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Archive for August, 1995

Sci-Fi on the Net: Interview with Chris Carter

Sci-Fi on the Net
Interview with Chris Carter

INTERVIEWER: Richard Van Syckle, segment producer, c|net television

PARTICIPANT: Chris Carter, creator, executive producer, “The X- Files”

VAN SYCKLE: To start with, you’ve said that winning the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Series, you were so stunned that it was sort of an “X-Files” experience in itself. Now that you’ve learned that, has the shock worn off or are you still surprised by success?

CARTER: I’m surprised by every day. It’s almost like I haven’t really lifted my head up. I’m still running so hard and just trying to do good work that all the good things and the awards and now the nominations haven’t really landed on me yet. But I think that’s a good thing. Also, it says a lot about my main motivation, which is my fear of failure. But I just try to do the best shot I possibly can, and the good things have come as a result. I don’t look at them as the carrot, I look at them as sort of things that have–the path to all the hard work.

VAN SYCKLE: In terms of this success, filling out into mediums you might not have even envisioned before, such as online, what has that been like with this whole new other world of online fans?

CARTER: It’s funny. “The X-Files,” it was perfect timing but it was a fluke, really. Here’s this huge, growing thing in America and around the world, which is these computer online services, the growth of these and the Internet. And “The X-Files” just happened to come along and come of age with those things. So, it seems like the perfect show at the perfect time with the perfect medium, which is this online service. Also, our audience is a very computer-literate audience mostly, I’m imagining. So, it’s a natural that we would be, I think, really the first show to have such a great following. I’ve used it as a tool; they use it as a tool. It’s a great way to interact immediately with your audience, hear what they’re thinking, and to tell them what you’re thinking.

VAN SYCKLE: I read an interview with Rob Bowman, that he said, “We wish we had time to put everything into the show that the online fans read into it.” Tell me about that.

CARTER: Well, yeah, it’s funny. It’s like literary criticism. A lot of times I’m sure the writers had no idea that they would have their material parsed and picked over so tediously. Sometimes there are things there that maybe you put in unconsciously; sometimes there are things you put there very consciously. I put in a few–actually, the season finale–that no one ever picked up. So, as much as they see things that aren’t there, they don’t see things that are there, either. So it’s an interesting thing for me.

VAN SYCKLE: How does that dynamic work in terms of the two-way communication, the interactivity? And do you feel like you have help out there creating this “X-Files” mythology, in terms of the fans?

CARTER: Not really. I mean, I have a very strong idea as to the other writers about how the show should progress and evolve, and so I listen out there to what people are saying. I look at their reactions to things. But I’m ahead of them, because I know far in advance where the show is going and they don’t. They can only react to what we show them. I listen to what their criticisms are–what they like, what they don’t like–and I take those things all to heart and I incorporate them. But there are no ideas that I’ve taken off the Internet, no direction I’ve taken off the Internet, although there’s plenty of help I could have gotten from the fans online about how to take the season finale–which was a cliff hanger–how to finish it, how to follow up, how to end that story. There was no end of speculation on how I might do it and how I should do it.

VAN SYCKLE: Do you think that having characters, like the Lone Gunmen, who use the Internet, who are very literate–lots of references to hackers in “The X-Files”–do you think that it’s fun for the fans to see themselves or see people they’d like to be?

CARTER: Yeah. I think that those are sort of caricatures of the hard core fans. I think that most of the people that I meet, particularly at the conventions, aren’t quite that extreme. The Lone Gunmen–actually, they were created by two writers on the show who have now since left, Glen Morgan and James Wong. I think that they were inspired by the UFO conventions that we all went to and some of these other functions where you see a lot of very extreme characters selling extreme pamphlets and literature. There’s just a lot of paranoia out there and I think the Lone Gunmen became the representatives of that kind of person.

VAN SYCKLE: I know you’ve probably just been besieged by UFO fanatics and there definitely is a fringe which runs in that site, but I’m thinking of the poster in Mulder’s office that says, “I want to believe.” It doesn’t say “I do believe” or “I don’t believe” but “I want to.” Do you think that that sort of represents something that you’ve tapped into in this show out there, that there are people who want to believe?

