One of our more popular stories recently is our two-part piece, “Lunch’d.” Everyone seems to have really enjoyed the idea of hidden cameras in the cafeteria, and I’m sure having Steven Fabian on the lunch line didn’t hurt either. And while the idea behind the story was that simply by presenting food in a different way, people will make different and, potentially, healthier choices, a lot of the interest seems to be in our hidden-camera strategy. This post is a behind-the-scenes look at how we pulled it off.
When I started working on this story, I had very little experience with hidden cameras…and had no idea they could be stashed away in everything from water bottles to ceiling tiles.
Because we wanted to film the students throughout the cafeteria, we needed lots of hidden cameras to get shots of teens scooping potato salad, grabbing sugary drinks and picking out cookies, all without being aware we were filming them.
To get started, I arranged a meeting with the man who handles all of our hidden cameras, Huxley Galbraith. (Editor’s Note: What a great name!)
First he showed me one of the easiest hidden cameras to use — the classic “glasses cam” — which is a pair of sunglasses with a hidden camera right between the eyes. Whatever you are looking at gets filmed. For novices and for our project, Huxley thought the “water bottle cam” was the way to go. Why? Hidden cameras usually have two cords coming off of them. One cord attaches to a small battery pack to power the camera. The other cord attaches to a small monitor that records the video and allows you to see what you have filmed. And because my colleagues looked pretty shady wearing sunglasses inside a school cafeteria peering with great intensity at the tacos and other fattening foods, we agreed.
Then Huxley showed me what I call “bag cam.” It’s a shoulder bag with the hole for the camera at about waist height. Bag cam is much harder to shoot with than glasses cam because the bag gets jostled and can easily end up pointing towards the ceiling or sideways. Also, the monitor for bag cam is hidden in the bag but you can’t stare at the monitor too often to see where it’s filming because that might alert suspicion about why you’re staring into a bag all day.
In the end, my favorites ended up being water bottle cam and ceiling tile cam. Water bottle cam is an ordinary water bottle that has a special compartment in the middle to hold the batteries and the camera. The compartment is covered by the label of the water bottle company (it wraps around the bottle so you can’t see the compartment) and it has a tiny hole for the lens. It’s pretty incredible. You unscrew the top and bottom to get to the compartment and you can even put real water in the top and drink it.
In the cafeteria, I was afraid the hidden cam water bottle might get mixed up with the rest of the water bottles and someone might buy it by mistake and then throw it out — not only exposing our hidden camera operation but also losing the camera. The hidden cams can cost from several hundred to more than a thousand dollars, so I really didn’t want to lose it.
Speaking of expensive hidden cams, the ceiling tile cams can be more than a thousand dollars. At first, I made my own.
There were a couple of shots we really needed for this piece — the cookie tray and the fruit bowl. Because the bag cam and water bottle cam can get jostled or moved, we needed a camera that wouldn’t move too. So, I measured the ceiling tiles at the school and went to Home Depot and bought three tiles that were the same size and color as the tiles at school. We drilled a hole in the ceiling tile just large enough for the hidden a camera lens and then taped the batteries and monitor to the part of the tile that would be facing the ceiling. The lens is so small it was impossible to see from the lunch line.
When we got to the school we turned on the ceiling tile cam and switched out one of their tiles for our “ceiling tile cam.” It worked perfectly! After Huxley learned about our homemade ceiling tile cam, he generously had a custom one made for us. It was the Rolls Royce of ceiling tile cams, recording onto a tiny memory card with very clear video and audio.
Our last step in setting up this lunch room sting: I had to talk to our lawyer to make sure it was OK to film undercover. Turns out, there are different laws for different states. But we were in the clear at the school we had selected. Plus, we were working with the administration there.
Twelve hidden cameras later, the teens at Boynton got Lunch’d!