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Vancouver Sun: Harsh Realm

Vancouver Sun


8:17 a.m. Burly, bearded assistant director Vladimir (Val) Stefoff squints into the early morning sun, takes one look at a mockup of a bombed-out church near Cordova and Abbott streets and yells, Robin Williams-style: “Good mooorning, Vancooouver!”

9:03 a.m. A lighting technician asks cinematographer Joel Ransom if one of his colleagues is qualified to pull off a tricky camera move. Ransom: “If he knows the difference between four feet and five feet, then he can do the job.”

10:17 a.m. A studious-looking extra, dressed in a tattered, torn grey longcoat in his role as a Sarajevo refugee, is reading The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis while waiting for his scene to be shot. I later mention this to Harsh Realm writer-producer Chris Carter. “One of the things you learn quickly in this business,” he says, with a wry smile, “is that extras will do anything to get noticed.”

10:23 a.m. “I hate the sunshine,” key grip Al Campbell says, casting a sour look at the uncharacteristically clear sky. The crew anticipated rain; now they will have to fake a cloudy sky in case it rains the next day.

2:10 p.m. Props assistant Ina Brooks wanders around the set with a plastic bag filled with earplugs while armourer Rob Fournier unpacks a crate of M16s. “For my protection and your protection,” Brooks intones loudly while handing out the plugs. Most of the crew take her up on her offer.

2:12 p.m. How can people communicate with each other if they have plugs stuck in their ears? Ransom: “We just kind of make it up as we go along.”

2:41 p.m. I pick up a prop M16 and feel the cheap, plastic workmanship where one would expect metal. I imagine real M16s are much heavier, I tell Fournier. “That is a real one,” he replies.

3:41 p.m. Joanne Service, Carter’s assistant in Vancouver for five years before leaving with the departure of The X-Files, blocks her ears for an upcoming shot. “Has it happened yet?” she asks plaintively, and uncovers her ears. The quiet is instantly shattered by a hail of gunfire.

4:10 p.m. Gaffer Richard (Bucky) Buckmaster proudly shows off his three-month-old son to an admiring crew. “Good thing it looks like him,” Campbell says. “I wonder when he had the time to do that?” “Too many hour lunches,” Carter replies.

5:03 p.m. A woman’s voice, seemingly disconnected, heard above the noise: “I’m getting a headache from all this gunfire.”

5:17 p.m. A props assistant spills a bag of Cheezies all over the street and sheepishly scoops them up, one by one.

“Yeah, spill Cheesy Poofs all over a Sarajevo street, why don’t you?” another technician says, witnessing the scene. “That’ll look real good in continuity.”

5:46 p.m. “We’re losing the light,” co-executive producer Tony To announces. By now, everybody is too tired — and too cold — to block their ears against the gunfire.

7:10 p.m. “I lose the kids at 7:30,” To tells director Daniel Sackheim, referring to an industry rule that says young actors can work no later than that hour. “We wrap at 7:30.”

8:45 p.m. Shooting wraps.


7:08 a.m. The day dawns pissing with rain, a biting wind blowing hard from the east. Production manager George Grieve folds his arms and regards the sky unhappily. “It could be worse,” he says.

8:19 a.m. Sackheim calls for a gunfire test. Muzzle flashes and gunshots erupt from the Downtown Parking Centre parkade on Cordova, echoing off the surrounding buildings. Ungurait looks up from her notes happily. “Good mooorning, Vancooouver!” she yells.

8:26 a.m. Sackheim wants to make the Sarajevo street set look more realistic. “How about a dead dog with flies buzzing around it?” he says.

“How about a two-legged dog with flies?” Ungurait adds. “How about one dead American director?” To says.

8:35 a.m. “How do you take your coffee?” a production assistant asks Sackheim. “With cyanide,” To interjects.

10:41 a.m. Between setups, To tells anybody who will listen an old show-business joke. “There’s this movie package being put together in heaven that’s going to be the greatest movie ever made, see?” he says. “The pitch from the top goes something like this: Will Shakespeare is going to write the script. Michelangelo is our designer. We’ve got Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the music. Perfect. So far, the best movie ever. There’s just one other thing, by the way: God has a girlfriend who can sing.”

11:17 a.m. Sackheim calls a crew meeting. “Group hug!” Stefoff shouts. “Group hug!”

8:03 p.m. As the Oscars drone on, Harsh Realm cast-member Max Martini, who appeared in Saving Private Ryan as Matt Damon’s squad commander, is engaged in a spirited contest of wills with Ungurait, who is rooting for her own favourite, Shakespeare in Love.

Martini is suffering the barbs of the crew over being trapped in the basement of the old Woodward’s building in a pool of cold, brackish water and mud while his Private Ryan compadres are dolled up in tuxes and tails for the evening, with a night of serious Oscar partying to look forward to.

Ungurait has managed to tune a weak, snow-impaired signal from CTV on her video monitor and the crew is giving Martini a running commentary of the evening’s events. Martini breaks up the crew with his sarcastic rendition of a typical Gwyneth Paltrow acceptance speech — plenty of sobbing and clutching the chest — but Ungurait gets the last laugh when Paltrow cops the Oscar for best actress.

Martini briefly gets his own back when Spielberg wins the best director award, but Ungurait is appropriately thrilled when Shakespeare in Love does the unthinkable and tops Ryan for best picture.

9:41 p.m. Shooting wraps to a round of applause and spontaneous hugging. Sackheim: “Thanks for a great week, everybody.”

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.”