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Kodak: The Paranormal and Alien Experiences of Bill Roe, ASC

The Paranormal and Alien Experiences of Bill Roe, ASC

Recounting Memories from The X-Files

By Bob Fisher

[Original article here]

Bill Roe, ASC was in the dawn of his career as a cinematographer when The X-Files episodic series moved from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Los Angeles in 1998. He earned his first director of photography credit in 1997 for Detention: The Siege at Johnson High and followed that by photographing the inaugural season of Brooklyn South. The catalyst for Roe on both of those projects was Michael Watkins, ASC, a notably talented cinematographer who changed roles to producer and director mid-career. Roe was his camera operator on Heart and Soul in 1993, and on a couple of other projects.

When The X-Files moved to Los Angeles, Watkins was brought on board as producer-show runner, and he introduced Roe to Chris Carter. Roe subsequently shot some 85 episodes of the sci-fi series that recently concluded a 10-year run on the Fox network. During his first four years on the series, Roe earned four consecutive nominations in the annual American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Outstanding Achievement Awards competition. He took top honors in 1999 for the episode “Drive” and again in 2000 for “Agua Mala.” He was nominated in 2001 for an episode called “Patience” and the following year for “This Is Not Happening.” Roe also earned Emmy nominations for “This is Not Happening” and “The Unnatural.”

Roe points out that the unique visual grammar that characterizes The X-Files was established by veteran cinematographer John Bartley, CSC, who also earned three consecutive ASC nominations. Joel Ransom, CSC, shot the fourth and fifth seasons. “We did a lot of research on how they did it in Canada,” Roe says. “They did great work. Chris (Carter), Frank Spotnitz, Michael (Watkins), Michelle MacLaren and the other producers told me to shoot for feature quality. It was quite a challenge, but it was also a great opportunity. We never had a normal situation. We were doing something different on every episode. We shot in the desert, on the ocean and in a hangar that seemed five miles long. I pushed myself every day. It was like someone was whispering in the back of my mind, ‘Don’t be afraid to make it darker.’ At the end of each episode, I always felt I should have been bolder and made it even darker.”

Roe was raised in the film industry. His father, Jack Roe, was a first assistant director and later a production manager who often worked on independent films with the legendary producer- director Herbert Ross. During his childhood, Roe was a frequent visitor on his father’s sets.

“I liked hanging out with the grips,” he recalls. “When I was 15 years old, I told my dad that’s what I wanted to do. He told me to forget it. He said if I was going to work in the film industry, I was going to be a cameraman. He had a lot of respect for cinematographers.”

Roe came up through the ranks of the camera crew system beginning in 1978 as a loader with Owen Roizman, ASC on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. He earned his first credit as a second assistant cameraman in 1983 on Mr. Mom with Victor Kemper, ASC. Roe also worked on camera crews led by Bill Fraker, ASC, Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, Bill Butler, ASC, Adam Greenberg, ASC, Michael Chapman, ASC, and TV commercial trailblazer Joe Pytka.

“I’ve learned things from everyone I’ve worked with, though sometimes I didn’t realize it until I got into tight situations and started remembering and asking myself how they would handle it,” says Roe. “I remember asking Owen (Roizman) how he dealt with the pressure to go faster, and he told me that even if it takes you an extra fifteen minutes or half an hour, and they’re breathing down your neck, you learn to ignore that a little if you need that time. He said that you have to learn to fight for that time, but to make sure they see the results on the screen at the end.

“I also learned a lot from Michael Chapman, who really knows how to run a set. His lighting was always great, and he knew how to make it simple. That was an important lesson. I’ve found that if you put one light in the right place, it can do a lot of work, but finding exactly the right place can take time. Sometimes, I wish I could be more of a free spirit like Michael Watkins. His spirit and energy lit up the whole set. It was contagious. I worked with Bill Butler on The Thornbirds, and he never treated it like a television program. It was a movie to him. I remember watching Adam (Greenberg) all of a sudden turn a light on. A little streak of light hit a carpet. It made a huge difference, because the carpet was kind of dark and it added a feeling of depth to the scene.”

Roe also recounts experiences with Kemper, who stepped him up to both first assistant and operator. “I’ll never forget the times Victor told me he thought I was ready to step up,” Roe says. “When you’re on a crew, the trick is watching and listening, and sticking that information into the back of your mind. Every once in a while something leaks out and helps.”

