Site and Scene: Ghosthunting
Posted Aug 1, 2005

How many times have you worked a video shoot during which—for some strange, unexplained reason—a piece of equipment went down? It shouldn't surprise you. As we all know, or should by now, video gear is unnaturally affected by electro-entities—ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural beings that can undermine even the most professional location video crew.

At least, that's the conclusion drawn by four ghosthunters whose exploits are documented in a new TV series, shot at times in complete darkness using "zero-light" MiniDV camcorders, custom-made video vests, and jury-rigged wireless audio systems.

Each half-hour episode follows four real-life paranormal researchers as they explore the world of the supernatural. The investigators spend most of each show on location and in the dark, creating serious technical and aesthetic challenges for the video crew.

During extensive night shooting for The Girly Ghosthunters, the Canadian show's production team used two Panasonic AG-DVC30 MiniDV camcorders.

"We tested various cameras before starting production of the series," says Jim Kiriakakis, co-creator/producer. "Most of the cameras gave us that green, grainy ‘Desert Storm' look—one we wanted to avoid. When we tried the DVC30, it blew us—and the other cameras—away! It gave us the crisp, beautiful night image we wanted. Considering half of each show is shot in the dark, it was vital that the camera give us great clarity and mobility."

The creators faced a number of challenges in shooting, editing, and producing the show, but finding locations—and ghosts—was not among them.

The ghosthunters themselves brought good ideas and a wealth of research and historical background material to the show. Spirit-summoner Nicole, photographer Corrie, spirit-communicator Dana, and history aficionado Jen are not actors (two are sisters, one's a cousin, they're all good friends, and all interested in the paranormal). They had formed a Paranormal Research Society, hosted seminars at paranormal conventions, and set up their own ghosthunting Web site, well before being approached about video.

Buck Productions, meanwhile, describes itself as "an independent production house with a big studio reach." From its early days doing music videos out of founder Sean Buckley's basement, the company evolved into a multimillion-dollar production house, creating commercials, feature films, documentaries, and now, TV series.

One of the keys to Buck Productions' success, Kiriakakis believes, is doing a lot of work with DV. "The market is changing and the economy is tight, so being able to save production money is key," he says. By exploiting some of the lighter, smaller, but still high-quality technology now available, producers don't have to crew up as large, and they can spend some savings for robust lighting packages and more interesting accessories.

Another critical aspect of production is the crew. "Having worked with many hired crews before, we knew who we could trust, who could capture the look and feel we wanted," he says. Cohesion and teamwork were especially important in the unusual situations and unusual locations in which the crew was working.

They Only Come Out at Night
Locations include houses and restaurants that, although occupied and open for business, are apparently quite haunted. Old municipal jails and soldiers' barracks in historic forts are no longer functioning as once intended, but very active at night nonetheless. They even scouted a mostly deserted island, accessible only by ferry and well off the electrical grid.

The ghosthunters presented this creative list of potential locations before shooting began. Kiriakakis, acting as location manager, found some tougher than others to firm up, their owners resistant to having their locale portrayed as haunted. "But most were happy to do it, knowing that we would be after not just ghosts, but a background of the location, its history, and the people who own or run it," he says, noting the pile of location permits, pledges to "leave in condition found," damage waivers, and crew insurance forms to complete.

There was never a technical reason that prevented the crew from using a site. Jail cells as small as three by seven feet, a rickety old catwalk high above a theater stage, and even the electricity-less Cedar Island, out in the St. Lawrence River, proved viable shooting locations.

Three vehicles were generally used to transport cast, crew, and equipment between locations: a Girly Ghosthunters-festooned Winnebago for the hunters, and two production vans for the shooters. Interviews and walk-throughs (in the daytime) were conducted at all locations, and the crew made mental notes of corners, angles, physical structures, and the personality of each location in which they would be shooting that night, during the ghosthunt itself.

The crew says the night shoot created three real challenges:
• remaining nimble and eliminating the usual cables and tethers that restrict movement
• protecting the safety of the cast and crew in rather unusual situations
• capturing high-quality video and audio suitable for broadcast—all without interfering with the ghosthunt itself.