CARTER: Well, I created that poster for the pilot and really it sort of represents my personal–I don’t know if you can call it a philosophy–my personal bias, bent. I describe myself as a nonreligious person looking for a religious experience. I want an experience, I want to find something to believe in, I want something to occur to me, I want to see something out in the desert some night that I can’t explain. I’m desperate for that experience and so is Agent Mulder. He wants to know the truth; he wants to be able to believe in these things that are rather unbelievable. So, on the flip side of that is Agent Scully, who is the skeptic, the person who refuses to believe in anything that cannot be proven scientifically, the two different sides of my character, which make a nice sort of dichotomy for the show.

VAN SYCKLE: I’ve heard some interviews in which Gillian and David talk about their own personal characters, as opposed to who they play, and it’s interesting, especially with Mitch Pileggi, who has had what you would describe as a paranormal experience. Gillian is sort of more on the believer side, and the roles reverse. Tell me about them bringing their own personalities and their own beliefs into their characters.

CARTER: None of them really bring their own beliefs into the characters, I don’t think. I think that they play the characters that are written for them and they play them very well. And they know those characters very well, so they’re able to, as actors, perform. They don’t have to bring their own belief systems. Actually, it’s very interesting to play something different than yourself. I know it’s interesting for David and for Gillian, Gillian being the believer playing the skeptic and David being the nonbeliever, basically, playing a person who is willing to take these giant leaps of faith. So, I think that it’s a testament to them as actors that they are able to sort of pull it off. But you’re right, the people and the actors are much, much different.

VAN SYCKLE: There’s a show right now on the Sci-Fi Channel that they’re rerunning, the old “Prisoner” series. And they’re doing that with the interactive chat, where they’re having people log on and it’s sort of like a collective Mystery Science Theater 3000 that you participate in. Do you think this sort of blend between computer technology and real time and science fiction and television, does that interest you at all? Is that going anywhere in a direction that you might be interested in, or what do you think about that?

CARTER: You know, not really, because it really verges on too science fiction-y for me. It’s really not what we do. I think we’re kind of a cross-genre show. You really can’t peg us. Even though I actually like that show and I remember liking it when it was on, it’s not something that inspires me or I think is something that I would ever get into. I was never a science fiction fan. I spoke to a group of people the other night, a Mensa group, and they were very upset that I’d never seen an episode of “Star Trek.” They actually hissed me, you know, sort of in jest. But I’m just not a science fiction fan. It’s never interested me. I’m really interested in personal experiences that could affect me in this place and time. I think that’s what makes “The X-Files” so scary–it seems very, very real.

VAN SYCKLE: Last question, I’ve gone through [the Internet], I’ve seen the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade, “X-Files” on Ice, “X-Files” Christmas Carols. I think I pay too much attention to this, but do you have a favorite site out there? Do you check into any of these things ever?

CARTER: You know, I don’t. I have my basic DelPhi site because of the “X-Files” connection to DelPhi, but I’m all over the place. I have to say I’m actually one of these online illiterates. I sort of stumble around, fumble around, and find my way into different things. I have no favorite spot; I’m just all over the map. Actually, it’s funny, for as much popularity as there is for the online services and for this kind of communication now, it’s funny to me that it’s actually a step backwards in technology. It feels to me more like we’ve gone back to the telegraph but in a kind of high-tech way. I’m very interested to see how the technology develops and how I can use it more creatively. I’m interested in this real-time video that I hear is going to be happening. All this stuff sounds very interesting to me as it progresses. But right now, I think it almost seems gimmicky to me, in a way. I’m using it because it’s a tremendous communication tool, but I’m very anxious to see how we leap into the future.

In Camera: John Bartley shoots The X-Files on the edge of darkness

In Camera
John Bartley shoots The X-Files on the edge of darkness

[typed by Pam]

A lot of light can be needed to achieve darkness

In one episode of The X-Files, a character’s shadow vaporises anyone it touches. Another character begins smoking when sunlight reaches into his jail cell. No one has to utter the word, the audience already knows it: vampire.