Roe usually got X-Files scripts four days to a week in advance. Usually it was the first two acts. That was his first reference for the gist of the story. He’d read it at lunchtime or at night and then call Carter or one of the other writer-producers to talk about it. If it was a new director, usually he would phone him or her too.

Scouting was usually done by the best boys for the riggers, and sometimes second unit director of photography Bob La Bonge. They provided Roe with ideas and digital photographs of locations. On very complex locations, sometimes he sent his gaffer Jono Kouzouyan and key grip Tom Doherty, and they would come back with stills and suggestions.

They usually began shooting each episode on the stages at Fox Studios. Typically, they shot two days on the stages and six on location, though that varied from script to script. Roe used two cameras whenever possible. Maybe one was on a wider over-the-shoulder shot and the other camera was on the same plane but with tighter framing. Other times one camera was low on the hip and the other over a shoulder. Roe always had a Steadicam, crane and a hothead available. He shot off of dollies a lot, but sometimes the story called for the energy characteristic of handheld shots. Sometimes he put a long lens on a softball right on the dolly.

“It’s hard to do a handheld, 200 mm shot,” he explains. “It’s a little too shaky. With the softball, the operators can grab hold of the camera, and it still has some sort of a floating feeling. It’s a little different look than a Steadicam, a regular dolly move or a handheld shot. That was the beauty of working on this show. We didn’t have any limits. We used silhouettes of people sitting in a dark room with a bright light streaming through a window. The trick is creating layers so there’s a sense of depth. Sometimes you do it by taking light away. Other times you add light. It depends on the situation and what’s behind or in front of them.”

Roe notes there is a fine line between not seeing and seeing something. “You want to see their faces and expressions, but you also want to conceal things so the audience puts their imagination to work,” he says. “Sometimes a shadow in the darkness can be more powerful than a close-up of a face. That’s what makes it magic. I think a lot of it has to do with separating characters from backgrounds and foregrounds. Chris (Carter) believes the audience is smart enough to fill in the spaces. Sometimes what they see in their imagination is far scarier than anything we could show them.”

The X-Files was the antithesis of the Dogme ’95 movement. There were no unbendable rules. Every director had their own ideas, but Roe would gently try to steer them toward The X-Files visual vocabulary. There are things they did every week that weren’t necessarily in the script. Part of the look for each episode was discovered at the moment of photography.

“Chris Carter was there every day, not necessarily on the set, but he was always involved,” Roe says. “Chris wrote a lot of the scripts and approved the others. One of the main reasons why this show was so successful was the writing and, of course, the directors and actors. The producers were always willing to fight with the studio for what they wanted. We had scripts calling for very large sets, and I would say 90 percent of the time we got them.”

Roe’s second season opened with two episodes filmed in the Southern California desert in Borrego Springs. They shot for 10 days in 120-degree heat. It was 100 degrees at night. Roe says it was like shooting on the surface of the moon in a vast, desolate setting, with cliffs 50 to 60 feet high and beautiful valleys and canyons.

He reminisces, “Usually the camera was moving, partially to show the audience the sets, because we were on different locations every episode, but also to help build tension. We had a lot of high and wide and low and wide moving shots with 10 mm and 14 mm lenses. Mainly, we used Eastman EXR 5298 film, and occasionally when I really needed some extra stop, I used the 800-speed (Kodak Vision 5289). We used Panaflex cameras and a lot of prime lenses, as well as short zooms and 11:1s. We used close-focus shots a lot, because we were always in somebody’s face. We always had Technocranes and insert cars. We literally had everything we needed available, even a Spacecam. The audience expected this from us.”

Roe says he stretched the latitude of the film, partially because it rendered an “edgier” look, knowing they could pull details off the negative in the telecine suite, if necessary.

“We lit through windows a lot,” he says. “It’s a more natural look. I never turn any practicals on anywhere. I’d rather have a dark room with hot windows. The more extreme the better. I loved hot kicks in the windows. I also never used a light inside a car during the day. It looks kind of phony. I’d let the background go. We filmed driving shots in the desert with just a nice glow on the horizon, which comes from just one light in the right spot.”

“Agua Mala” is one of many episodes etched in his memory. In the story, there were giant squids coming out of the ocean up through drains and they were eating people. Roe mainly motivated light with flashlights, candles, lanterns and moonlight in that episode. He also has fond memories of a “John Doe” episode filmed during the last season. It was the first one that executive producer Michelle MacLaren directed. The story was set in Mexico. Roe overexposed the exteriors by three and a half stops, because he visualized a hot, grainy, saturated look with dark and hot interiors.

