Posts Tagged ‘bill millar (visual effects supervisor)’

The X-Files Magazine: Fate Accompli

Feb-15-2000
The X-Files Magazine [US, #13, Spring 2000]
Fate Accompli
Gina Mcintyre

[Typed by Gayle]

After years of searching, Mulder finally learns the fate of his missing sister in The X-Files’ most emotional mythology two-parter to date

A nearly opaque cloud of manufactured mist fills the wide, open expanse of Stage eight on the Twentieth Century fox lot. A strong, circular light cuts through the haze like halogen beams through a night fog, illuminating a rectangular, wooden set that resembles a train car from Santa’s workshop on some exaggerated scale. While dozens of people scurry from place to place inside the considerable shadow cast by the box car, director Kim Manners stands on the other side of the stage, walking in circles around production designer Corey Kaplan and visual effects supervisor Bill Millar. Waiting for the final preparations for this morning’s scene to be completed, the forward-thinking Manners is already planning the exact choreography of a complicated camera move still days away on the production schedule, with the pair of department heads standing in for Mulder and Scully.

The whole place is a hive of activity. It’s the beginning of the second day of shooting on “Closure,” the second of a two-part episode that finally reveals what really happened to Agent Mulder’s missing sister Samantha. The shows begin with the story of a young California girl, Amber Lynn LaPierre, who disappears one night under peculiar circumstances. The case draws the attention of Mulder, who is struck by its similarities to Samantha’s alleged abduction. Driven, the agent and his devoted partner Scully are drawn deeper into the child’s case and after much searching, ultimately uncover a life-changing truth. For years, Chris Carter has indicated that his master plan for The X-Files includes the explanation for Samantha’s fate, which has been central to the ongoing narrative since the pilot episode. His quest to discover what terrible circumstances befell his beloved sister has spurred Mulder onward through countless adventures, his will resolute and unyielding. But penning the episodes that would once and for all explicate the mystery proved more challenging than Carter and his writing partner executive producer Frank Spotnitz had anticipated. In breaking the story, the pair directed the storyline onto an entirely new path, borrowing a phrase from German philosopher martin Heidegger that translates as “being in time” as the title for the first episode.

“I don’t think [Chris] thought he would tell a story that said exactly this,” Spotnitz explains. “We’re still going to the same place in the end, but I think we found a slightly different way of getting there. We kind of stumbled upon it at the last minute, honestly. We sat down to do this two-parter and these are the post-conspiracy mythology episodes, sot hey tend to be simpler. We wanted it to be a case that became a mythology episode, rather than just starting out a mythology episode. We found a way into the Samantha story and I think we ended up going further in explaining what happened to her earlier than we expected to. It was exciting to do. I think it feels very reality based, this-could-be-happening-in-your-city kind of thing, which was very appealing to us about the story. It’s always been Chris’ maxim of telling stories that seem real, and this seems very real in the beginning and it gets more fantastic.”

While the episodes unquestionably belong to The X-Files mythology, they do not involve conspiracies, aliens or Cigarette Smoking Men – even though the CSM does briefly appear. Instead, the two-parter closely examines Mulder’s emotional state, resulting in a gripping tale that afforded leads David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson the opportunity to showcase their acting talents.

“Right before they received the scripts, I called to prepare the actors for what was coming, and I think they’ve welcomed it,” Spotnitz says. “I think they look forward to scripts like this because so many of the episodes are about the cases and that honestly is what’s most interesting to us about the mythology shows. They can be about Mulder and Scully as characters more than investigators.”

Manners, at least for the time being, is more concerned about logistical issues and exacting camera work – the nuts and bolts of the operation – than how the actors will meet the emotional rigors of such sweeping important episodes. With dozens of X-Files outings under his belt and years of working with Duchovny and Anderson, the director is confident that each scene will take shape naturally under his lens.

“We haven’t really discussed it up front,” Manners says. “I think this is a story that we’re going to have to find together, David and I. As we shoot, I think that it will flesh itself out for both David and myself. It’s one of those. David, he’s not an actor that likes to plan or predict. He likes to find it on the day, which works well with me, especially in a story like this. It’s better to find it as we get there.”

“It’s a big story,” he adds. “I’m kind of excited to answer for everybody, myself included, what happened to Samantha. I’m handling it like I would any other script. I’m just trying to do my best work and tell the story the best I can.”

