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Inside HBOs The Wire

Inside HBO's The Wire
A Creative COW Industry Report

Nick Griffin

Nick Griffin
Griffin Communications, Towson, Maryland USA

©2007 Nick Griffin and All Rights Reserved.

Set in Baltimore, Maryland, The Wire will begin its fifth and final season January 6, 2008 on HBO. As different from standard TV as it gets, the show has received the highest levels of critical acclaim, being referred to by multiple reviewers as "the best show on television." In its last issue of 2006 Time Magazine ranked The Wire first on its list of "10 Best TV Shows." And "Finally recognized as the best series on TV. Sorry, Tony (Soprano)," was Newsweek's description. Creative COW's Nick Griffin spent time on set earlier this year and interviewed one of the show's Producers. Here's his inside glimpse into The Wire and its production.

What can you expect from the city that gave the world the music of both Mama Cass Elliott and Frank Zappa?  Or how about Billie Holiday and Tupac Shakur? Need another? The stories of Edgar Alan Poe and those of John Waters sprung from Baltimore, Maryland. So it's not unreasonable to see Baltimore as a city of contrasts. And contrast is perhaps a good way to understand HBO's The Wire, a television series that looks at the world with a decidedly different view.

Baltimore skyline

Most TV shows are produced strictly for entertainment purposes. The Wire, in contrast, is entertainment with a social conscience and profound insight into parts of society that are seldom discussed and have never before been the subject of an on-going dramatic TV series.

David Simon, the show's Creator, lead Executive Producer and 'showrunner' points out that most TV shows are about people we want to be: richer, smarter, funnier. The Wire is, for the most part, about people we fear becoming: poor, powerless, addicted and dead-ended by society through no fault of our own.

Simon's career provides a sharp contrast to those working in typical television. He started out as a Newspaper reporter and, in the early nineties, turned the access given him by the Baltimore Police into the novel 'Homicide, A Year On The Killing Streets.' Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana optioned the book turning it into the TV series 'Homicide' which ran on NBC for seven years. Ed Burns, one of Simon's primary sources within the Baltimore Police Homicide division, has been one of The Wire's most influential writers for each of its five seasons. Burns also worked with Simon on Homicide.

The majority of the actors are new to TV and film. Very few resemble the fresh-faced look of Hollywood.

More often than not TV episodes are created to stand alone, making little reference to earlier storylines. The structure that began in the 50's with shows like Highway Patrol and Dragnet lives on today in the franchises of Law & Order and CSI. The industry term for them is 'procedurals,' short for 'police procedurals' wherein, with a set number of acts, the viewer is delivered a beginning, middle and end as a self-contained plot line that nicely resolves itself. Here the contrast with The Wire couldn't be sharper. The Wire is a 60 hour-long novel, divided into five parts by its five seasons. And, like all great novels, The Wire is deep, complicated and interwoven. Its fifth season will feature 31 characters, connected by multiple, overlapping and intersecting plot lines. Traditional TV shows rarely attempt to carry more than two plot lines at a time and sometimes, just one.

Most shows that have cops and criminals are about just that -- cops and criminals. In contrast, The Wire uses cops and criminals as foils or perhaps 'pawns' would be a more accurate term. The cops are one side of the story and the criminals the other… or are they? On The Wire they're both just vehicles for telling a bigger and more complex story of modern society.  The show's title comes from its depiction of the use of wire tapping technology as a means of tracking a drug gang. And while that was a central element of The Wire's first season, the story became less and less about surveillance as the characters and stories deepened in subsequent seasons.

Additional contrast to the world of standard television is provided by the cast. These days the major networks tell us that their programming is diversified and enlightened, yet most TV shows are about white people. Not all, but most. Typical TV also, again for the most part, tells stories of people who are in control of their lives and their destiny. The Wire tells the stories of urban, inner city America and the institutions that attempt to serve it and usually fail. Much of the show's stark realism comes from being an accurate mirror of its subject: a city that is 80% African-American. And while you may recognize and vaguely remember some of the show's actors from previous roles --  Frankie Faison from dozens of movies, Wendell Pierce from numerous TV shows, and Dominic West from movies including Chicago and 300 -- the majority of the actors are new to TV and film. Some are thin. Some are fat. And very few resemble the fresh-faced look of Hollywood. Like the show itself, its actors are real, gritty and at times discomforting. Black people, as well as whites, are shown to cover the gamut of good guys, bad guys, heroes, villains, geniuses, morons and all points in between.