"We tried all possible resources beforehand," bemoaned Kiriakakis. "We tried night-vision attachments to the Betacam, but that really restricted mobility. We did tests with consumer-type handi-cams, but you had to be too close. Then we tested the DVC30."

The Panasonic AG-DVC30 is a 3CCD MiniDV camcorder, weighing about two pounds. Billed as the first camcorder to offer Super Night Shooting (SNS) in black & white, it features built-in infrared capabilities to support near-field acquisition (distances about 15 feet) at zero foot-candles. Adding an optional infrared light extends effective shooting distance to around 90 feet, allowing people or objects to be viewed in complete darkness.

The shots are nothing like the green-tinted night vision shots you're familiar with from the evening news; rather, SNS imagery is black & white, crisp and clear, with a good contrast range.

"When we shot in the dark, it was all dark. But the camera operators still had to see something, and the nice clean picture on the flip-out LCD really helped. The camera's small and light, and the guys could move smoothly and respond rapidly to what was going on around them. We didn't want anything to take away from the viewers' experience. They get to be the voyeur, traveling with the hunters, not with a crew," he says.

But it wasn't just the camera's compact construction and usability that qualified it for the night shooting. "It would have been a nightmare to shoot these night sequences with another camera," adds Kiriakakis. "The image stabilizer provided the camera operator the flexibility to move with the investigators even if they were running." And run they would, ghosthunters and video crew alike!

The four ghosthunters often split into pairs to cover more of the location, and one DVC30 camera operator accompanies each pair. The segments are totally unscripted, the cameras never static.

"It's shot hand-held, but not too Blair Witch," says Kiriakakis. "We want to soak up environment, bring it to life with movement. We don't need to be on the hunters all the time; we can hover, ghostlike, in unusual positions, so this camera was great tool for us."

Put On Your Best Ghosthunting Suit
Another great tool was custom-made for the ghosthunt: a special vest and Velcro headband that carried audio and video recording equipment.

Worn by one hunter in each pair, each vest has a Sony DV deck at the small of the back, with a five-hour battery supply. Lectrosonic wireless audio microphone transmitters are in another compartment, and each vest carries a little digital voice recorder as well as various accessories.

Rather than using a motorcycle helmet, as Laird sometimes advertises, one hunter in each pair also wears a special headband, with a Laird color "pencil cam" Velcro'd to one side and a small battery-powered mini-flashlight with diffusion gel on the other. Color footage from the pencil cams, provided through Laird Telemedia, shows the ghosthunters' points of view."We called Laird, actually told them what we were doing and what we needed, and they were really helpful," he says.

"I would say with the DV decks, the vests probably weigh in at under 10 pounds," Kiriakakis says. "We made them so they would fit tight against the body, and spread the equipment around so the weight was evenly distributed."

Sound was another issue; the producers could not have boom operators hanging around, but they needed sound that was clear, so viewers could hear everything going on.

Mixing close mics on the ghosthunters (Countryman, Sennheiser, and Sanken lavs or headset mics were used in different situations) with ambient sounds from the DVC-30's camera mic paid off with dividends. In the show, you hear emotion in the hunters' voices: curiosity, nervousness, fear. You feel them breathing, and you jump at the creaking doors and whispering apparitions—exactly the sounds needed to underscore the video and anchor the drama of the ghosthunt.

On each vest/headband combo, the pencil-cam feed goes straight to the MiniDV deck. The wireless audio is split between the deck (used as backup and editing guide track) and the RF transmitter. The matching audio receivers were connected to dedicated Sound Design DAT machines, carried by the crew's sound operators (at a safe distance from the action, of course).

 The ghosthunters were thus freed from any cable connection to the crew, addressing both a big safety concern and the show's need for as much freedom and mobility as possible for all concerned.

"The bulk of the video crew is at a distance from the action," says Kiriakakis, who often directed location segments. "We actually took [audio talkback] away from the cameramen, as our calling into the team became a moot point once the action started. We wanted the cameramen to listen to the hunters, not to us. I told them, ‘We hear it—you shoot it!' The action moves quickly, but we all move incrementally. The producer/director follows the hunters at a distance, and the sound team follows them. We trust the camera guys to get what's needed. It's real guerrilla filmmaking."