Assisting in that mission are the dozens of hard-working members of the series’ behind-the-scenes creative team, most of whom are presently toiling on one of three stages on the lot. Today, first unit begins filming at 9 a.m. on Stage Eight; then the company will move to the adjacent Stage Five, while second unit work for “Sein Und Zeit,” under the direction of co-executive producer Michael Watkins, is completed on Stage Six. The day will last well into the night.

Rarely does the shooting schedule see three stages in use (generally, The X-Files uses only Stages Five and Six); most of the time, at least one unit is out on location. But this has proven an exceptional year in many ways. Even while the fate of the series hangs in the balance – no official announcement has yet been made about a possible Season Eight – The X-Files has kicked into artistic overdrive, producing uncompromising, dark, outings and quirky, imaginative tales, as well as taking the mythology into unexpected areas. Crafting such an eclectic mix is sometimes unpredictable.

“It’s been different than last year, but actually more hectic,” says general foreman Billy Spires. “I don’t mean that in a bad way, but we have to have a lot more stuff ready sooner. We haven’t had any episode with one main set. It seems like there’s eight to 12 different sets every episode that we ‘re getting ready. You don’t get to enjoy the fruits of your labor as much when it has to be ready so quickly. Because of the lack of stage space, we have to take [a se] down sometimes the moment they’re done shooting either to revamp it or put something else there. “We work about 80 0ercent of the weekends,” he continues. “We’ll be working through this weekend on all the changeovers and the sets that have to be ready for Monday and Tuesday. And then we’re going to start prepping episode 12. We may have a break for a few hours but that’s only because the director hasn’t let the production designer know exactly what he wants. As soon as the prints come down to the trailer, it’s on.”

For “Sein Und Zeit”/”Closure,” property master Tom Day’s department was required to stage dozens of photographs of young Mulder and Samantha to appear at Mulder’s mother’s house, which meant finding six children to pose as the siblings at varying ages and inventing memorable poses suitable for framing.

“In this particular case, we had to go back beyond what we usually see of them into even younger and younger [ages], Day says. “In fact, one of my assistants, he has a son and a daughter who are roughly the same age relationship. We used his children as one of our groups of kids because his daughter is a 1 year-old infant. She’s got the chicken pox, right now, so it made for these really cute pictures of a big brother holding his little sister who’s got the chicken pox.”

The photographs, though time-consuming, were not the most challenging item Day was called upon to procure for the episodes. “In [“closure”], Mulder finds his sister’s diary,” Day says. “Considering how absolutely central to his entire series that relationship is and how important being able to read what she’s written is to that character, that is as huge a prop as we can be responsible for. It’s really got to be right on. That’s years worth of storylines and preparation leading up to that. As the prop department, we want that prop to be worthy of the years of build-up something like that gets.”

To find the perfect specimen, Day acquired countless diaries and journals, then headed to the show’s producers for feedback. “What I’ll do is I’ll start with Kim and say, ‘Kim, what works best for you as far as the logistics of shooting?’ Then I’ll get multiples of them and have them aged to varying degrees. We’ll do maybe one version that will have been attacked by mold and mildew, and the other version will be dusty and worn and aged, bleached looking from the elements. Once the director settles on what works for him, size and width and all those parts of it, I’ll age a few of them up to show the differences and then I will show them to Chris, Frank, and all the guys at Ten Thirteen.”

The scope of the two-parter – the LaPierre case leads Mulder to other similar cases all with a paranormal bent – is even affecting the workload of effects man Millar. Upon completing a blue screen sequence involving a young boy for the episode directed by Watkins, Millar must begin to procure the equipment necessary for the specialty camerawork featured in the final installment of the story. He, too, echoes Spires’ and Day’s sentiments about the frenzied pace of Season Seven.

“[‘Closure’] is probably the heaviest episode [in terms of visual effects], certainly of the last three seasons,” he says. “We probably have four day of motion control shooting to build [some supernatural entities] into moving plates and have them mingle with Mulder and Scully. Integrating all that is an object lesson in choreography and motion control acting and camera work. [In feature films], certain shots and scenes can take three to five days t set up and photograph, some longer than that. We’re being asked to do that kind of quality and essentially get our shots in half a day, which requires an immense amount of preplanning and a little bit of luck as well.”

