Magazine article American Cinematographer

Shooting Specters

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Shooting Specters

Article excerpt

It all started in an apartment near Detroit. Zak Bagans, then a film student at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan, had a ghostly encounter that sent him on a quest to prove the existence of the paranormal.

Teaming up with camera operator Aaron Goodwin, Bagans set out to investigate supposedly haunted locations throughout Nevada for the 2004 documentary Ghost Adventures. Shot with a Panasonic AG-DVX100A and onboard lights, the documentary won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature from the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in 2006 and first aired on the Sci-Fi Channel the following year. Travel Channel then commissioned a weekly series of the same name. Bagans continues to serve as the executive producer, director and lead paranormal investigator for the show, which is currently in its 12th season.

Each episode of Ghost Adventures is presented as a short documentary focused on a single location. The first half of the episode covers the history and eyewitness accounts of the location's hauntings, with on-site interviews, re-enactments and b-roll footage; the second half comprises the footage captured by Bagans and his team during their overnight investigation.

Under Bagans' direction, the series' style and production value have continually evolved. "Each location we investigate has its own unique story and energy that I absorb," he explains. "I then interpret that experience into the tone of each episode. For the first half of the show, the re-enactments create the mood and buildup. Then we take the viewers on the 'lockdown' with us, as we share our passion for the raw, bare-bones investigating of the paranormal."

One of Bagans' chief stylistic inspirations is director Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, shot by John Toll, ASC (AC Feb. '99). "Malick took scenes of brutality and then hit you with a contrasting philosophical narration over long, drawn-out shots of Mother Nature," Bagans describes. "These narrations with the visuals metaphorically speak to the deeper spirit of life, no matter the situation. So when I'm at a location and I'm hearing that 200 people died from tuberculosis in this sanatorium, I'll stop for a moment and do these shots of Mother Nature, the trees swaying, the overcast sky. We assemble these images together to convey a philosophical thought through a very moody, tonal narration so the audience can really feel what I'm feeling and see what I'm seeing when I'm there. "

Every location presents a unique story that thrusts the crew into a rigorous, fast-paced, run-and-gun production schedule without a script to serve as a guide. Bagans first receives a one sheet from researcher Jeff Belanger with a brief description of the location and the names of the people he will interview. From there, the story is developed once the crew arrives at the location.

The production is divided between two crews. Bagans runs the A crew - which focuses on the interviews and the "lockdown" investigations - with cinematographer and audio-visual tech Jay Wasley on A camera, Goodwin on B camera and Billy Tolley on C camera. The B crew is led by one of four producer-editors, working alongside cinematographer Mike Stodden, who operates the main camera for the B crew, and Louis Zieja, who handles the second camera. The B crew focuses on reenactments and b-roll footage.

The A crew and the producer arrive at the location first to conduct the interviews for the top of the show. Goodwin and Wasley each operate a Canon Cinema EOS C300, recording to CompactFlash at 23.98 fps and 1920x1080 resolution, and paired with a variety of Canon L-series zoom lenses. When needed, they light the scene using portable, battery-operated Ikan IB508-v2 Bi-Color LED fixtures. "Those are definitely our go-to lights," explains Wasley. "You can take them to locations and not have to worry about a power source. They're small, compact and easy to set up. And their color balance is adjustable, so you can easily go from daylight to tungsten. …

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