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Vancouver Sun: X-Files cameraman pictures L.A.

Vancouver Sun
X-Files cameraman pictures L.A.
Alex Strachan

Joel Ransom hasn’t decided if he’ll follow the show to California, but his memories of doing it here are still vivid and moody.

If Joel Ransom has done his job, nothing that meets the eye during tomorrow’s season finale of The X-Files will seem artificially posed, self-conscious or self-serving.

As the New Westminster-born, Port Moody-raised director of photography for The X-Files during its final season in the Lower Mainland, Ransom worked cheek-by-jowl with directors like Rob Bowman, Kim Manners and R.W. (Bob) Goodwin, supervising a tight-knit crew of Vancouver-based lighting technicians and camera operators (Marty McInally, Simon Jori, Mark Cohen, among others) to create some of the most compelling images seen on mainstream television.

Sunday’s season finale, The End, closes with a cliffhanger that will presumably — nothing is truly what it seems on The X-Files — be resolved in The X-Files feature film, which opens in theatres on June 19.

For Ransom, The End will be bittersweet.

At age 36, he was elevated through the ranks after Emmy Award-winning cinematographer John Bartley stepped down after three seasons and the producers were left scrambling for someone who could do the job well and quickly. In less than three months, Ransom went from being a junior camera operator to second-unit cameraman to director of photography for the series’ main unit.

His first shot called for the midnight burial of a stillborn baby by a trio of inbred brothers in a driving rainstorm.

Naturally, it didn’t rain.

“That was just unreal,” Ransom recalled, with a wry laugh. “Unbelievable. No rain. Can you believe that?”

A rain-making machine poured so much water on the scene exposed surfaces looked like they were covered in black ink. The lighting crew went a little nutty with the special effects, simulating lightning, and the result was a weird, disjointed, fevered dream of dark blues and blacks — a guaranteed sleep-wrecker for anyone who saw it.

For Ransom, fighting the elements became a routine part of the job.

Last October, while lighting the side of a barn at night for a shot in a Chris Carter-directed episode, it pelted rain all night long. Every time the density of the rain changed — every five minutes, it seemed — the lighting had to be changed to compensate for the change in rain.

As if that weren’t enough, the entire episode was being filmed in black-and-white.

“Scared,” was how Ransom described his feelings that night.

Weather played a big part during The X-Files’ five-year run in Vancouver, and not always the way one might imagine.

On the final day of filming The End at Riverview Hospital’s Crease Clinic last month, it was so hot outside that the crew was reduced to wearing unbuttoned shirts and shorts just to get through the day.

For a scene where a young chess prodigy, played by Jeff Gulka, is being grilled by psychologists, the sun streamed in behind him through a closed window, the light carefully filtered and manipulated by bafflers set up by the crew. The backlighting — a visual signature of The X-Files — was striking.

“Sometimes, you get lucky,” Ransom said.

For a scene in which Gillian Anderson and guest-star Mimi Rogers watch the child’s interrogation through a glass window, Ransom photographed Anderson’s facial reflection on the glass for her reaction.

Ransom doesn’t know yet if he will make the move to Los Angeles with the show. Other technicians have tried, and even though some have received clearance from U.S. immigration authorities and membership in the southern Californian union, none has been guaranteed a position.

Nobody in the core group of key crew members wants for work — having The X-Files on a resume is as good as a lifetime job guarantee in the province’s still-growing production industry. But many crew members who are unattached to the Lower Mainland would like to move with the show.

Ransom is philosophical about how the look of the show will change next year.

“It will rain less,” he said, and laughed.

Ransom suspects that, regardless of who photographs The X-Files in Los Angeles, any change in look will be subtle. The more difficult task will be recreating the mood and teaching a new crew about the show’s idiosyncrasies — idiosyncrasies that make it unlike anything else on television.

“It’s a moody, textural piece,” Ransom said. “It’s one of those shows where you’re always working on the edge of exposure, and figuring out how the frame will react to it, getting to that fine line where there’s detail, it’s not grainy, but there’s still a nice image.

“You’re always working with layers of light. It’s a wonderful show to work on that way, because you can screw around with day scenes and night scenes and basically play with it, do it however you want, to give it an odd or interesting look.”

Ransom is reluctant to offer any predictions about where the show will go from here.

“We’ve been joking about it — oh, what are you going to do now, killer palm trees?

“It’s going to be tough for whoever shoots the show. It was tough for me to start my shooting career with this show, and figure things out day in and day out. But that’s the great thing about this industry. You’re always learning.”

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