To ensure that luck is on his side, Millar ways it is key to take advantage of the lead time he has, now nearly eight days. “Kim kind of previsualizes what he wants to do with certain scenes,” he says. “We talk and figure out the camera moves largely on paper. Kim wants to be able to move the camera though 360 degrees without giving any evidence that there was any kind of special camera in use. He wants it to look more like a hand-held shot. We figure out what configuration we need of camera and track and what kind of motion control camera we need, whether it’s a crane, whether it’s a crane built on top of a dolly, what axes of motion the camera needs to describe and how fast the dolly needs to move to get out of its own way so that when the camera turns around to photograph where the dolly was at the beginning of the shot, we’ve managed to move the dolly around to the other side of the room. All of this has to happen over and over again, and the camera has to be positioned for each pass within literally fractions of a millimeter from where it was, time after time after time in order for us to meld each of those plates together and not see any misregistration, lines or any perspective change that would five away that one of the entities in the scene was shot at a different time or place than everything else.”

According to Millar, that particular scene will take two to three hours to set up, roughly six hours to shoot and will require 40 to 50 hours of digital composting during post production to complete. It will appear on screen for less than 30 seconds.

The end result, of course, is worth the labor. Week after week, The X-Files continues to meet the standard of excellence demanded by Carter and the millions of fans who embraced the series as a watermark for television. If anything, the unparalleled ambition of episodes like “Sein Und Zeit” / “Closure” is raising the bar higher, challenging the crew to push themselves to reach new creative plateaus.

And viewers can continue to look forward to more of the same. Even though many of the series’ carefully guarded secrets have been revealed, some components of the ever elusive truth will remain out there and will take shape in even more remarkable forms. “There’s something more coming,” a confident Spotnitz says with a grin.

The X-Files Magazine: Going Hungry

Oct-??-1999
The X-Files Magazine [US, #11, Fall 1999]: Going Hungry
Gina McIntyre

[typed by Gayle]

In season seven’s first stand-alone, Vince Gilligan tells the tale of a monster’s tragic eating disorder. Vince Gilligan has everyone fooled. The X-Files writer/co-executive producer best known for quirky episodes like Seasons Four’s “Small Potatoes” and Season Five’s “Bad Blood” projects an unmistakable Southern charm; in person, he is amiable, easy-going, good-natured. But lurking somewhere deep within his psyche is a villainous imp. There must be. There’s simply no other explanation for how someone so unassuming could send property master Tom Day on a mission as revolting as hunting down real brains for the inaugural stand-alone episode of the series ‘ seventh year, the all-too-appropriately named “Hungry.”

The story of a monster in disguise who uses his part-time job slinging burgers to sate his unstoppable and quite literal appetite for the cerebral. “Hungry” is a throwback tot he show’s classic take on horror, with touches of Gilligan’s irrepressible wit thrown in for good measure. Although the episode will air third in the season line-up, scheduling demands mandated that it was the first to be filmed. As stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were both completing work on features they shot over the hiatus, a Mulder/Scully-light story was needed to begin the roster. Gilligan’s unusual and intriguing stand-alone offered the perfect solution.

“Originally, I wanted to do a story about a monster from the monster’s point of view,” the writer offers. “sort of like an episode of Columbo where you were following the bad guy throughout the show and then Columbo, or in this case Mulder, keeps coming in and asking questions that make it clear that he suspects our main guy. It seemed like a fun idea. What I really wanted to do, if it really worked correctly [was] to have it by the end of the show [that] you’re rooting for the monster. You’re sort of not happy every time Mulder and Scully show up because you don’t want the poor guy to get caught. I don’t know if it will work like that when you watch it but that was the intention.”

X-Philes displeased at the intrusion of their favorite agents? The unlikely prospect made Gilligan’s task that much more formidable. To capture the pair’s signature chemistry without using them as the center of the narrative, the writer employed inventive storytelling devices.

“It was a very interesting experiment.” Gilligan admits. “By the time I got through it I was realizing that this is why we don’t tell stories this way, because Mulder and Scully get so little screen time in comparison. I don’t know how much the fans are going to like this one. I hope the do and they see [that] at least we tried something different. I’m real proud of it. The fans so like Mulder and Scully, so enjoy watching then on screen together, and this episode by virtue of the fact that it had a different structure to it, they’re on screen much less. I mean they still have that Mulder/Scully dynamic and yet I had to be very scrupulous about only showing it from this guy’s point of view.”