That’s typical of how Director of Photography John Bartley CSC, talks to the audience with light and shadows. In many episodes, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully probe the darkness with xenon flashlights. Somehow the brilliant splashes of light knifing through the blackness add to the aura of suspense.

Mulder and Scully specialise in investigating the paranormal for the FBI. Bartley, who earned a 1994 nomination for Outstanding Artistic Achievement from the American Society of Cinematographers and a 1994 Emmy nomination, says THE X-FILES uses darkness as a character.

Interestingly enough, he may use plenty of lights to achieve all that darkness. His package includes HMIs, Dedolights, KinoFlos, MiniFlos, a wide variety of practicals and, of course, those famous xenon flashlights. The key is using light as a counterpoint to the darkness, emphasising what the audience can’t see (as opposed to most TV dramas, that concern themselves mostly with what can be seen).

“We actually blend light and dark,” he says. “Some things the audience can see, and other things they’re not sure if they saw them or not. It adds to the aura of mystery.”

To accentuate the foreground shadows, Bartley may add beams of coloured backlight and sidelight. They often pick up slowly — moving steam, adding to the eerie ambience.

Darkness definitely has its advantages. Like the time the crew had to shoot a scene of a submarine in the arctic circle — in the Vancouver, British Columbia studio that the show most often calls home. The crew blacked out the whole stage and positioned 6K HMIs on hydraulic lifts. As the camera changed positions, Bartley used a different light, always hidden by the submarine set. Most of what viewers could see was steam and silhouettes. That created the mood Bartley was after. Equally important, it hid the fact that the scene was fabricated on a soundstage.

“There was never more than a single light, and it was always hidden. The snow would bounce the light around,” Bartley explains. “But the periphery was always dark.”

That episode also introduced the xenon flashlights. In the corridor of the submarine, the camera picks up Mulder and Scully searching the vessel, illuminated only by the bounce from two visible shafts of light (the flashlights). The gaffers used Rosco pebble bounce to kick just enough light back into the characters to define them and leave a catch-light in their eyes.

Bartley routinely uses candles and other low-intensity practicals. They’re often the only sources serving the main characters in a scene. He consistently shoots on the edge of darkness, and relies on telecine operators, at Gastown Post and Transfer, in Vancouver, to maintain the visual integrity of the images he creates.

“I don’t use much fill,” Bartley says. “I started that on a series called Booker [Stephen J. Cannell’s 21 Jump Street spinoff/Richard Grieco vehicle]. With today’s EXR films I’ve been five stops underexposed, and have still recorded details in the highlights and shadow areas. I like to use the full latitude of the stock.

“Things have evolved over the past two years. It has become a challenge to take things dark, but not so they’re as dark as possible, because that doesn’t work on TV.”

Sometimes an editor will tell Bartley he can’t see what’s going on in a scene on the AVID monitor. But when Bartley checks the digital videotape, he finds enough detail to use the scene.

He lights interiors and night exteriors to a stop of T2.8. That produces plenty of challenges for Focus-Puller Marty McAnally, Bartley says, since the show uses some long lenses for tight closeups — anything from an 85 on the main camera to a 200 on the B camera — and to compress the foreground and background.

As for latitude, he exploits it at both ends, highlights and shadows alike. Case in point: scenes shot with apparent sunlight in the office of Assistant Director Skinner (Mulder’s boss). “Overall, it’s a dark show, but in Skinner’s office for a daytime interior, we have 2 x 20Ks coming in through the window, and the light on Skinner’s white shirt is something like a T-45, but we still shoot at T2.8 to capture the best flesh tones,” Bartley says.

“I love blowing out the highlights occasionally,” he continues. “We push the ratios to the limit, and push the film scanner. You really can’t bring a scene back when it’s that far overexposed, but somehow it holds well enough to work. It’s fun to see how far you can go.”

