping to catch some UFO traces. On top of this, saucer-watch scenes are usually filmed with fancy night-vision lenses that can give even lawn sprinklers an otherworldly glow. A good rule of thumb in ufology is the more high-tech equipment you deploy that you don't understand, the more "anomalous phenomena" you are going to discover. It's a simple formula for success: more money equals more high-tech equipment equals more "UFOs".

What is a show like this doing on the History Channel? That's the real alien phenomenon. SciFi Channel, sure. Discovery Channel, maybe. But where is the "history" in hunting for UFOs in the present day? The apparent answer is that all UFO sightings took place in the past; therefore they are history. I am comfortable with this general concept if it stayed in the past. The UFO movement has a very rich social history, regardless of whether you believe, and it certainly deserves to be documented. (Think of the Woodstock-like gatherings at Giant Rock in the 1950s.) Area 51, too, has an extensive military history which merits more attention. What is dubious "history" is the investigation of UFOs in the present. Do you remember when MTV was "Music Television" and was only about music? Well, History Channel may have now crossed the line where it is no longer about history, only about ratings. Maybe it should rebrand itself as "HC."

Furthermore, I can't say that my own motivations in taking this gig were entirely pure. Since I learned that I would be laid off from my airline job, I have tried to assemble several small business ventures to make ends me. One of these is an "Area 51 guide service," which I publicize with a page on the web. For $250 a day, I will lead you and your party to Tikaboo Peak or wherever else you want to go around Area 51. UFO Hunters took me up on the offer, which will help me meet my subsistence budget for next month. The real payoff, however, is the business that will presumably come my way after the show airs. I'm not interested in getting rich, and I see the tour guide thing as a temporary adventure for only as long as I enjoy it, but it would be nice to have the business coming in if I need it. It is to my benefit, therefore, that the UFO Hunters episode be successful.

How does one deal with all this moral ambiguity? It's simple: compartmentalization. Over the years, I've gotten good at it, especially during my decade of "real life." Compartmentalization is when you stop worrying about the big picture and just concern yourself with the part you have been asked to do. It's something we all have to resort to when dealing with the outside world. For example, when we buy a product at Wal-Mart, we don't necessarily worry about the working conditions of the Chinese slave labor that made it. If we tried to run down all those connections, we'd go mad, so we simply buy the product if the offer is good.

On the web, I made a public offer, and UFO Hunters accepted it. I told them from the outset that I couldn't give them UFOs, and they respected that. For the purposes of the show, I was just the Tikaboo guy. I would lead the host to the peak and to the Janet terminal in Las Vegas. In interviews, I would talk about Tikaboo, the Janet flights and my own experiences with security, that's all.

This was a heavily scripted production. What the viewer will see is a seemingly spontaneous "investigation" where the UFO Hunters team goes out to Area 51 with an open mind and sees what they can find. However, any real investigation implies the ability to change course. Your path on each step of the inquiry is determined by what you just discovered in the previous step. You can't "script" a true investigation. You can only script a movie or other entertainment product.

The script in this case was rigid and demanding, and it was written before anyone from the production company had set foot in the area. In fairness, the participants weren't given exact lines to recite, and no one was asked to lie or say anything they were uncomfortable with, but the "story" was determined entirely in L.A. before shooting began. Where the crew would be in every hour of the week-long shoot was strictly scheduled, with little margin for deviation. The director and producer also knew the subjects that they wanted each participant to talk about so the resulting sound bites would fit into the story. They couldn't afford to go into any other areas no matter what turned up in course of filming.

From the production company's standpoint, there was no other way. The History Channel keeps tight reins on the show, and it has to review and approve each story before shooting begins. Any significant changes also have to be approved by them, which is a huge bureaucratic burden. The production company is also trying to turn out a complex full-hour show on a grueling schedule, and it has to be exciting -- a real ratings grabber -- or the show will eventually be cancelled. These pressures tip the scales from reality to fiction, because fiction is so much easier to control.

True news shows are relatively lean. A local TV news crew consists of only two people: the cameraman and the reporter. A network news crew (including magazine shows like 20/20) consists of four people: the cameraman, the sound technician, the producer (who does all the real research), and the pretty-boy reporter (who usually flies in at the last minute and asks questions fed to him by the producer). The Tikaboo shoot, however, consisted of an on-site crew of a dozen people, including a director, producer, two cameramen, sound technician, gaffer, camera assistant, production assistant and—get this—a "story editor". His job was to assure that everything that happened on camera was consistent with the predetermined script. Especially with so many people and so much expensive equipment involved, the script becomes God, and no deviations can be accepted. This means that if UFOs flew out of somebody's ass at a time when the script didn't call for them, the crew could not respond.