While Gilligan’s script offers yet another approach to the classic X-Files formula, it also helped ease the crew back into the routine of shooting television’s most cinematic series. Nearly everyone working on the L.A. set praises the episode not only for its ingenuity, but for the fact that it allowed them the rare opportunity to gradually work back into the show’s frenetic pace. Rather than exhausted seniors battling final exam week with too little sleep and too much caffeine, the principals seem more like classmates reunited on the playground after a relaxing, homework-free summer.

Not that there’s a dearth of activity on Stages Five and Six on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, The X-Files’ home when not shooting on location. On this, the sixth of eight days of first unit photography on “Hungry,” the construction team has been toiling since 5 a.m. to strike the various sets no longer needed for the episode, make changes to existing pieces and begin planning for what the next script will bring. Music from an unseen radio blares from across the stage; sawdust litters the air, seen only in the rays of sun streaming in from the open doors at either side of the building. Voices call to one another, sharing jokes and plans for lunch.

In the midst of this bustle, Day enters the safe confines of his office, which is nestled along the side of Stage Six, camouflaged in part by Mulder’ s apartment and various props and pieces of set dressing. After enjoying a pleasant summer hiatus, Day admits he was ready to get back into the swing of things, but was quite astonished to learn what Gilligan had in store for him.

“Fried brains, that was one of the highlights,” Day says, shaking his head. “At one point, we need to simulate human brains. We actually had a brain test day where we went out to the different meat-packing places and brought in a bunch of your different varmints’ brains, cow and pig and sheep, to see which one would look the best and which one would sit on the set properly.”

Given that Day has been working in the industry for years, one might think that brain detail would be less grisly that it sounds. Not so, he says. It was possibly the most grotesque assignment to ever come his way. “It’s right up there,” he says, “It took some getting used to. It took a leap of faith to jump in and say this will all work just fine. I talked to the medical technician on Chicago Hope because they use all kinds of animal parts, stuff you could even go to the market and buy. Obviously when you’re simulating surgery you have to have something. I talked to them about what’ s best to sue for rain. We found steer brain worked best. They could have had [special effects make-up coordinator] John Vulich whip out some brains, but I don’t know in all honesty if it would have looked the same. It looked great for what we were doing with it. It was perfect.”

For his part, Gilligan felt no remorse at sending Day on his stomach-turning errand. “They love this stuff.!” He says with a smirk, “I think they said they used steer brains. I would have thought they’d be too big, but I guess not. I mean they’re not super-smart animals, but their heads are so big you ‘d think their brains would be bigger than ours. That was pretty funny. Then they have to cook them once they’re out there. They have to put them on a hot grill. I don’t know what brains do when you grill them. People eat calves’ brains. I’ve never had them. I don’t know what they taste like.”

If there’s brain on the grill, you might guess which of the X-Files stable of directors would be behind the lens. Infamous for his affection for the gruesome, the tireless Kim Manners found in “Hungry” material he could really sink his teeth into, aside from its horrific menu. As odd as it might sound, the script is actually a subtle character study about one man’s seemingly futile struggle to conquer insurmountable odds.

“I think they tailor made it for me,” the director says. “It’s one of mine. I’m having a good time with it. I had a good time off and I’m feeling really fresh. Normally when I do my first show of a season, you come in with butterflies and you’re always a little frightened. It’s been two or three months without directing, talking to actors, pointing the camera, but I feel like my brain’s on Viagra. I’m very, very excited. I’m getting great film and great performances, and that’s what it’s about.”

According to Manners, guest star Chad E. Donella, who portrays peculiar anti-hero Rob Roberts, is responsible for one of those “great performances.” The actor, whose previous television appearances include stints on such impressive series as ER and the Practice, recently completed work on Flight 180, the feature debut of X-Files vets Glen Morgan and James Wong, perhaps accounting for his ability to key into the show’s dark spirit. “Chad is an outstanding actor.” Manners raves. “He’s really carrying this episode, [Because] the episode is from Rob Roberts’ point of view, the ball is really in Chad’s court. He’s doing tremendous job.”

Of course, man cannot become monster alone. To truly assume the aspect of an otherworldly creature, one needs special effects – and lots of ’em. Supervising Donella’s transformation from mild-mannered fast-food employee to intimidating and ravenous fiend are FX make-up artist Greg Funk and visual effects maven Bill Millar. Prosthetically, the monster is comprised of three separate pieces-a forehead appliance, a bald cap and a nose piece. To completely transform the actor into his hideous alter-ego took nearly three hours, Funk says, adding that the metamorphosis was complicated because certain scenes required Donella to remove portions of the make-up himself.