So why on earth would you want to watch such a show? For the same reason that you would turn over hours of your life to a great novel. You are taken someplace that you have never been and shown the world through eyes completely different from your own. You're rewarded with revelations and surprises. And even with its dark and sometimes depressing world view, The Wire contains some truly hilarious scenes, some of the funniest being simple throw-away lines uttered by minor as well as major characters.

Dom WestYet another example of contrast, most TV shows have clearly defined heroes and villains. The Wire fits into the somewhat more contemporary depiction of right and wrong as 'shades of gray.' Good guys are capable of doing bad things and bad guys are capable of occasionally doing extraordinarily good things. And, like life, most of what happens falls somewhere in between. Depicting the moral shades offered up by present-day life is one of the things that HBO routinely has undertaken -- with The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and others-- and succeeds at it in a masterly manner. Here, The Wire is like its cable brethren, but it takes this skill at showing moral ambiguity to a new level.


Right: Prior to a shot, co-executive producer Joe Chappelle discusses the scene with The Wire's lead actor Dominic West.

During the middle of The Wire's last production cycle The COW was invited to locations and the show's sound stages. Joe Chappelle, The Wire's Co-Executive Producer, was extraordinarily generous with his time, providing extended interviews on two occasions. Chappelle , working as both a producer and episodic director for several shows, offers yet another study in contrasts,  having also worked as a Director, Producer and Consultant for numerous episodes of CSI Miami. Clearly David Simon's The Wire and the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced CSI Miami represent the extreme ends of the TV spectrum.

Joe Chappelle came to The Wire as a Director for the seventh episode of the first season. He returned in the show's third season as a Co-Executive Producer and has been with the show essentially full time since.  Chappelle was chosen to direct some of the more pivotal and important episodes. He explains modestly: "As a producer I know all the back stories the best. I've been working with the writers so I know what they're looking for, so it's just kind of worked out that way."

"Preparation is the most important thing a Director for The Wire does," Chappelle told me. "Read all the scripts up to yours, watch the cuts, if they've been done, and know where the characters are coming from. You may not know where they're going, but at the least you have to know where they're coming from." He went on to clarify, "On a show like ours if you just read the script on face value, it reads one way. But if you know all the history of what's gone on up until this point, there's a whole other layer to it. On The Wire any individual episode is part of a bigger pie, not a stand-alone piece. To direct (The Wire) you have to have done your homework on the show as a whole."

Chappelle gave more details on his approach to directing, "I'll storyboard if there's a big action sequence, which we have maybe a few a year. What I do mostly is a hot list and a lot of floor plans of all the sets. I map out where everybody is and I map my coverage out so I know where I'll be at any given moment. I do it so, if I had to cut that scene that night, I could."

During one of my visits to the set lead actor Dominic West was making his debut as a Director of an episode and Chappelle was on set in his capacity as Co-Executive Producer and explained what that entailed: "Today I'm not directing, but as a Producer I want to make sure that we have the right coverage we'll need, so I will sketch a very rudimentary schematic of the space and I'll sketch out character (blocking) and then I'll see where the Director is putting the cameras -- see what A & B are covering so that by the time we leave this location, and given what this episode is about, I'll feel that we covered the scene."

"We're cowboys, using focal lengths of our own choosing," chuckles Chappelle.

So what major differences does Joe Chappelle see between directing a show like The Wire versus a wildly popular mainstream series like CSI Miami? He was very frank in his reply. "For CSI Miami there's a formula. It would be like this: you do your masters in 18mm, big wide masters with the characters small in the frame and then, when you go into your coverage, nothing wider than a 75. On a show like CSI we would never, or at least rarely, use anything between an 18 and a 75 -- 18 and wider or 75 and longer. That's the style. It was always super-wide head to toe and then waist-up. Rarely would we ever do a shot from knees up. And we'd always have two cameras rolling. The A camera was waist-up and the B camera would be right next to it doing that (he demonstrates very tight framing of his face with his hands). That was the coverage. In terms of lighting, CSI Miami is very colorful, but in terms of camera it's very simple. Big wide master then super long lens coverage. And the more you're outside the longer (the lens) you can go. In terms of a show it was very rigorous. There was a formula and, as a director you're expected to fill that formula."

