Craig Litten Creates Assets for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson-Produced HBO Documentary

Jul 21, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

How cool would it be to hang out with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for two days down in Miami and get paid for it? Pretty sweet deal, right? Well, it definitely was for Hobe Sound, Florida-based Craig Litten, but he didn’t have the kind of Miami adventure you’re used to hearing about. No, this wasn’t a shoot based in the fabulous shore locations in which the Dwayne Johnson show “Ballers” takes place — though the network was the same. The subject matter was much heavier, and the locations — prisons and a courthouse — were about as far from the beach as you can get.

Craig Litten HBO Rock and a Hard Place poster

Craig’s first assignment with HBO saw him link up with The Rock and filmmaker Matthew O’Neill to create assets for a documentary called “Rock and a Hard Place.” The doc’s executive producer is, of course, Dwayne Johnson, and is inspired by the movie star’s own experiences with the law as a kid.

HBO contacted me about working on the project by seeing my website. They were looking for a photographer in Florida to work with filmmaker Matthew O’Neill. They asked me to submit a portfolio for review, which I did, and they liked what they saw and hired me.

Craig Litten HBO Rock and a Hard Place promo

It was a two-day shot at a prison for boys in Miami, with one visit to another prison and also a local courthouse. Going into it, I didn’t have a lot of information about the locations. Would there be outlets to plug in strobes? What would the lighting be like? It was a very challenging shoot, and I feel that my many years as a photojournalist shooting a huge variety of assignments really prepared me for the challenge.

The stakes are incredibly high for the kids involved with the program, which runs them through a grueling boot camp and encourages them adopt a new path in life. Fail the camp, and it’s back to the clink.

It was basically about a second chance at life. The documentary followed a group of boys, ages approximately 16-21, through a boot camp designed to keep them from going to prison for good. They have all been in trouble before, committing some very serious crimes like armed robbery. If they failed and didn’t make it through boot camp, they were going to prison. Everything is at stake here, and it was their last chance to have a normal life. It’s an amazing program.

Craig, a veteran photojournalist, had to mentally prepare himself for numerous challenges. Lighting in prisons is, shall we say, not conducive for photography. Nor is negotiating a group of cameramen who are filming real people doing real things.

One of the biggest challenges was that most of what I was shooting was during live filming with audio. The cameramen were roving around. This part was documentary in nature, so the lighting was available light. The problem with available light was that, in each area of the prison, there were different types of lighting — all of them pretty bad: Mercury vapor lights, different types of fluorescent, and sometimes a mix of diffused daylight trickling it.

Craig Litten HBO Dwayne The Rock Johnson and Matthew O'Neill BTS

What made this more challenging than normal was the fact that I had to shoot with a silent shutter because of the shutter sound interfering with audio.

Other than candid shots, Craig needed to cull portraiture for HBO. We’re talking images of The Rock, the guards, the inmates, everyone. The key to pulling this off? An assistant carrying a battery-operated strobe.  

Another part of the shoot was portraits of Dwayne Johnson. For this, I had an assistant ready at all times with a battery-operated strobe when the opportunity arose. I didn’t have a lot of control over this or any other facet of the shoot (for that matter) but had to be flexible and ready at all times.

Craig Litten HBO The Rock portrait

A third part of the shoot involved setting up a makeshift studio with a white backdrop for portraits of the inmates, staff, guards, filmmakers, and sergeants. We shot tons and tons of portraits.

Craig Litten HBO Rock and a Hard Place drill sergeant triptych

What helped make this shoot fun was the two main people Craig worked with — Matthew O’Neill (a “true pro,” in Craig’s words) and The Rock (a “true gentleman”). Matthew’s clear vision allowed Craig to do his job smoothly and with a lot of creative freedom, while The Rock being The Rock just makes everyone happier.

Craig Litten HBO The Rock is The Rock

The Rock is a true gentleman and he is the person you think him to be from seeing his movies. A real person who is kind to everyone, greets and shakes hands with everyone he meets, and is always offering a smile for random candid photos with fans. He worked super hard on set too, and it was the real Dwayne Johnson because he was playing himself, not a role. He truly has a heart for these kids and wants to help them get their lives back on track. He is able to relate to them because he got into trouble with the law when he was young.

And to top it all off, HBO was mighty pleased with Craig’s work. As the South Floridian puts it, there’s no better indication that a client likes what you do than if they hire you back.

HBO loved the work and offered very high compliments. From this job, they hired me again — I don’t think I can ask for more than that. When a client rehires you, you know that they were pleased with your work.


Filmmaker: Matthew O’Neill

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