“He has a disguise on and he takes all the pieces off,” Funk explains. “It can’t just be a make-up job-boom, he’s the monster. We’ve got to make it so a human disguise comes off revealing this monster, almost kind of Mission Impossible-like without pulling a whole mask right off. He pulls off little ears, takes [his] wig off. Kim was very specific. He said, ‘It’s gotta be good.'”

One of the creature’s most distinguishing attributes is its rows of deadly teeth, which it uses to extract sustenance from its victims. The lethal incisors had to be fashioned digitally by Millar. “The monster has shark-like teeth, several rows of them, which are seen to slide in and out of his jaw as he opens his mouth,” he says. “He covers that with an artificial set of dentures which makes it look as though he had normal teeth. He removes those teeth and we see nothing but gums and then these razor-sharp rows of teeth slide out of the gums. To build that prosthetically would have been difficult and also would have extended the gum to the end of the actor’s [real] teeth, which would have looked somewhat strange. We’re doing all that digitally and enhancing the mouth and shortening the practical teeth digitally and then introducing the shark teeth. They’ll be a digital composite generated with CGI teeth and tracked into the mouth.”

Finding a place for all this monster business to occur fell to locations manager Ilt Jones. After scouring Southern California for a restaurant that would employ a brain-eating monstrosity, he stumbled onto a Mom and Pop-owned hamburger stand named Lucky Boy in a working class Los Angeles neighborhood called Southgate.

“There’s a Greek family who owned it for 38 years,” Jones says. “It’s actually one of the first burger joints in L.A. It was right around the time of the first McDonald’s, 1948, [that] they built it. It’s actually something of a landmark in the neighborhood. It’s much nicer than your average generic Burger King or something like that. It’s got a huge neon sign, lots of fun lights. It’s got a great look. I’m happy to have found that. I combed L.A. looking for burger joints because none of the big boys wanted to touch us. Curiously enough, McDonald’s didn’t want to be associated with somebody who ate brains.”

After Jones discovered the kitschy locale, the rustic restaurant was given a slight overhaul by construction coordinator Duke Tomasick and his crew. “We had a lot of work to do at the restaurant,” Tomasick says. “We had to make it what it needed [to be] for the script. We were down there for five working days. We took an average-looking restaurant, and we made it nice. We repainted everything, brought in a lot of greens, made some new signs. The owner of the place is probably happy.”

Except for the fact that there was a monster working behind the grill luring unsuspecting customers to their deaths, the owners were undoubtedly pleased. (At least the monster was kind enough to vacate the premises when filming wrapped.) For the scene in which the creature claims its first victim, the restaurant’s drive-thru was used as a clever snare for an unsuspecting unnamed “Hungry Guy.” As the man drives to the open take-out window, the equally hungry monster snatches him from his car for a quick bite.

The sequence, which serves as the episode’s teaser, was shot in the wee hours of a mid-August Saturday morning, explains stunt coordinator Danny Weselis. For the scene, Weselis used a double in the place of the actor cast as Hungry Guy, the stuntman wore a vest-like harness that was rigged with a cable underneath the costume. “From the camera you couldn’t see the cable,” Weselis says. “You see his whole body leaning out of the car. We had three effects men on the other end. We had fall pads inside [the restaurant] so when he got pulled through the window, he actually slid across the countertop and landed on the top of the fall pads. On the count of three, they pulled, he was out of the car, through the window.”

At that point, the script called for the drivers car to creep forward. Obviously, a real runaway car is far too much of a danger on a television set, so Weselis climbed on the floor and took control of the wheel. The only catch was he couldn’t see where he was going. Fortunately, the stunt went off without a hitch.

“As he goes through the window I was lying in the car blind-driving it,” he explains. “I took the driver’s seat out of the car, lay on the floor, covered myself in black so you couldn’t see me. I could just barely look out of the top of the windshield. When [my stuntman] got yanked out of the car, I just sort of crept forward, went out the driveway and made a slight left turn and he headed across the street. Traffic was blocked, obviously. I just ran into the curb.”

In addition to driving an out-of-control vehicle, “Hungry” required the enterprising Weselis to dispose of a corpse-in broad daylight with witnesses, no less. As he devises a way to tackle this latest obstacle, a group of onlookers gathers across the street from the apartment building in the trendy L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz where the production has moved for the day.

