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.

Lighting on a budget, or Doing more with less

It’s 2019. We have all the Ks, incredibly sensitive sensors, cheap glass, and stabilizers available at any Best Buy. Fuji recently released the XT-3, with image quality and a codec that rivals the Arri Alexa. And it has never been cheaper and easier than it is now to rent a high-end camera package for pennies on the dollar. It’s a great time to be a DP. Or is it?

What if you can’t get the lights (or more importantly, the crew) to get that big-budget, professionally lit, high end image that you have in your head? You read that Roger Deakins used a row of 18ks to light up the desert at night, and now anything less than that is unacceptable. What do you do now?

Suck it up. This is the era of no more excuses. Low budget lighting IS possible, and I’ll tell you how. No, this is not some race-to-the-bottom how-to guide of how to get stuck in no-budget land. I’ll have plenty of posts in the future discussing large lighting setups. But for now, let’s talk about the best ways to light your image when you just don’t have the resources to go huge.

Location, location, location

This age-old mantra holds true to this day. How many times have you found yourself in some apartment building or set with 4 white walls, wondering why your frame looks terrible? No amount of lighting is going to make a bad location look great, and this is why you should always start with a great location.

When you don’t have the money to rent a space with amazing architecture, beautiful windows, or built in lighting, you just need to get creative. If you’re in a city, there are plenty of beautiful locations accessible to the public, it’s just a matter of finding them. For the Sve “Paint a Picture” video, we had no choice but to find free locations, given that the budget was a grand total of $0. Living in New York City, the opportunities are everywhere. We shot on the subway, on a pier in Red Hook, in the East Village and in a friend’s apartment with a rooftop overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge.

The key to using free locations to your advantage is to scout properly and schedule smartly. For daytime scenes, utilizing the sun to your advantage is a necessity. I use Helios Pro to track the path of the sun, and then I schedule the scene accordingly so that my subject is usually backlit, and that preferably the most important shots happen during golden hour. 

Use available light

Just because you’re shooting a movie doesn’t mean you have to use movie lights. Depending on the story, a naturalistic look might be the best approach. When director Mimi Jeffries approached me to shoot a short film about mental illness, I wasn’t discouraged by the lack of resources. Instead, we embraced a look that we called “shaped reality”, and using whatever lighting existed in the space already, we would modify it to suit our needs.

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I worked closely with our two-man grip department in setting flags, hanging duvetyne, and otherwise sculpting light from the fixtures that were available to us. It didn’t always work perfectly, as you can see in this wide hallway shot where the duvetyne shadows are visible, but taken as a whole, the look reflected the grittiness of the story.

In two contrasting scenes, the boy’s aunt worries about our main character’s return and state of mind. For this, we added negative fill on the ceiling, as well as anywhere outside of frame, to create a dark sense of foreboding. On the other hand, for the escape to Disneyworld, we timed the drive so that the sun would pop in through the windows, creating a bright and warm look.

Adjust the creative

Just because you write a script starting with “EXT. NIGHT” doesn’t mean you can actually afford to do it. Night exteriors are notoriously expensive, slow moving, and generally an unpleasant experience without full control of everything. So when director Patrick Biesemans sent me the treatment for the “For Shelley” music video, I couldn’t help but feel nervous about how we would pull it off.

When working with a small budget, it’s important to trust your creative partners, and for them to trust you as well. When I make creative suggestions, it’s never because I am trying to impose my will or vision on the director - it is because I understand the limitations from a different perspective, and I want to make the final spot as good as possible. I suggested to Patrick to shoot in a warehouse space that we could dress with crew members’ cars to appear as if it was shot in a back alley at night. It fit the “nightmare world” aesthetic better, creating a surreal space for our chase scene to take place.

Patrick’s treatment called for vertical beams of light illuminating the girl and her mother, but after scouting the location we learned that they had a scissor lift available, and I suggested using moving lights to add a dynamic element to the video given the static nature of everything else. We lit everything with 3 JoLeko 800s with 10-degree barrels, and a single Skypanel to give us a dash of color.

What could have been a massive and expensive endeavor outside on a street became a much more efficient, and in my opinion, visually impressive piece that fit the story better. We were able to control the space, use atmosphere without needing a huge SFX crew, and light with a small G&E package, without being constrained by sunset and sunrise or needing to shoot overnight.

