Trailblazer: Young alum covers campaign for Bloomberg Politics
Inside all the twists and turns of this unpredictable presidential election, there is repetition. The same stump speeches. The same jokes. The same photo opps at diners, airport hangars or school gymnasiums.
Bloomberg Politics videographer Griffin Hammond ’07, M.S. ’09, has seen it all. Crisscrossing the country for the past year covering the winnowing field of candidates from both parties, Hammond heard Ted Cruz jokingly tell supporters he wanted them to “vote for me 10 times” on dozens of occasions. (Cruz meant bring 10 friends to your polling place. “We’re not Democrats,” he said to laughter.)
So Hammond finds his own story. When rows of TV cameras are pointed toward a candidate at a podium, Hammond turns his lens another direction. He spent a February evening inside a Bernie Sanders phone bank in South Carolina, filming activist and rapper Killer Mike tell a voter about how the senator’s economic policy will help black men like him.
At a Sanders April rally in Wisconsin, Hammond spotted an unusual lone protester. The result? A 2-minute video called “Here’s What Happens When an Ayn Rand Fan Attends a Bernie Sanders Rally.”
As cable news networks brag about faux-exclusives, Hammond’s work actually is unique with small moments that no one else is seeing or sharing.
“It’s always silly to me that we send so many cameras to do the same thing,” he said. “I’m glad I have the freedom to turn my camera away and give the viewer a real sense of what it was like to be there.”
Hammond shoots and edits for Bloomberg Politics’ daily TV show With All Due Respect, hosted by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of Game Change and Double Down. Hammond’s work also feeds Bloomberg’s website and social media.
Technically, Hammond is a journalist. But not really. He is a highly regarded online video pioneer who’s produced hundreds of do-it-yourself tutorials for low-budget filmmakers.
He is blazing his own path as a documentary filmmaker, just like he’s done in every job he’s had since coming to Illinois State to study television and media.
Hammond began college at New York University’s acclaimed film program, but transferred to ISU’s School of Communication. He shot tons of news stories for TV-10 and edited a short film about the proposed closure of a Central Illinois prison with the Documentary Project under Associate Professor John McHale.
“It took ISU to show to me that documentary filmmaking was what I really loved,” Hammond said. “Without those things, I wouldn’t have realized this was a possible career path for me.”
Hammond credits his relationship with faculty like McHale for jump-starting his professional life, which began with an internship and then full-time job at Bloomington-based State Farm. While working for the insurer he produced a fun cautionary tale about the dangers of turkey fryers, which made William Shatner a viral-video celebrity.
Initially working in social media at State Farm, Hammond took over as executive producer and host of Indy Mogul in 2011. The Google/YouTube “lab channel” taught low-budget, DIY filmmaking techniques to thousands of subscribers.
By 2013 Hammond had produced thousands of videos and wanted to make a film. He returned from the South by Southwest film festival inspired to create a film on Sriracha—the chili pepper-based sauce that’s become wildly popular in recent years and broke through as a culinary headline-making darling. His 33-minute movie, called Sriracha, about the culture and history surrounding the sauce won Best Short Film at three festivals and earned great reviews.
The film’s creation and distribution is as fascinating as the final product. Hammond successfully tapped into Sriracha’s fan base to crowdfund $20,780 in digital presales to pay for production, including overseas travel. In addition to the festival circuit, he also navigated online video platforms such as Vimeo, Amazon, and Hulu so his film could reach more people. In its first 18 months, he captured 300,000 views.
If his resume sounds all over the map—especially for a 32-year-old—that’s because Hammond doesn’t have some master plan. He hasn’t plotted all the steps it’ll take to get him to an Oscar.
“I found this alternate path, where I just try to appreciate when people think of me for a job, and where I’m willing to jump at an opportunity and try something new,” Hammond said.
These days that means covering the 2016 presidential election. He was given the opportunity because someone at Bloomberg saw Sriracha. He was asked in summer 2014 if he wanted to join their new political media venture.
“It was a weird, out-of-the-blue thing,” he said.
Hammond is based in New York, where he lives with his wife. More recently, he’s lived in hotels and airports. He’s spent weeks in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, to name a few destinations. He logged 100,000 frequent flier miles in 2015 alone—before the first caucus was even held.
What’s it like on the trail?
On the night of the Iowa caucuses in February, Hammond was running on three hours of sleep in two days because he “made the mistake” of pulling an all-nighter to finish editing a video.
That night, he hopped on Sanders’ charter plane for an overnight flight to New Hampshire, where the primary was held eight days later. They landed in Manchester at 4:11 a.m., preceded by Hillary Clinton’s plane and followed by Cruz’s. Standing with Hammond on the tarmac was a who’s who of American media heavy-hitters—all freezing as they silently unloaded their bags.
“It was just so strange,” he said of the airport scene. “But this is the job.”
Hammond arrived at his La Quinta hotel at 6 a.m. that morning. He slept for 90 minutes. Then it was back to work. Not surprisingly, he gets sick a lot.
He produces dozens of videos each month for Bloomberg’s website and the TV show. His most popular, as of May, featured actor Jeff Daniels in a shot-for-shot riff on the opening scene from his HBO series The Newsroom. It clocked a million views in its first week and became the No. 1 trending story on Facebook.
He’s especially proud of his videos about the “ground game” that Clinton and Sanders ran in Iowa and South Carolina, focusing on the volunteers and precinct captains who knocked on doors and used their cell phones to reach voters. In Hammond’s 4½-minute “ground game” video about Sanders, the Vermont senator is himself only on screen for a few seconds.
Political polarization has been a dominant storyline throughout the 2016 campaign. Yet Hammond’s work featuring evocative music and humor humanizes voters on all sides. In other words: Nobody looks that crazy.
“Regardless of their beliefs, they seem more similar than different to me,” Hammond said.
While friendly with the candidates and their staffs, Hammond does see the repetition of the campaign beginning to change him. They’re performers. Deliberately divisive at times.
“I feel myself getting more cynical,” he said.
The same ingenuity and resourcefulness that’s earned him celebrity status in the online-video community now comes in handy on the campaign trail. He’s often a one-man crew, carrying a messenger bag, backpack and tripod. When he needs a second tripod for a two-camera interview, he’ll make one out of a chair and a small clamp.
His ability to stay nimble buys him access. It’s easier for a campaign to agree to an interview if the candidate doesn’t have to wait around for the lighting guy to set up.
“I go to these events with a lot more versatility,” said Hammond, who expects to be on the trail through the November 8 election.
“It’s going to be a crazy year.”