“We did do a lot of testing,” Roe says. “Somebody would come up with an idea and we’d try doing it different ways. We used Xenon flashlights to penetrate the darkness and little bounce cards covered with foil to create a feeling of ambient fill. One of my favorite shows was “Triangle.” It was a Bermuda Triangle theme. The story goes back in time to the Nazis. It takes place on a boat. Every shot was on a Steadicam, because everything was supposed to be happening in real-time. Dave Luckenbach operated the Steadicam for ten straight days. He did an awesome job. It seems like every shot was four minutes long. Chris Carter directed that episode. It was our first experience together with him directing. We were just talking about it the other day, and how we wished we could do it again drawing on what we’ve learned. We’ve all grown on this show. I’ve only been a cameraman for five years, and that was my second year of shooting. I think now we would do it not so much differently, but probably better.”

Cinematographers must earn the trust of the actors. “I always looked out for the actors, because that’s part of your job as a cinematographer,” he says. “Usually, we’d make the light a little softer on actresses’ faces, so it sort of wrapped around them, and maybe we’d use a little heavier filter on them, or double the paper up. They would look towards me to see if they needed to tilt their heads to catch a light or shadow.”

The final two-hour episode was filmed in 26 days. The story opens in a military facility where Mulder is supposed to have murdered someone. That part was filmed in an underground power plant carved about a mile deep into the side of a mountain at Shaver Lake near Fresno, California. They shot there for four or five days. There were about 30 sodium-vapor lamps hanging from the ceiling of the power plant. It was flat, ugly top light. Roe, his gaffer Jono Kouzouyan and key grip Tom Doherty did some testing by borrowing one of the lights from the plant and shipping it to the studio, where they hung it on a stage. Based on the test, they made a large round saucer-shaped card that was hung on the bottom of the lamp so the light bounced up to the ceiling.

“We did that with all of those sodium-vapor lights in the plant, so we got bounce off the ceiling and we lit the plant the way we wanted with Pars,” Roe says. “The whole interior surface was made of granite rock that had a great texture. It was a great look for that scene.”

They also returned to Borrego Springs for the climatic sequence, which was supposed to take place in an ancient Indian ruin in a mountainside. They built the interior sets on the side of the mountain. It took them three weeks to build and four days to shoot. On the last day they had all of the buildings rigged and blew up the set. It was a huge shot, with the helicopters in foreground shooting rockets at the ruins.

Asked why the sequence was done in camera rather than in a computer, Roe replied, “I’m not saying that you should never shoot greenscreen scenes or never use computer images, but I do think actors sometimes respond better in real places,” he replies. “The sets are part of the story. I think the fact that we shot on realistic sets affected their acting. The audience also senses that the explosions are real.”

Roe says that another factor in each episode’s look was the work done by Tony Smith at Hollywood Digital. “We had some great dailies guys on the show who came and went,” he says, “but Tony Smith was the colorist since the middle of season six. We became very close friends. He would send me a final cut, and then I would write notes for how every scene should look. If there was a problem, he knew what needed to be done.”

Roe concludes that the most difficult part of shooting The X-Files was finding time to think. “There were many times when I would have loved to have a day to think about some set or scene, or watch a rehearsal,” he says. “That never happened. Sometimes, I would lay out a scene, and then walk to the office or grab a snack. You have to walk away and think. I’d guess about 75 percent of the time, then I would come back and change something.”

He gives a lot of the credit for what he achieved on The X-Files to his crew. “No one can do it alone,” he says. “The Steadicam work by La Bonge (who also headed the second unit) was great, but I also relied on our A and B camera operators, Jim Etheridge and Stephen Collins, who never failed to get the right framing, and also the rest of the crew: assistants Jack Ellingwood, Trevor Loomis, Tim Roe, Christopher Garcia and Neil Toussaint. We were always moving, and often pulling critical focuses in the dark. They never missed and never complained. Our camera loader was James Jermyn, and the second unit operators were Buzz Feitshans and Todd McMullen, with assistants Mike Fauntleroy, Danny Teaze, Mike Fauntleroy, Jr. and Jacqueline Nivens, and Brandon Margulies loading the cameras.”

Roe is currently shooting a new series, R.H.D./LA for Michael Mann.

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