Personal branding

I'm told it's helpful to have a personal trademark - a distinctive look or characteristic by which folks will remember you. Unfortunately blue jeans and black t-shirts fall short of being distinctive. Consequently my trademark with crews in Vietnam is a smelly towel.

I take consolation in being a Douglas Adams fan. What he has to say on the subject of towels holds true.

On my first feature here, we didn't have a shoulder brace for handheld shots. What little duvy I had, I needed for lighting. So one of my camera assistants provided me with a light-blue towel to cushion the weight of the camera on my shoulder. The shoot involved a fair amount of handheld work. Vietnam is a humid and rainy place, so this towel collected a lot of... moisture. This is in addition to the dirt, dust, grime, grease, and burnt patches it collected as it did double duty for cleanup, fell into this or that mess, or was employed to extinguish a conflagration. It acquired quite an odor.

To the point where the guys would hand it to me whilst holding their noses. Every time the director called for handheld, I started hearing "Khăn hôi ở đâu?"

Now my Vietnamese language skills could be compared to what you'd hear from a hard-living 18-month-old toddler cradled in a 12k, swaddled in a steadicam vest, and drinking too much black coffee. Not that I'm particularly foul-mouthed, but I have a propensity for mispronouncing Vietnamese words in a manner which creates malapropisms of the most vulgar imaginable description. I'm told that after 30, one can only learn a new language to the level of someone in middle school. With Vietnamese, I'll be happy if I learn it to the level of someone that's potty-trained.

At any rate, after hearing "Khăn hôi ở đâu?" a couple hundred times, enough for me to distinguish the words, I asked what it meant. "Where's the smelly towel?"

Then one day, the guys offered me a brand-new towel. Sensing an opportunity to try out a new phrase, I said "Khăn hôi ở đâu?" Oops. One guy ran to the boxes and everyone else burst into laughter. After that, there were no further efforts to offer me a fresh towel.

At the end of the show, I kept it as a souvenir. I brought it home. The housekeeper, who usually finds a way to reuse everything I discard, promptly threw it away in disgust.

In the years since, it's become a running joke with my crews. At the beginning of every show I am proudly presented a brand new khăn thơm (fragrant towel). I ask for a smelly one instead. We contrive new and interesting ways to get the towel dirty and, if possible, engulfed in flames. We hide it from the production assistants and housekeepers who try to wash it. We complain when they locate it by the odor and bring it back clean the next morning. We gauge the luck of the shoot by the condition of the khăn hôi. After awhile, it adds whole new layers to the phase "Always good for a gag."

I've employed logos, color schema, distinctive wardrobe and nifty accessories to no avail. A smelly towel has become my personal trademark. Fortunately, scent can be a powerful memory trigger.

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