"The Wire is the opposite of this formulaic approach. It's very loose and well, there really isn't a formula, instead there's a lot of room for interpretation. Be it handheld, long lenses, whatever. We're cowboys, using focal lengths of our own choosing," chuckles Chappelle. "There's a tremendous latitude built into the aesthetic of the show, so we have choices. The DP has choices, the Director has choices, whatever helps build that moment, we're given that latitude. We can work with a wide assortment of lenses. In primes we have a 17.5, a 21, a 35, a 50, a 75, a 100, a 150 as well as some long zooms. Handhelds would usually be 35 and wider, but we might go with a 75 or a hundred if there's not a lot of moving around." Only a few times in the show's first four years have crane shots been employed. "It's not that anything is or isn't the look of the show, more a case of there not being hard and fast rules."

"As far as masters, there's not really a dictum that masters are in motion (dolly shots), but it's suggested. I guess that's the best way to put it. And because maybe it's a habit, we'll always lay track. The other thing about the dollies and what it allows you to do, if someone doesn't hit their mark exactly, the camera can just kind of slide and find the coverage." As The Wire matured both cast and crew grew larger. By Season 3 most scenes were being shot using an A and a B camera, typically with both on dollies with tracks.

Below: A typical two camera set-up on location in Baltimore

camera dolly shot

The Wire seldom resorts to effects or camera tricks. Chappelle stated, "I know in the past three years I've been here as a Producer, we've done overcranking just twice and I don't think we've ever used undercranking. In season three we also did an action scene with the shutter at 45° and the only other time was in one of the early Season 1 shows. The normal shutter is at 180° so when you got to 90° or 45° you give that kind of staccato feel, the 'Saving Private Ryan' look. It produces a mixture of black frames, some that are blurred and some super sharp."

"We're not afraid to let people go into shadow, we seldom have edge lights or give the ladies a beauty light."

Editing is kept very basic and minimal. "We never even fade to black between scenes," stated Chappelle. "We fade up at the beginning of the show and we fade to black at the end. There's no dissolves, just cuts. Very straightforward and simple. That's a stylistic choice. Keep it lean. When we have to indicate the passage of time, say a change from day to night, what David (Simon) likes to do is write the first night scene as a night exterior. If for some reason we can't get this, we have a library of establishing shots of the city, day and night that we can cut to."

Continuing to describe The Wire's visual differences from conventional TV, Chappelle moved to the subject of lighting. "We're not afraid to let people go into shadow, we seldom have edge lights or give the ladies a beauty light. You know all the things you're supposed to do, well we usually don't." The look of the show is ‘real,' he said. "You walk into a room and it's a harsh, fluorescent light. If it goes a little green, it goes a little green. The downlights on some of The Wire's sets are pretty much  'practicals' - of course they're re-tubed but on sets like the Police station or (Police) headquarters that's the (florescent lighting) look we're going for."

Joe Chappelle with Dave InsleyExpanding upon the show's look Chappelle discussed the choices made by their Directors of Photography. "Russell Fine, our DP on Season 4 and the first half of Season 5 is a big fan of Gordon Willis. (DP on The Godfather films).  A lot of our look is softboxes over people's heads, it's a real, very organic look and he just kind of lets the light fall. So just like on The Godfather, on our set you'll see that a lot of the eyes will go dark, but it's real." Questioned as to how often the overheads were enhanced with fixtures on the floor, Joe Chappelle responded, "Virtually never. It's the downlights and light coming through the windows. Dave Insley, our DP for the second half of the season, does a little more, but with Russell you'd be hard pressed to ever find an instrument on the floor with the actor. It helps in two big ways. One it's the aesthetic of the show and two you can move that much faster because you can just bang out your coverage very fast because you're not repositioning a lot of lights. He (Russell) is very comfortable doing that but a lot of DPs aren't comfortable working like that.