Watching from beneath a black tarp, Manners, sporting a white X-Files T-shirt and his new short haircut, sits surrounded by a barrage of camera equipment, artificial tree limbs and an assortment of black and white trash bags stuffed with paper. Soon, he and the stunt coordinator discuss Weselis ‘ carefully choreographed designs for tossing the body of stuntwoman Annie Ellis out with the garbage. Unrecognized beneath the remarkable work of Emmy-award winning make-up team Cheri Montesanto-Medcalf and Kevin Westmore, the normally sun-tanned and svelte Ellis has assumed the identity of the unfortunate Sylvia Jassy, a nosy neighbor who falls prey to the monster’s malignant hunger. Dressed in a flowered house dress and covered with layers of padding, Ellis undergoes final touch-ups, which include being doused in even more fake blood, before climbing into a trashcan.

“We put her inside one of those big trashcans, like the ones outside residential areas, and the trash truck’s going to pick her up,” Weselis says. “Inside the trash truck, we’ve got fall pads and boxes with padding in there. We’re going to slowly dump her in. She’s got a big, nice area to fall into. It’s a brand new truck, actually. It’s not one of those old ones. I already tested it out myself a couple of weeks ago, got the arc of the trashcan and put a pad in there. It’s over pretty quick, and you’ve got a big landing area. There’s no problem with that.”

He’s right. Despite having to repeat the action four times, Ellis escapes unharmed and manages to stage her landing perfectly for the camera. Manners repeatedly praises her, and pleased, the crew breaks for an early lunch – promptly at 3:30 p.m. Over his meal, Manners discusses the myriad components that comprise his first Season Seven outing, the out-and-out horror, the black humor, the poignant tragedy of Rob Roberts’ dual nature. It’s a potent mix and one that the director seems quite confident will find a place in the hearts of X-Philes.

“I think the fans are going to love the show because it’s scary,” he states. “We’re having a chance to shoot scary, [with] tight eyes, a guy waiting, points of view, a lot of tension. I think that’s what the fans like. I know it’s what I like as an audience member. I want to do more shows like ‘Home’-shows that when the audience turns them off they go, ‘Wow,'” Manners says, adding, “I think that’s what I’m going to try to do this year.”

The X-Files Magazine: Heart and Souls

Dec-08-1998
The X-Files Magazine [US, #8, Winter 1998]
Heart and Souls
Gina McIntyre

The Cool View Motel is not the kind of place you would expect to find outside the balmy, bustling activity of Los Angeles. A breeze rustles leaves belonging to a thick stand of trees nearby. The gravel lot shifts uncomfortably as the occasional truck rumbles over its skin. The decor is anything but trendy. The Cool View us a rustic stop somewhere in the middle of nondescript territory. Its only distinguishing feature on this mid-October evening is the remarkable sunset consuming the Western sky, an explosion of red hues that is the inadvertent result, a random passerby mentions, of the brush fire that erupt from this site earlier in the day.

Outside the building’s perimeter, people assemble. The chattering of countless walkie talkies drowns out the night’s more natural sounds. Spectators gather in the artificial illumination originating from sets of powerful lights. It could be anywhere, but this rural locale is actually the location set of The X-Files’ first foray into romantic comedy, an episode called “The Rain King” penned by Season Six writing recruit Jeff Bell, that just might ruin producer/director Kim Manners’ reputation as “The Horror King.”

Manners, renowned for gruesome offerings such as the now famous Season Four outing “Home”, is unconcerned. In fact, he’s pleased to contribute to the eclecticism that is rapidly coming to define the series’ Sixth Season.

“It’s a sweet little story,” he explains. It’s got a lot of compassion, a lot of pathos, and it’s very funny. We’ve got some great characters. It all revolves around this weather man, Holman Hardt, who for 20 years has repressed his feelings for Sheila Fontaine. You know how people’s emotions and how they feel are affected by the weather, well it’s just the opposite here. The way Holman feels affects the weather. It’s really quite a clever script.”

Clever and different from traditional X-Files subject matter, “The Rain King” is indicative of the kind of unexpected episodes in store for the show’s devoted fans. Never afraid to take risks, Chris Carter and his new Los Angeles based crew have challenged themselves to push the series’ boundaries even further this year to deliver the most compelling television possible. So far, they’ve tackled car chases, time travel and body switching with equal aplomb; with the Valentines Day episode “The Rain King” and the Chris Carter brainchild “How The Ghost Stole Christmas,” they turn they attention toward creating paranormal greeting cards for the holidays.

