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Kodak ONFILM Interview: John Bartley, ASC, CSC

Kodak ONFILM Interview: John Bartley, ASC, CSC


[Original article here]

“Everything you do in life helps you later on. I began my career lighting variety shows and TV news programs in Australia and as a gaffer in Canada. When I shot The X Files, we blended light and darkness so the audience saw some things, but wasn’t sure whether they saw other things. That added to the aura of mystery. For Lost, we strive for a lot of color saturation, particularly greens. There are also campfire scenes with saturated red tones lighting the darkness, and flash-forward and flashback sequences weaved into each episode. As a cinematographer, I have to be flexible and trust my instincts, especially when directors or actors do something spontaneous. I think movies and television have a great affect on society, because so many people get their ideas about past, current and future history from them.”

John Bartley, ASC, CSC earned an Emmy® Award and another nomination for The X Files, an Emmy nomination for Lost, and three ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nominations for The X Files. His other television credits include The Matthew Shepard Story; Black River; Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus; and the episodic series The Commish.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

A Conversation with John Bartley, ASC, CSC;
by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?

BARTLEY: I was born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand. It’s a city located on the southern tip of the north island. There is a channel between the two islands, and the wind can be extreme. We call it Windy Wellington.

QUESTION: What did your family do for a living?

BARTLEY: My father was a career Army officer. After he retired from the Army, he was the manager of an automobile parts shop and also worked for a local newspaper. My dad died at the early age of 53 when I was only 12 years old. My mother was the cashier at a local theater since she was 17 years old. They featured everything from stage plays to rock ‘n roll concerts. My brother and I were with her in the back of the ticket booth until she went home at night.

QUESTION: Did that experience influence your thinking about a career?

BARTLEY: I loved watching theater and saw many shows. During the week, we only got to stay until nine o’clock at night and then we would go home. But, on Saturdays mom would let us stay and see the whole musical or play. My first job in the theater was helping the actors with their wardrobes. That lasted about two weeks. To tell the truth, I didn’t know what to do with my life when I finished school. One of my uncles had an electrical contracting business. I worked with him as an apprentice electrician for four years and eight months, including backstage work at theaters.

QUESTION: What was the next step that you took in your career and life?

BARTLEY: I learned about the outside world by listening the BBC and other programs on short wave radio. After I finished my apprenticeship, I decided to move to Sydney, Australia. I stayed with some friends from New Zealand who worked for a theater company. They gave me a ticket to a stage production. After the play, I thanked the manager of the theater and told him that I thought the play was great. He introduced me to the lighting director who offered me a job.

QUESTION: What was your job?

BARTLEY: My first job was operating a rear screen projector during a stage play called The Flintstones. When it got to the end of a reel, I stopped the projector and loaded the next clip. After doing that for a while, I sent resumes to the three television stations in Sydney. I was hired as lighting director for Channel 7 in Sydney.

QUESTION: What did you do as lighting director for a TV station?

BARTLEY: I was responsible for lighting everything from variety shows to news broadcasts. I was really lucky. I didn’t know anything about television, but there were two lighting technicians at the station who taught me what I needed to know.

QUESTION: Did you learn things that helped you later in your career?

BARTLEY: Everything you do in life helps you later on. Television was black and white in those days. I learned how to use light to accentuate black-and-white tones and colors, so they helped tell stories on television screens.

QUESTION: What was the next step in your life and career?

BARTLEY: I decided to explore a different part of the world by moving to Toronto. It took about five months for me to get a work visa. After I got to Toronto, I found out that I couldn’t work at a TV station because I wasn’t in the union. I got a job with an equipment rental company. I initially worked in the maintenance department repairing and maintaining lighting and grip equipment. After a while, they sent me out on non-union jobs as a lamp operator on electrical crews.

QUESTION: Let’s turn the page to the next chapter.

BARTLEY: After about a year, they asked me to run their office in Vancouver. I remember thinking that they were going to pay me to see the country. The first job I did after arriving in Vancouver was changing a flat tire on the camera van.

QUESTION: When and how did you become a gaffer?