Right: During a location scout, Joe Chappelle consults with DP Dave Insley

"The myth is that this kind of plain, un-adorned down lighting began in the 70's, that The Godfather films were the first (to use this technique). But if you go back and look at older movies you can find it. Not every scene, but you can find scenes where they just played it as it was. Especially with film noir, the post war ones like films Anthony Mann shot. They used a very minimal kind of lighting. They'd light down an alley and silhouettes were cool and they just let that happen."

As discussed earlier, camera technique on The Wire favors an almost continual use of dolly shots and long lenses. The fact that this seems so incompatible with the ‘non-beauty' approach to lighting provides yet another point of contrast. The lighting is harsh and appropriate to the environments it's depicting, yet the camera is smoothly gliding by the characters the majority of the time. And not just on the master shots. Most shots have the camera in motion.

Chappelle elaborated on their technique, "The thing about our use of cameras is usually, not always, we're using longer lenses. This goes back to the look of season one, that feel of a voyeuristic view of the action. It's one of the visual conventions of The Wire, that of someone observing but slightly removed from the action. (As viewers) we don't necessarily know who the observer is, but it's that sense of life being under surveillance." He explained why this is important to the show's conceptual, as well as visual, concept: "It's about limiting information to the viewer so hopefully he is trying to figure out what he's actually seeing… it's not all laid out in front of you. You sort of get a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle. And the writing does that in the show, too. We give you information but you don't know exactly what's going on until a couple of episodes down the line, so we're very much trying to get that sense of constant surveillance, of eavesdropping."

"Longer lenses... for a voyeuristic view of the action."

Seeing tracks and dollies on virtually every set and location I asked if Stedicam, a regular part of many prime time TV show, was ever employed. "Actually, we don't," replied Chappelle flatly. "Different DPs are going to have their style and their own thing. But in terms of an obvious differentiator, we never went Stedicam. We don't follow characters around like an ‘ER' or ‘West Wing'. This has never been that kind of show."

David Insley, DP for several episodes and frequent Second Unit DP on others, pointed out that, "It was decided early on by David (Simon) and Nina (Noble, Executive Producer) that this shouldn't be a slick Stedicam kind of show. It always was designed from the beginning by Uta Briesewitz and Bob Colesbury, the original (Exec.) Producer, to be a classic long lens kind of show. There was a lot of handheld the first season but it evolved and became an all long lens on a dolly look."

Dave Insley with Lampda head rig

Joe Chappelle also describes the look as stemming from decisions made at the start, "I think it's something that came down from the get go of the show with our first Director of Photography Uta Briesewitz. She DP'd the show and was a (camera) operator herself, using a mix of handheld and dolly. She had this kind of old time German ‘Panther Dolly', which was a pretty amazing device. Fairly unique in that it allowed her to simultaneously control both the boom and the zoom. So we could lay track, and she would be booming and zooming at the same time. She could make you feel like you were coming around a corner, when you really weren't. It was a very interesting style, all her own. There wasn't much B camera back then. The show was also logistically smaller, with fewer characters. So after she left I think there was a decision to stay consistent and not change the formula of the show."

DP Dave Insley added, "Every now and then one of the Directors gets their way and they do half of a show handheld, but it's always very content-driven. If we go handheld, it's for a reason, not just because it's expeditious."

Right: DP Dave Insley sets up a shot using an 'underslung' Lampda head which enables the camera to be positioned under the dolly's arm for a near ground-level point of view while preserving the mobility of the dolly.

"If we go handheld, it's for a reason."

The Wire, over its five years, has now employed multiple Directors of Photography and I asked Chappelle how this has affected the look. Thoughtfully he replied, "It's a fine line, where we stay as consistent as we can, but when we bring new people in they can't necessarily replicate what the previous people did. They have to bring some of themselves to it. Like in Season 3 when Eagle Egilsson joined us as DP. He was much more of a commercial guy, so you would see (in his work) there are some refinements, some actors are given edges (edge lighting) and I think that was one of the reasons he left the show was because he wanted to do more of that and we were like, ‘well maybe that's not the right look for this show.' There's always that kind of dialog going on. But it's an art, not a science, kind of a gut thing. There's is room for interpretation and individuals have to have a say in the process."