Even as Manners is putting the finishing touches on his remaining second unit work, X-Files mastermind Carter is himself toiling inside the confines of a supposedly haunted house (no, really) in out-of-the-way Piru. A comedy of errors of sorts, the imaginative episode takes place on Christmas Eve and features only four characters: Mulder, Scully and two mischievous characters played by guest stars Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner.

The differences between the two episodes, which were shot in sequence, even though “Rain King” will not air until next year, were not lost on the crew. The first episode required them to find dozens of locations, build and decorate a number of sets, not to mention create snow and hail storms and stage a car crash on a deserted stretch of highway.

“We have to make it hail on the entire roadway while a guy’s driving a car and loses control and crashes it in a hail storm,” Manners sighs, largely unaffected by the daunting task. “This is my 27th one of these. I kind of giggle because it’s always big. We’ve done it. Nothing scares us anymore. You get a huge ice-chipping machine, then you get three of them. We put them on 40-foot flat bed trucks. We use 300 pound blocks of ice. It’s like a wood chipper. You throw it into the chipper and it blows then up into the air and it lands on the cars and you have to drive these machines along with the car. They’ve got to get the hail between the camera lens and on the car and in the foreground. As it doesn’t work, my lenses get tighter and tighter and tighter, so I’m shooting narrower and narrower and narrower. You get very wet, very cold and the ice hurts when you’re driving in it and it’s hitting you in the back of the head.”

Jeff Bell admits he was astonished at what it took to realize his creative vision. “Frank [Spotnitz] really encouraged me to be on the set the whole time, which has been a great learning experience, seeing how they do it, seeing how big it is,” he says. “I had no idea it was this big. Here’s one example. We make it rain one day, and so you write the word ‘rain.’ You don’t think it takes 25,000 gallons of water and three cranes to do that. You don’t think it’s 50 tons of ice, three ice chippers and about 40 guys throwing ice, staying up all night as you do it. Sort of the reality of how a simple word can become [something that] takes a lot of labor, it just makes you think about what you write next time.”

Watching as his script was carefully shaped into being, Bell says, was ultimately more rewarding because he had poured so much effort into painstakingly crafting the quirky story. “This is so specific,” he explains. “To balance two points of view, the paranormal with the rational, have them both sort of half right, is incredibly difficult. I had no idea it was this hard. I think the writers/producers here are terrific, and now I see how hard they work to make it that good.”

As Manner’s team bravely suffered the barrage of their own ice storm, the first unit crew preparing Carter’s episode had somewhat the opposite problem. The day before the episode began filming on location at the Piru mansion, a sizable California brush fire broke out.

“It was like Vietnam because there were six of those big yellow and red water dropping planes circling around dropping water on the hillside and then there were about six helicopters doing the same thing,” marvels location manager Ilt Jones. “At one stage, the fire got within 500 feet of the house and we were standing in the backyard with Venture County fireman watching these huge 30-foot flames leaping up behind the eucalyptus trees and saying, ‘Are you sure this is going to be O.K.?’ They said, ‘Oh sure, it’ll burn itself out in an hour’ Sure enough that area right behind the house burnt out within an hour or two, so the house was saved. It was amazing because the whole of the hillside was lit up, only half a mile away.” “After something like the fourth episode, Frank Spotnitz called and said, ‘Great work guys. It’s amazing what you do.’ I said, ‘Yeah, they’re pretty exhausted but happy.’ Joking, I said, ‘You could do us a favor and do a “My Dinner with Scully” [episode]. Let everybody have a break.’ If you’ve ever seen the movie My Dinner with Andre, it’s one set. So Frank said, ‘You know thats a good idea.’ They call this Christmas episode ‘My Dinner with Scully.’ This is the break. When I found out this was the episode, I said, ‘Well, there’s one small catch: The only people who didn’t get a break were the art department because they had to build this house!”

The house in question is the beautifully recreated library, complete with working fireplace, of the Piru mansion. All teasing aside, Kaplan says she and her team are happy to have been able to collaborate on such an elaborate set. “To be honest with you, the art department is so pleased to have had a chance to put so much quality woodwork into a set. Everybody feels proud. They take a look and it feels like an art piece.”

Construction coordinator Duke Tomasick echoes her sentiments. In only eight days, a crew of roughly 50 people-painters, plasterers, carpenters, laborers- built the library from scratch. “”we’ve got a good crew who came in and got it done. It’s a beautiful set. I knew it would be. I couldn’t wait to do it. I was hoping we would build something. At first they were talking about finding a practical location, but I think Chris wanted a lot more ability to shoot it and with all the trick stuff I don’t think they could have found a location that would work, so we created it.”

