Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2019: Ken Woo, The Conduit to Sports’ Greatest Televised Moments
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“A picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s a saying that has become cliché. For Ken Woo, though, those words have carried the world-renowned camera operator and DP to a career that has lasted more than 40 years. And, more often than not, his lens framed the iconic shots of some of sports’ most memorable moments over the past four decades.
“It’s really knowing the game and knowing the athlete that you’re with,” he says. “It hasn’t always worked, but it’s just being dialed into what’s happening, understanding all of the options that you have, and just picking one. It’s a roll of the dice.”
Whether it was Greg LeMond’s dramatic come-from-behind sprint to grab the yellow jersey by seconds at the 1989 Tour de France, Kerri Strug’s run towards gold on one ankle at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, or Tiger Woods’ famous fist pump for his first career win at The Masters in 1997, Woo had the knack of being at the right place at just the right time.
“Kenny Woo is an artist,” says veteran NBC anchor and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Al Michaels. “You know when somebody is extraordinary when you can see 10 seconds of video and say, ‘I know who shot that.’”
Before developing skills that gave him one of the greatest eagle eyes in sports history, the person lovingly nicknamed “The Wooman” was growing up with the dream of filming athletes on the grandest of stages. Equipped with a makeshift television camera made out of cardboard and a love for stills from the likes of famed Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, he spent his younger years immersed in the act of freezing time with his photos.
“When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I would run around the yard shooting like I had seen in sports,” he says. “I had a Kodak Instamatic camera that I got for my birthday, and then we got a Polaroid that I got to play with. But I was a television-generation kid; I literally grew up in front of the TV.”
With each passing moment in front of the television set, his passion for the craft burned a little brighter, but nothing set his heart on fire more than the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. While most kids his age were interested only in the athletic feats of the individual, the young Woo was intrigued by the personal lives that made those athletes who they were. Even though this was the first time the Games received extensive coverage in color television, Kenya’s Kip Keino (the eventual gold-medal winner of the 1,500-meter category) caught his attention during an off-the-track story created by ABC.
“They showed a feature, an up-close and personal, of him running barefoot in Africa,” Woo recalls. “I said, ‘Man, that would just be the coolest thing in the world to be able to do movies like that.’ I always loved watching the Olympics, but that was really the first time I noticed a personal profile. That was really an ‘aha’ moment for me.”
Like many young adults, childhood dreams often get put on the back burner. Whether it was his own decision or one influenced by someone else, sports television was almost a nonfactor as Woo headed to the University of Georgia. However during his first semester as a pre-law student, the pull of his past was too strong to keep him away from his camera and a good sports tale.
“I realized that pre-law wasn’t it for me and switched over to broadcasting, film, and television,” he says. “I was a feature editor on the college newspaper, The Red & Black, and would take pictures and write the feature stories.
“To make money while I was in school,” he continues, “I also worked for the AV department; I’d go to class and set up projectors and video cameras for the school. In addition, I was a jazz disc jockey for WUOG-FM radio. I had a shift three days a week from midnight until 3:00 a.m.”
By the time he graduated, Woo had achieved an artistic mentality and a work ethic that would take him to the far reaches of the globe. With a keen eye for a shot, ease in front of a microphone, tangible experience with industry-grade equipment, and writing prowess, his bag of tricks would expand after graduation.
“My first job was at WSPA-TV in Spartanburg, SC,” he says. “It was in an old converted supermarket; my starting pay was $168 a week. I was hired as a cameraman. I shot the local news and the gospel shows that aired on Sunday. From there, I went to A1 mixer of local news and on-air switching, which meant cutting all the programming from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. like Gilligan’s Island and The Flintstones. Then I had to hit the network at 6 p.m. for the news every day. I got tons of experience, because not only did I get to learn how to use a camera but I had to learn lighting, audio mixing, and editing.”
With a steady news gig right out of the academic ranks, Woo satisfied his appetite for sports with the weekend hustle of shooting high school football and basketball for the station’s sports department. Accustomed to his old ways of shooting, he began learning new technologies and mastering his preferred weapon of choice with a bit of hijinks.
“None of the film guys who were there wanted to use new electronic media,” he recalls. “When the RCA TK-76 came out, they said, ‘Do you know how to use this thing?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ when I actually didn’t. I had used video cameras in college but nothing as sophisticated as that, so I stole the manual and went home to learn how to use it. I had the confidence to make the shot, but the key to being successful is learning the camera and realizing what you can get out of it. That’s really how I got my start.”
In the same vein, Woo’s first foray into feature work came from a children’s show in Spartanburg. After transitioning from his first job to production stints in Nashville, Kansas City, and Washington, DC, Woo got married and shifted to Los Angeles in search of work in sports. With connections made at Dick Clark Productions on the West Coast, he nailed his first job in network television with CBS in 1982.