Use atmosphere

The single, most effective, and still my favorite way to light on a budget is to use atmosphere. Nothing gets you more bang for your buck, and I would rather cut every light on the truck before I get rid of the hazer. Haze adds volume and depth to the image. It adds fill via ambience instead of making shadows look unnatural. 

There are also other types of atmosphere that I love to use. Finely-chopped down feathers create a look of floating pollen which reacts beautifully to character’s movements or to fans and leaf-blowers. Wind creates an environmental element that can either mimic a character’s state of mind, or exaggerate their struggle. A bag of bio-snow, which depending on the size you purchase, can either look like snowfall or act like dust. A $100 bag will last you for days.

For the “Caught Up” video, the creative requirements lined up nicely with using atmosphere. We usually had a hazer running somewhere, even in exterior shots. The smoke in the alleyway is coming from a hazer hidden behind the car. What’s the motivation? Who cares, it looks great, and I bet you didn’t even notice before I pointed it out.

Director Floyd Russ even brought canned haze along, and we used it in the car for the scenes with our alien villain driving around, looking for her next victim. I still can’t believe it was mostly lit with a cheap Chauvet DJ light and a $20 RGB LED strip from Amazon. We did have a Skypanel and a Joker 400 for a couple of shots, but they didn’t play too often.

Every film can benefit from these rules: find great locations, use available light smartly, be flexible in your creative requirements, and utilize atmosphere. Whether you have $100 or $100 million, you can always fall back on these foundations to create beautiful images. Just remember that the number one purpose of a great image is to tell a great story.

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.

The Life of a Cinematographer: A Prologue

I have to start this off by thanking everyone out there for the encouragement to bring back this blog. Staring at the last entry date of almost 5 years ago, the task seems overwhelming. The same questions run through my head that have for the last 5 years: “Why would anyone want to listen to me? What value does my experience hold for others? There are plenty of other cinematographers out there that are doing so much more, so what can I contribute?” I posted about it on my Instagram, wondering if anyone cared. Here’s how you answered:

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Aside from a few jokers (you know who you are), I have to say the response was overwhelming. So I’m going to dive in to this full force.

A recap

I started the year off shooting a short film with my longtime friend and collaborator, director Stuart Valberg (@stuartvalberg), and now new friend (and collaborator), producer Brandon Lescure (@brandonlescure). We shot a short film near Baltimore called “The Last Job”, on the Sony Venice and a prototype Rialto sensor extension unit, provided by Paul Healy (@sonysayspro) from Sony.

I’ll do an in-depth breakdown of the film, and hopefully I’ll be able to show you some really cool stuff we did that I can’t talk about just yet.

After we wrapped, I headed down to Mexico City for a week of vacation - my first in almost 2 years. It’s an incredible city, full of life, culture, great food, amazing people and inspiration.

I’ll be touching on work/life balance, and the importance of mental and physical health in future posts. This has become an ever-increasingly important topic for me. And yes, #everydayislegday.

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Working with friends and family unfortunately doesn’t happen frequently, but in this next project I got to do both.

Reunited with director Mike Pecci (@mikepecci), we shot my brother and chef Philip Kruta of Brassica Kitchen (@brassicakitchen) in a spot for a knife manufacturer. This was a pure collaboration on all parts, with another friend and collaborator, Patrick Biesemans (@patrickbiesemans), contributing the creative.

I’ll be doing a breakdown as well once the project is released.

Mike and I also sat down and recorded a podcast for In Love With the Process (@inlovewiththeprocesspod) about cinematography, DP and director relationships, our philosophies on filmmaking, and a few comments about beer and ribs - just some of our favorite topics.

The future

With that said, my goals for this blog are still coming in to focus. I want this to be a place where discussions can begin. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the craft, updates and reviews of new equipment that I find interesting, technical breakdowns of how I light and shoot, the importance of networking, health, and other indirectly related activities, and hopefully some rib recipes.

I want to thank everyone that has so generously given their time, energy and knowledge over the years, and in bringing back this blog, I hope it can start to repay some of that debt.

I want to hear from you

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.