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Site and Scene: Ghosthunting
Posted Aug 1, 2005 - Microsoft Partners Directory [June 1999] Issue Print Version     Page 1of 2 next »

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."

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