Over the years, his work has expanded to the airwaves of NBC, and his long résumé is a laundry list comprising 15 Olympics, Tour de France races, Super Bowls, NCAA Final Fours, The Masters tournaments, NBA Championships, Iron Man World Championships, Triple Crowns, and more. In this ride of a lifetime, though, there were rough patches.
“The most chaotic year I had in my career was in 1992, the last time where there were two Olympics in one year,” he notes. “It was [the Winter Olympics in] Albertville, France, then [the Summer Olympics in] Barcelona. We probably traveled for four or five months before Albertville, stayed in Albertville for five weeks, and came home for a couple of weeks before we started shooting features for Barcelona, which went through August of that year.
“I was also doing other projects,” he continues, “with World Figure Skating Championships, producing The Masters film and Final Four features for CBS. I think, that year, I might have traveled around 270 days. I was basically raising my kids by phone since there was no email or FaceTime at that point.”
Like a diamond, Woo shone under the pressure of a busy schedule. During that tumultuous time, he documented the Opening Ceremony of the 1992 Summer Olympics in the only way he knew how.
“I think the most unbelievable moment was [the torch lighting] in Barcelona,” he says. “We didn’t get to rehearse that because they didn’t want to give it away, and in fact, they had two different archers. One was going to lob it in there, and the other one was going to fire on a straight line, so that was completely live to the world, and it worked.”
Says NBC Head of Production Bucky Gunts. “Take the Opening Ceremony and Kenny Woo, and you have your money shot.”
The moment would be a practice run for what was to come four years later on American soil. For the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Woo was chosen again for the money shot during the Opening Ceremony, in which boxing legend Muhammed Ali lit the torch.
“He had an eye that made him one of those rare guys who understood how his shot fit into the story that the producer and director were looking for,” says fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Gepner. “You would just watch in awe because there is [only] a small group of cameramen like that.”
Four days later, Woo was behind the lens for a 10-second clip that embodies the essence of Olympic competition and has become virtually synonymous with U.S. gymnastics.
“You really have to plan ahead when you’re out there,” says Woo. “It’s crazy on the floor, but I realized how important it was to be in that position because I have two or three different spots when we’re doing the vault. I knew that was going to be the [important] moment because if [Strug] hit it and they won, that was going to be the best shot. She stuck the landing, fell to her knees, and began crawling towards me while calling my name.”
That’s the thing about Woo that makes him the best at what he does: his relatable personality and the ability to get to know the person hidden behind the veil of sport. It gave Woo an inside track to the best available content and information for the Olympic vignettes that he became known for, such as the Strug’s one-legged landing.
“That was the real advantage because I had known Kerri since she was 12 years old,” he says. “I got to spend time with them in their home countries, their environment, and, literally, in their homes. When I’m on the floor and they’re being besieged by all the other media, I’m a familiar face since I got to know them on a personal level, ate meals with them, and was with them during training.”
Says Executive Producer/President, NBC Olympics Production, Molly Solomon, “He took ENG photography to a new level. The trust and bond he forged with athletes gave fans unprecedented access. When that special moment happened, he was there, and so were we.”
In 2019, Woo has a trophy case full of hardware that visual storytellers can only fantasize about. The accolades include 27 Emmys (three Primetime Emmys for the Opening Ceremonies at the Salt Lake City, Torino, and Beijing Olympics and three for Best Short Feature), a Peabody Award for his work on ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, and the prestigious Olympic Golden Ring for Best Human Interest Story. The mental trophy case is full of memories from his travels as well, but, most important, he has garnered the utmost respect from his peers in the industry.
“He was brilliant and fearless,” says Gepner. “I can’t tell you the number of times the director would say, ‘Get me the shot,’ and didn’t need to tell him what to do because Ken would come up with a better shot than the director was thinking of.”
Although he continues to work in the field that he fell in love with as a child, Woo’s career has come full circle for multiple reasons.
“Athletes that are on their way up come up to me and go, ‘God, I saw that story you did on [U.S. gymnast] Kim Zmeskal,’ or, ‘Hey, I remember this, and it was so inspiring.’ You give them a good feeling,” he says. “With all these incredible events around the world, you are hanging with some of the most unbelievable athletes ever created. That’s not a job; that’s a dream.”
For audiences at home, his legacy is secure as the person who found the balance between creative poise and the seriousness of the scenario.
“I just wanted them to feel like they were there,” says Woo. “There are times to be artistic and times when you just want to capture it and be there. You don’t want anybody to have to interpret it because you’re actually feeling what I’m showing you. If you were standing there, this is what you would see. That’s the kind of feel I was looking for.”
Although he enhanced the viewing pleasure of audiences witnessing history, his artistry has given immense pride, satisfaction, and happiness to the little boy who sat on his living-room floor to watch the 1968 Olympics.
“In 1996, I went to Kenya to do an Olympic feature, and I got to meet Kip Keino,” he recalls. “I explained to him how his story inspired me to become a cameraman, especially doing features for the Olympics, and how It was something I wanted to do. He took me back to all the places that they had filmed and showed me all the spots, and it was really something special.”