Mid-Afternoon, mid-week on Stage Six. Chris Carter walks through the replica library ensuring that everything will be ready when David Duchovny and Lily Tomlin arrive on set. Nearby, visual effects supervisor Bill Millar stands waiting to answer any questions about how to adjust camera angles or lights to make Tomlin’s entrances and exits more dramatic and spooky.

“We decided that [she] appears usually in flashes of lightning, which is obviously practical, so we shoot background plates different frame rates, different camera speeds, then shoot the production plates to match those and introduce [her character] selectively in post-production. Most effects on this series are acquired as 35mm images and then scanned into the digital domain and we manipulate them there. Even the effects we plan wholly as production visual effects we tend to enhance a bit later on,” Millar explains.

Last minute changes, which are not out of the ordinary, require Millar to stay close by as the shots are set up and completed. Even before the actors arrive on set, the effects supervisor spends time discussing new ideas with perfectionist Chris Carter. “We have Lily disappear in one shot and she’d been holding Mulder at bay with his own service revolver,” Millar says. “Now rather than just disappearing, he wants her to disappear selectively, a little bit at a time, leaving the gun hanging in the air, which will then drop and Mulder will catch it. The original script idea was that she would just disappear and take the gun with her. It’s a nice idea. It just means we have to rig things slightly differently. We need to be able to isolate the gun on the set so that we can move the actors independently of it.”

Costume designer Christine Peters explains that it was her job to construct Tomlin’s replica turn of the century gown to enhance her antique look. “Lily’s [dress] had to be made,” she explains. “She had to be [dressed in turn-of-the-century [garb], and we couldn’t exactly find that anywhere, so we had to make it and we had to have doubles, so it had to be made. We couldn’t just rent it from a costume house or something. It’s a direct copy of two separate pieces. We used the back of one gown I found and the front of another. The sleeves and the front are a copy of an old silk piece that’s from the 1890’s and the back is a copy of a separate piece.”

Complicating matters further, Peter’s continues, was the fact that Tomlin’s guest-star role was not finalized until the day she was to begin shooting. “She came in Friday night for a fitting to work on Monday afternoon,” she says adding that the consumers took the liberty of working ahead to ensure that the costume was ready. “We decided what the costume was going to look like before the actress was even cast. We cheated and called another costume house and got [Tomlin’s] measurements. We pretty much knew it was going to be her, so we started without her. We decided if anything changed, we’d change accordingly.”

As Lily taunts a bewildered Mulder over and over again to capture just the right camera angle and just the right vocal intonation on film, the busy second unit team assembles a high-school gymnasium set for the final day of shooting on “The Rain King” on adjacent Stage Five.

What that means for set decorator Tim Stepeck and his crew is recreating piece by piece the set that they first built on location, much as they were required to do for “How the Ghost Stole Christmas.” When the set is as elaborate as a high-school reunion, though, that prospect can be more difficult than it sounds. “Half of that gym is being re-shot, and we had to build the gym on that stage,” he explains. “The Rain King” was actually the hardest episode for my department. I think that it was dressing all whole big high school reunion dance and then doing the corridors here on stage on top of doing the bathrooms on stage. It was like eight sets a day. The good thing is with the crew and I have, pretty much anything these writers throw at us, they seem to surpass it.”

That tireless dedication is something Manner’s is also quick to praise. “It’s really a good crew,” he says. “I think part of their stamina comes from being part of the excitement in being part of the best show on TV. We thought that there would be a longer learning curve in getting the crew hip to what we do here on The X-Files, and as it turned out, boy, by the end of the first episode, they knew very quickly what they were up against and they responded.”

When second unit shooting at the reunion wraps in the wee hours of the morning, the actors will depart, the crew will travel home for some much deserved rest and Bell’s script will be complete, sending the writer back to the storyboard to brainstorm a concept for his next episode. For the time being, however, Bell is just happy that he could contribute a script that would add a new dimension to the series he’s watched for so long. “It’s an X-File/Love Story. Of course when Mulder and Scully sleep together in my episode, I think it’s going to shock everyone,” Bell dead pans, trying to stifle a sly smile. “And then the fact that everyone dies is probably more shocking. But isn’t that what a great X-File is? Anyone can die at any moment?”