Capturing a Haunting in Progress: Behind the Scenes of a Promo Shoot for A&E's "Ghost Hunters"

I love the challenge of executing something in a single shot. It requires extensive planning, communication, lots of rehearsals, creative choreography, and a little luck. Although this promo for Ghost Hunters ended up with cuts, the original idea and execution were all geared towards a single take which would show us around a house in the process of being actively haunted.

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Our location was a historic mansion on Staten Island, the location of a 90s mob hit and a late-1800s suicide. By all accounts, it was actually haunted, but we had to go in and make it look like that and more, all in the span of a 30-second spot.

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I was lucky to have a highly communicative collaborator in director Evan Glaser, who walked me through his vision for the spot while listening to my and my team's creative ideas, and the limitations of the location. We started out with a rough walk-through, built up to photos of each room and space, and eventually mapped out the whole shot with an iPhone video. Using that as a base reference, Evan and the creative team then built the spot with speed ramps, cues written in, and voiceover, which would become our template on the shoot day.

So much of creating a single-shot sequence is about repetition. You walk it through over and over, and build on it each time. You find moments that could be sped up, others slowed down, areas that are “dead” and need some sort of action, where you can hide lights, what obstacles the operator has to avoid, etc.

Once you arrive on the shoot day, it feels like time has stopped. We planned our day around the idea of shooting right before dusk, so that we could shoot until it was too dark. The goal was to have just a little blue in the sky so we could see our house at the end. We spent almost 6 hours lighting, running cables, coordinating “jump-scare” gags, and rehearsing the move. I will usually spend the time to come up with better looking plots, but due to the tight turnaround between the scout and shoot, I opted for photos and overheads with written notes to get my crew on the same page.

It felt like we weren’t getting anything done, despite the flurry of activity. But suddenly the sun hits the right spot in the sky, the lighting cues are all set, and the AD is anxious. So you start to roll, and very quickly, it all comes together beautifully.

Gaffer Billy Macartney used a DMX board to control all of the lights in the spot. From his control booth on the porch, he was able to cue light flickers, lightning effects, and make adjustments from take to take when something was too colorful or too bright.

This spot was lit with a K5600 Lighting Joker 1600 with an Octobank to create our moonlight from outside. As we progress through the house, we use an Arri Skypanel S60c to wrap the moon beams around the house and into the dining room, where a 1k Parcan on a doorway dolly creates our moving-headlights gag, casting a creepy shadow on the far wall. Astera Titan tubes fill out the next room and hallway for lightning strike effects.

An equally crucial contributor was Steadicam operator Tanner Carlson, who added his own flair to the move, finding moments that could be adjusted to help the overall flow of the spot. He also proved adept at avoiding obstacles in the tight hallway, and was able to navigate backwards down the front stairs and land on a perfect frame of the car pulling in every time.

Check out the final spot below:

As always, the conversation continues on Instagram (@dkruta). Please feel free to send me any questions or comments. I love chatting about cinematography and I’m always interested to hear your thoughts.


Shooting slow motion with a robot and a Phantom (camera)

Shooting a commercial with the Motion Control Bolt system behind the scenes

There’s nothing I love more about my job than being given a real challenge. Most jobs have some kind of problem you have to solve, while others are very straightforward (how many interviews could you light in your sleep?). But once in a while, they push you way out of your comfort zone in the most unexpected ways. These are my favorite type of jobs. They might not be the sexy, moody films that we all love to brag about on Instagram, but I have a blast trying to solve problems, make the product look good, and above all else, make the client happy. Shooting commercials is often less about the art and craft of cinematography, but rather about delivering a product that the client asked for. But what if you can merge all of these things, maybe learn something new along the way, and on top of that have a great time with your team? Now that’s the type of work I live for.

Brian Neaman directs a commercial with the bolt motion control slow motion system phantom high speed

Working with Yonder Content and director Brian Neaman, we were tasked with delivering a series of comedic spots for the New Jersey Lotto. Sounds like a typical, unmemorable job, right? Not if you’re shooting with a robotic arm capable of shooting motion-control at high speed, all while precisely choreographing a room full of actors that had to hit exact cues during a shot that lasted less than 5 seconds in real time.

First off - the agency boards. When you’re shooting a commercial, usually before even the director or production company is hired, the agency and the client put together rough storyboards of what will be delivered. It’s then up to the director and production company to execute them. This is what we were given and asked to shoot.

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Bolt   High Speed Cinebot

Working with the Bolt

The Bolt is a repurposed robotic arm that is typically used in automobile manufacturing, but has been modified to hold and move a camera at high speed with frame-accurate precision. It weighs a thousand pounds, requires 42 amps at 400 volts, and can move 6 feet per second. It’s absolutely terrifying and one of the coolest tools I have ever used.

It requires a 3-man crew to unload, set up and tweak. Each camera position is mapped out and programmed in to the software, and the move is built between the key frames. This is a time-consuming process, and it’s not uncommon for a single shot to take up the majority of a shoot day. However, the results are entirely worth it.

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Blocking

Our prep process included a significant amount of blocking. Since the ad plays out in one take, we had to be precise in mapping out all of the action. In addition, due to the significant risk of injury from the Bolt arm, actors had to be on their marks at all times, and could not move until given specific instructions. When you hear something described as having a lot of “moving parts”, this was literally the embodiment of that definition.

It’s amazing seeing everything come together. Below, you can watch everything in action.

Lighting for the Phantom

This spot called for slow motion in the realm of 400-1000 frames per second, so we shot on the Phantom Flex 4K and ARRI Master Primes, courtesy of Abel Cine in New York. Personally, I love the Master Primes - not only do they have a great look with beautiful skin tones and subtle focus falloff, but they are also tack sharp wide open. Knowing that I have the ability to open up a stop or two further than most other lenses without losing that sharpness is usually a must with Phantom shoots. Luckily the Bolt accurately controls the focus as well, so my camera assistant had a pretty relaxed day.

Gaffer Greg Tango had this to say about his experience lighting for high speed: "The challenge of slow motion is having enough punch from units while not flickering. We utilized an ARRI Skypanel 360 and a couple S60s for keys. These units all have a high speed mode that allow filming up to 1000fps. The key is never truly the issue when shooting high speed (just need enough punch), it’s trying to fill the backgrounds with the right intensity and shape of light. Our first choice was to use Quasar Crossfades but we found those to flicker at the higher frame rates. Instead we ended up using a mixture of ARRI L10Cs and Lite Mats to get the right background levels."

Creatively speaking, both the client and director were open to playing around with more colors and shape to the lighting than might be typical of a spot like this. The teal in the background really helped sell a nighttime look, even though we shot during the day and couldn’t use any practicals. Coincidentally, the color ended up being on-brand as well. I’m very happy with the look of this spot.

I’d like to extend a big thank you to Yonder and NJ Lotto for having me, and to my amazing crew that made my job easy. Check out the finished spot below!

As always, the conversation continues on my Instagram (@dkruta). Please feel free to send me any questions or comments. I love chatting about cinematography and I’m always interested to hear your thoughts.