Like movies and TV dramas, UFO Hunters is filmed "out of sequence". That means the order of events you see on the screen is not the same as the order it was filmed. All news shows dabble in a little bit of this, usually for fill-in footage where nothing significant is happening, but legitimate news organizations would never do it for the main action, like climbing a mountain: The preparation, the climb and the follow-up all appear on TV in the same sequence they really happened. Entertainment shows know no such boundaries. In this case, we filmed the follow-up first, then the main hike, then the preparation for the hike. This was all done for economy of production, just like for movies. In Las Vegas, about 40 hours before the actual hike, the UFO Hunters host was filmed talking about how "amazing" the Tikaboo hike had been. (I was wondering at the time whether everyone was going to survive the hike, let alone it being "amazing.")

The whole thing was reminiscent of my experiences with the paranormal show Encounters back in 1994 (Desert Rat #10). In that case, the crew filmed the secret base from Freedom Ridge the first night, then the second night when all the "cast" was assembled (including myself), they filmed a fake climb to Freedom Ridge on a hillside nowhere near it. At the top, we were asked to look at a blank hillside and pretend we were looking at the base. From the production company's standpoint, why not? If money is saved by "cheating" a scene and the results on the screen are virtually the same, what's the loss? CNN or ABC News would be mightily shamed if they were found to be faking scenes like this, but there is no real penalty for shows under the "entertainment" umbrella (including all those ugly "reality" shows). The problem, of course, is that when you cross the line into cheating, it is hard to know where to stop. Would UFO Hunters promote dubious UFO video or fail to exercise prudent skepticism simply because it served the needs of production? I prefer not to ask.

Compartmentalization is my friend. The fact is, I really liked everyone I worked with, and I think most of them would agree with my concerns above. This is a cutthroat business and everyone is being squeezed in one way or another. Every member of the crew knows what they need to do to get the show on the air, and there can be some beauty in that. It is remarkable to watch such a big operation unfold and to see everybody work together seamlessly when they need to. "I'm just a cog in the machine," said one of them, and this can bring both pain and pleasure.

I, too, saw myself as part of the machine. I was, first of all, a native guide, doing my best to make sure the crew was prepared for the environment. When I heard they would be hiking at night, I voiced my concerns, but when they were overruled I was still on board, doing my best to make sure things went as well as possible. My second role was as an actor, trying my best to be on-mark when I needed to be and delivering my lines as required. I wasn't going to lie, but I was prepared to take direction and respond to the needs of my team.

My main interview was conducted around a campfire at the base of Tikaboo. I myself suggested the venue in my long email correspondence with the production staff prior to the event. According to the story line, it was just me and the host sitting beside the campfire. We were supposed to ignore the dozen crew members, the two cameras pointed at us, the boom microphone hovering just above our heads and the giant fill light hanging overhead. It was just me and my buddy, out in the wilderness, talking casually about the hike coming up. After a few minutes of adjustment, it all came back to me. As far as I was concerned, it really was just me and the host and a couple other people listening in. I didn't know where the cameras were, and I didn't care what they were seeing, because that wasn't my job. I just wanted to say my lines well and make my friends happy.

I didn't deviate too far from the truth, but I did stretch it a little. At the request of the director, I played up the difficulty of the hike, turning it into something more dangerous and risky than I believed it was (at least in the daytime). The director wanted to ramp up the excitement factor by emphasizing the risk, but I had a different agenda. A show like this, broadcast to millions of couch potatoes, was essentially an open invitation for idiots to come up here and get themselves killed. As I saw it, making the hike seem more dangerous was a form of public service. At the suggestion of the director, I even played up the threat of mountain lions. Now, I've never seen a mountain lion, and I think the chance of being attacked by one is about the same as seeing a BLM ranger—that is, next to nil—but I had no problem playing up the hypothetical dangers of mountain lion attack as a surrogate for much more likely threats, like falling on loose rocks and cracking your head open. If mountain lions can scare off at least some of the ill-prepared dimwits, I have no problem inventing a few.