In addition to unusual lighting, he explores unusual visual perspectives to draw the audience into the story. In one episode he brings viewers into intimate contact with a character by zooming in on an ultra-tight shot of an eyeball. “We had a diopter on a zoom lens, and were wide open at T-3,” Bartley says. He was shooting with the 500-speed 5298 film.

In other episodes he chooses a wide-angle lens for closeups. “I’ve used 10mm and 14mm lenses, and the other day we used an 8.5mm lens,” Bartley says. “Shooting a very tight shot with an ultra-wide lens can open up the scene and give you a lot of visual impact.”

Shooting in Vancouver is a mixed blessing, Bartley says, but it is mostly a blessing. The city’s various neighbourhoods can substitute for a wide, wide variety of locales. “The storylines have taken the characters all over the US, to Puerto Rico and even up into the Arctic Circle,” Bartley explains. “But it’s really all shot right here. Vancouver can look like any city in North America.” The city is so far north that in the winter the sun never gets very high; that works for the crew, since the noon sun isn’t beating down on them from directly overhead, and Bartley can shoot throughout the day.

The downside is rain and snow. It’s omnipresent. But even that can work for a show like THE X-FILES. “We’ve been lucky with the weather. We’ve been in the forest during the rain, and we used it: we backlighted and used a lot of steam, and had lights panning across the frame as search lights,” Bartley says, explaining a scene that revolves around an alleged alien landing. The effect was chaotic, eerie and discomforting: vintage X-FILES.

The show is shot on 35mm film for a couple of reasons. Fox wanted to shoot the show in Super 35 format, providing a wide frame for future HDTV syndication. Using a large negative also gives Bartley the freedom to work with low-key lighting and maintain the richness of the show’s high-impact images.

“If we were shooting in a smaller format, we’d need a lot more light to keep grain from building up. That means we’d have to give up our minimalist approach to low-key lighting. We’ve done many scenes with just practicals. That’s living on the edge.”

And life on the edge is good. The X-Files first became a cult favourite, complete with fan clubs and discussion groups on the Internet. In its second season, Fox ordered 25 episodes (instead of the usual 22), and ratings continued to improve, up more than 40 per cent. It’s now the top-rated Friday night show among adults 18-49 in the US, and is seen in 60 countries. In describing the lighting for the jail scene in the vampire episode, Bartley may have touched on the reason. The scene employs a surreal colour palette. Through the first season, Bartley used colour sparingly; the show didn’t seem to lend itself to colour. But in the second year, he’s been more adventurous. He employed harder light than usual, along with super-blue fluorescent tubes for the jail cell scene.

“These tubes are so blue, you can’t even read them on a colour meter,” Bartley says. “Then I added just a little tungsten on their faces, and a very hard top light overhead. It doesn’t have to be a conventional sort of place. It doesn’t have to look real, or match anything. That makes things more interesting. I think it’s what makes The X-Files different.”

[Note: the film number 5298 mentioned in the text refers to Eastman EXR 500T film 5298.]


John Bartley, a native of Wellington, New Zealand, apprenticed in his homeland as a prop electrician in the theatre. He later moved to Australia to work at a television station and began lighting sets. When the wanderlust took him halfway around the world to Toronto, Canada, Bartley joined a production company as a gaffer. He freelanced for several years, working with, and studying under, cinematographers such as Sven Nykvist ASC, Bob Stevens ASC, Frank Tidy, Hiro Narita and Tak Fujimoto.

In 1988, he became a Director of Photography, shooting music videos on weekends and trailers for feature projects. “I was working every weekend,” he recalls. “It was really good to get out and shoot; I was gaffing during the week and shooting over the weekends.”

He made a living for a time shooting commercials of snowmobiles and snowblowers, then lucked into a low-budget feature that had lost its cameraman during pre-production. Eventually he moved into television, with such shows as Wiseguy, Booker, The Commish and now The X-Files.

He had completed two seasons as Director of Photography on The Commish when he met Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, and Charlie Goldstein from the Fox network. “Charlie used to be an editor,” says Bartley. “He understands what you need to keep a production looking its best.”