The Wire's creator and show runner David Simon has said in past interviews that the City of Baltimore is one of the stars of the show. Joe Chappelle agreed stating, "Locations are a big part of the show, and working on location so much gives us something very different from the usual Hollywood look." But being in a city like Baltimore instead of New York, Los Angeles, Toronto or even Vancouver also has its own effect on parts of the show's workflow. More on that later.

According to Chappelle, The Wire's production schedule is similar to most other TV productions. "As a Director normally I'm supposed to have seven days of prep and the normal 8 days to shoot. I've been doing episodic television now for 7 years and scripts are coming in later and later and later, so sometimes, even though you're supposed to have seven days of prep, you can get a script 5 days into your prep. So you just have to sort of scramble. What I do when it (the script) comes in late is work nights and do what it takes to get through the first five days (of shooting) and then I'll take the weekend to prep for the next week. (Without a script) I have to work from a ‘beat sheet' that at least tells us our locations, so we can at least do location scouting. Say we need a train station, even though the script may not be out, we'll scout train stations where we can possibly shoot, knowing in a broad sense what will be happening. Say it's two people meeting or it's a chase or whatever it will be -- so that we'll at least have a general sense of what we need so that hopefully we can lock that location. Then when the script comes in, hopefully nothing will change from how it was envisioned."

Pre-visualization often times involves more than the Director and Director of Photography, according to Chappelle, "Many times we have to bring the writers into the planning process because what's written, or is envisioned a certain way, may not match with what's at the location. The geography may not map out and, with a script that's very specific, that location may just not exist. So we look at the reality of what we have with the writers. The Director will have to say to the writers, 'OK I know that the beat is this, you want to get this guy to escape out of this space, but there is no door that leads out.' So we show (the writers) what we have to work with and nine out of ten times they'll say 'that works.' And the same may be true for our show's Exec. Producer  David Simon. If he's written a big action scene and we can't find it, we have to go to him and say 'David, here's what we can do, based on what you envisioned and here's what we can't do.' And we can show him what the other options are and we'll work it out with him in terms of what's acceptable or not. It's a process we have to go through because a lot of times things don't physically exist and we don't have the wherewithal to build something that would match exactly what's in the script."

The post production of The Wire is split between Baltimore and New York, 210 miles away. Chappelle took us through the workflow: "After we wrap (an episode) the New York-based Editor, who has already been cutting the show together while we're still shooting, has four more days to complete his cut, basically an assembly -- a real Editor's cut, going through all the material and working just from the script, a cut that's culled it down to what the Editor feels is presentable to the Director. He's pretty much following the script unless the director has given specific notes through the script supervisor. Then the Director comes in, and this is all by the DGA (Director's Guild of America) contract, after the editor does his initial cut, the Director gets four days to do his cut, just working alone with the editor. Four days to cut an hour show is not a lot, but it's what's guaranteed (by the contract) and most Directors will take full advantage of it.

Joe Chappelle demos for an extra"Once the editor's cut is done the Director goes to New York to work on his cut, then the Editor comes down here (Baltimore) with the drives to our production offices where we have another Avid set up -- that's where we do the Producer's cuts." Chappelle explains,  "We have a full Avid system here (in the Baltimore production offices) with an assistant editor always on duty. (At this stage) the Director turns it into us, the Producers and usually, for every episode, one of the Exec. Producers is assigned to shepherd it through the post process, working with David, our showrunner. That means it's me or Nina Noble - we kind of divvy up the episodes. We'll sit down with David and screen the director's cut, he gives his notes, the Producer who's assigned to the episode will work with the editor to shape it, then we'll show it to David again and he'll either give more notes or he'll sign off on it. Then it goes to HBO after that.  It can be a process. We can go through it just once with David where he signs off, or it can be two or three times."

Right: Chappelle demonstrates a street move for one of the extras.

"For dailies while we're shooting we have a film cut-off at 4pm every day. The film gets driven up to New York where it gets processed and the DVD is back down not the next day, but the day after. If we really needed it we could probably get it back the next day. For even faster things, like say an editor has a question on coverage, they can Quicktime us a cut scene so we can get a rough feel of it. We've done that a few times. More often we'll be doing a 2nd unit concurrently with the 1st unit and there's a 2nd unit scene, such as an insert, we'll call up to the editor to see how it matched up."