I truly didn't give a shit about how many millions will be watching the show or how they will perceive me. Perhaps it is a sign you are approaching nirvana (or death) if you genuinely don't care about fame. As I see it, fame has only one substantial benefit: When you meet someone new, they already know what to expect from you, and you don't have to spend as much time explaining yourself. Fame doesn't give you any gratification in itself. It doesn't solve your daily problems; it doesn't make you feel more worthy, and unless you have a clever mechanism to exploit it, it doesn't make you rich. No matter how much of it you have, fame is never going to heal the wounds and humiliations of your past. Even when you are known to millions, your life is still going to revolve around those few real people who you interact with on a daily basis.

That's how I felt on Tikaboo. I liked the people I was with, and I wanted this to be a memorable experience for them. I wanted to give the producer and director the material they needed—preferably even better than they had planned on. I didn't just pretend to bond with the host; I really did, and now I understand some of the stresses he is under. Since we're all just cogs in the machine, what really matters to me, personally, is meshing with my fellow cogs. Dealing with those other millions is mainly a matter of not doing something that is going to screw up their lives, like inviting them to the isolated desert when they are not prepared.

I might not even see the show when it comes out, because in my mind the adventure is already over. I was there and I took some pictures, and they are what I will remember it by. Whatever story the show comes out with is going to pale in comparison to the real hike I remember. Most meaningful to me were the stretches when the cameras weren't rolling, because there was actually some drama afoot. I almost wished there was a film crew recording the film crew climbing the mountain, because that was real fun!

I'll fill you in on the hike tomorrow in Part II: "The Tikaboo Death March."
Article & Photos © Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173


  1. Fly a Minute … Outside The Box

    I know it’s comfortable and cozy inside the box … but like a many of those TV movies where the plain is going down and all the passengers are big eyed and screaming, ‘ the pilot is dead!! the pilot is dead !! … and then some brave person drags the dead body out of pilot’s seat and picks up the plain’s mike …. And the people on the other end gives this brave person a very quick lesson in landing in hopes the plane can be brought down with as less causalities as possible …..

    Well I want you to fly with me a minute OUTSIDE THE BOX …. I got the mike in my hand and it’s tuned to the Master Creator …. The people of this Planet is headed for a crash landing …. And the way it looks not many will be left standing.

    Now …. There is a frequency Veil which sort of divides this reality we see everyday, from a more and advance technology reality referred to as celestials … they are well aware of us, and their lives are secretly entwined with our side of the veil …. Many are doctors, lawyers, business owners, governing officials …. Now don’t get your undies in a bite …… it was allowed this way for the betterment of humanity’s overall growth …. But the veil which was allowed was altered some eons ago by a foreign celestial colony who through trickery and deceit, infiltrated the already in place high governing celestials of States and Countries …. Certain records refer to these foreign celestial as Satan ….. Now don’t worry … I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you these things if it wasn’t time for you to know …. And it’s because the power source which sustain this ill gotten frequency veil is now nearing a complete meltdown …that those flying crafts linked to the failing power facility will become temporarily visible … the difference between the rightful inheritors of Earth’s upper heavens, are that the rightful celestials are sustained by a Positive to negative to Positive source of Energy and the unorthodox power facility is sustained of a negative to positive to negative power facility …. the rightful celestials are of a Positive Christ-light Star ….. And the wicked celestials are perpetrators of the Good White Light ……

    Now I’ll take you back inside the box ….. But I just want you to know, compared to what’s outside the box ……. there ‘AIN’T JACK’ …. in the box.

    Be safe, be well, be aware
    281-440-1918 …. 15806 Winding Moss-B …. Houston Texas 77068

  2. Great article and love the pictures. There's gonna be some jealous ones out there over this you lucky ducky.

    I picked up your article in a fun way. I think pictures pick up more guests than links and boy oh boy don't you have the photos today. I hope it worked out for you.


  3. 'Monster Hunters' was quite funny where the thermal image film of a yeti could have been the sherpa they sent back for batteries!

    It sounds like it is well worth a watch, HD quality mega zoomed video of area 51. Now all I need is sky HD...

  4. Well written sir! Very interesting piece.

  5. Now I’ll take you back inside the box ….. But I just want you to know, compared to what’s outside the box ……. there ‘AIN’T JACK’ …. in the box.

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