A digital display slate, linked to the DAT reader and shot by the cameras, helped keep everything in sync for logging and post. Each lasting one hour, the pencil-cam DV tapes and the DAT recordings were merged onto one long Betacam for post purposes.

Once the slates were recorded, the ghosthunt began. There was no "Stop Tape!"

Sharing Ghost Stories Around the Edit Bay
Editing and postproduction for the show takes place at Buck Productions, using a Media 100 nonlinear editing system. Editor Toni Thompson faced a wide variety of disparate material on the first few shows, but through her own learning process developed a storyline formula for the packaging.

"She was great with that," says Kiriakakis. "We tried to keep detailed notes on what was shot, but we shot a lot at the beginning—maybe too much. After the first show or two, after she had a real chance to dig into the footage, we found we didn't need as much. She certainly brought the tape count down to more manageable levels."

Each half-hour episode is a split of nighttime DV shooting and daytime set-up material shot on Betacam SP; some 20% or 30% of the show is DV-based.

Shot with two or three cameras, the daytime segments include interviews with the owners and operators of supposedly haunted locations. B-roll cutaways and set-up material from the ghosthunters, often shot in the Winnebago as they review what they know about the location beforehand, is included in "top-to-bottom" coverage. Archival photos and other illustrations are used. The DVC-30s are also used in the daytime, adding a somewhat detached point-of-view on some interviews.

As the storytelling template was developed, the production team added an assistant editor to help go through all the material.

In presenting the barebones story, Thompson structures information in blocks, delivering back story as she rough cuts on-camera sections with holes for B-roll and other material. The show is built so the DV night footage never cuts up against the daytime Betacam material, and so each section must stand on its own.

The cut for the night tapes ends up less structured than the day. It's free-form, even jarring, as often-chaotic ghosthunting takes place for two separate teams, switching back and forth to cover all the action.

For the ghosthunt alone, the editor has at least two DV tapes from the pencil-cam vest packs, sometimes many more. There are tapes from each DVC-30, of course, and the DATs, which are dumped and synced roughly to Betacam.

Cutting down the various sound sources gathered—some shoots are all night—into a cohesive narrative is a challenge, too. At least four separate voices, various screams, and things that go bump in the night must be heard clearly, while underscored by an eerily intermixed custom soundtrack added later.

Other Production Influences at Play
Beyond the production strategy, professional crew, and top-notch gear, there were other forces at work during production of the show, the producer acknowledges—forces that remain unexplained.

"A majority of crew were ‘non-believers' when we started. But by the fourth or fifth show, they had come around," Kiriakakis says with an almost satisfied air. There were plenty of apparently fully charged batteries going down, and flashlights mysteriously going dark for no reason. There were doors slamming and footsteps stepping when no one was around to cause them.

"Once, our main cameraman, Marlon—he's a big guy—actually came running out the door during a shoot! He said somebody yanked his shirt, but when he turned in the darkened room to see, no one was there! He went running," Kiriakakis laughs. "We're like, ‘Hey Marlon, you're the last one supposed to leave, not the first!'"

Over the course of the series, the ghosthunters have captured many unusual, even unexplainable, occurrences. Mysterious faces seen only on tape; strange voices with no visible source; objects like jail cell beds that, untouched, move from one shot to the next.

"With experiences like that on set, some people who were skeptical are now thinking a little more," Kiriakakis says. "If that happens with the crew, we hope it happens with the audience. That's the real accomplishment."

The Girly Ghosthunters made its debut in Canada on SPACE: The Imagination Station in January. The series has subsequently been sold to broadcast outlets in the UK (Living TV) and Australia. Negotiations are currently underway with U.S. program distributors. For more information, visit www.thegirlyghosthunters.com.  

Production
Cameras: Panasonic AG DVC-30, Betacam SP, Laird pencil cam

Postproduction
Audio: Lectrosonic wireless, Countryman, Sennheiser, and Sanken lavs and headset mics, DAT recorders

Workstation
Media100

Crew
Sean Buckley, creator & director; Jim Kiriakakis, creator & producer; Darek Zdzienicki and Marlon Paul, DoPs; Ted Parkes, technical producer; Jan McCharles, location sound recordist; Toni Thomson, editor