The Wire is shot entirely with Panavision cameras. David Insley let us know that, "These later episodes of the show are shot Super 35, 3-perf, and that saves a lot of money because that means we're shooting about three quarters of the film we used to. But we're only using the 4 x 3 part, so we're losing the edges of the 16x 9, but it's less than we were using when it was 4-perf, so (the image is) somewhere between a Super 16 image and a standard 35 (mm) image."

Some dialog looping (ADR) is done in Baltimore, but more often in New York. Foley and final audio mix are also done in New York.

"4x3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie."

And perhaps the final contrast to the rest of high-end episodic television, The Wire for each of its five seasons has been produced in good old fashioned 4 x 3 standard definition. DP Dave Insley recalled, "The reason the show has stayed 4x3 is because David Simon thinks that 4x3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie. The show's never been HD, even 4x3 HD and that (SD) is how it is on the DVDs. There is no 16x9 version anywhere." As a viewer with an HD set I will point out that like much of SD television that makes its way to HD channels, it appears that HBO utilizes state-of-the-art line doubling technology. It may still be standard definition, but line doubled it looks considerably better on a high definition set than it would on a standard definition set.

Insley explained, "When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion -- David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the Producers, the DPs -- and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4x3. The DPs pretty much defined the look to be what it is now. And it's been consistent for the past two seasons."

Asked about his next gig after The Wire Joe Chappelle had this to say, "Well, no matter what you think of it, having worked on CSI Miami, it was and is very much a hit show and that's good for me in terms of a career thing. That said, I think having been a part of The Wire will help a great deal. Having worked on The Wire for three years I've also been spoiled. The material is so good, so rare. Not even just good by TV standards, but for movies too. It's (writing is) so powerful that you read it and go 'WOW! this is GREAT.' And, in the way it's come together it's the kind of show that 20, 30 years from now people will look back and say that it defined its time. Most things being done today have a very short shelf life before they look like an artifact. The Wire will be as powerful 20 years from now as it is today."

The Wire will begin its fifth and final season January 6th on HBO with an episode entitled "More with Less," directed by Joe Chappelle. Households with HBO On Demand service may be able to see Seasons 2, 3 & 4 now. But would you skip over the first twenty percent of a great novel? Season 1 of The Wire is widely available for rent and each of the first 4 seasons are available for purchase on DVD. Start with Season 1, Show 1. What may very well be one of the best shows ever on television will be well worth the time and effort.



Re: Inside HBOs The Wire
by Michael Locke
How many HBO hits for "niche" markets is it going to take for other producers to wake up and smell the money? Talk to any of the talent, it's the freedom to do what they know that takes them there. Oh well, keep killen it HBO. A vision unavailable elsewhere...
note to nick griffin / re: the wire and frank zappa
by Rafael Alvarez
mr. griffin - i am about to finish a rewrite of my book on the Wire as well as a feature on the statue of frank zappa headed to baltimore from lithuania. would you please email me on my other account to talk about these local goings on?


Rafael Alvarez

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Whenever somebody equates "shallow depth of field" and "cinematic look," it's important to remember that the opposite is also sometimes true. Creative COW Editor-in-Chief Tim Wilson celebrates the work of Gregg Toland, ASC, born this week in 1904 -- the first master of extreme depth of field in movies like Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath that forever changed what is possible for humans to do with cameras. This reprise of a classic article from the Creative COW Archives also offers a look at what Toland's approach to cinematic composition can mean for YOUR shooting.

Editorial, Feature
Tim Wilson
New Trends and Technology at Cine Gear Expo 2016

New Trends and Technology at Cine Gear Expo 2016

Cine Gear Expo 2016 exhibits open Friday June 3 and 4, at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California with major screenings, filmmaker panel discussions, groundbreaking techniques and new equipment premiers that are sure to influence the filmmaking industry. Catering to the world’s top motion picture, video and new media visual artists, Paramount’s prestigious back lot is the ideal setting for professionals to meet with colleagues and nearly 300 top equipment vendors to see live demos and get their hands on the latest gear. Take a look at how this year's hottest trends are shaping up.

Susan Lewis
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