BARTLEY: That happened in 1976 on a film called Who’ll Save Our Children? The cinematographer was Don Wilder. For some reason, he decided to give me a chance. George Schaefer was the director and Shirley Jones and Len Cariou were in the cast. After that I worked as a gaffer on everything from commercials to TV programs and movies with Sven Nykvist (ASC), Hiro Norita (ASC), Tak Fujimoto (ASC), Frank Tidy, BSC, Bob Stevens (ASC) and other amazing cinematographers. There is no school like that.

QUESTION: This question could apply to all of them, but tell us what it was like working with Sven Nykvist?

BARTLEY: He was a wonderful human being. Sven just used a spot meter. I remember being too intimidated to bring my light meter out, so I learned to trust my eye. Sven was a brilliant filmmaker and warm human being. He showed me how to create looks by keeping the light level low and very subtly bringing it up to reveal things to the audience.

QUESTION: When and how did you begin working as a cinematographer?

BARTLEY: Around 1986, I began shooting film on weekends. Originally, it was trailers for movies and music videos that we often shot with short ends. Most of the time, they weren’t paying jobs. I did a lot of favors usually for young, aspiring directors.

QUESTION: When and how did you earn your first cinematography credit?

BARTLEY: It was in 1989. I got a phone call from David Saperstein, the director who also wrote the script for Beyond the Stars. He told me about his film, and asked if I was interested in shooting it. It was a science fiction movie with an absolutely great cast, including Martin Sheen, Sharon Stone and F. Murray Abraham. After I said yes, he asked if I could bring my reel to the hotel where he was staying. I didn’t have a reel, so I brought a bunch of three-quarter-inch videotapes of music videos and other things I had shot and my three-quarter-inch videotape machine to his hotel. He watched them over the weekend and called me Monday morning and asked me to shoot his film.

QUESTION: Did that first film push your career as a cinematographer into high gear?

BARTLEY: I thought my career would really take off, but absolutely nothing happened. I went back to mainly shooting commercials. I didn’t know what to think.

QUESTION: What kept you going in pursuit of your dream?

BARTLEY: It takes perseverance, but at times that is easier to say than do. A few years later, I shot a few low budget movies and began a two season run on a television series called The Commish, which was produced in Vancouver, Canada. Michael Chiklis was in the leading role as a police commissioner. There were a lot of great scripts.

QUESTION: You shot a few movies after two years of The Commish. In 1993, you began working on a classic television series, The X Files. Tell us about that experience.

BARTLEY: I had worked with Bob Goodwin, the producer, on other projects. He called and said he was starting a new series that I might like. Bob asked me to meet with him, Charlie Goldstein from 20th Century Fox and Chris Carter, who created, co-produced, scripted and occasionally directed episodes. Tom Del Ruth (ASC) had shot the pilot. During that first meeting, they discussed their ideas for making a program with a science fiction theme that looked and felt believable. They were planning to produce 12 episodes that first season. After our conversation, I went back home and thinking that I really wanted to do that show. I tried to contact Bob at the hotel at about 4 p.m., but he had already checked out. I called him at home, but his wife didn’t know where he was. He called me at about 5 p.m., and jokingly said that he tried really hard to convince them I wouldn’t want to shoot The X Files, but they still wanted me. We filmed The X Files in Vancouver (Canada) from 1993 through 1996.

QUESTION: The X Files was about two main characters who investigate stories about aliens on Earth. How would you describe the look or visual style that evolved?

BARTLEY: The look was dictated by the stories. I still remember shooting episode six that was directed by David Nutter. It was called ‘Ice.’ I think that episode took the series to the next level. David pushed the envelope and challenged me to make every shot better. We blended light and darkness. The audience saw some things, and they weren’t sure whether they saw other things. That added to the aura of mystery.

QUESTION: The use of darkness on television was a bit revolutionary at that time.

BARTLEY: A still photographer came up to me one day and said, ‘I figured you out. You light the walls, but you don’t light the actors.’ I told him sometimes that’s true. You light walls and let the actors find their light at the right moments. But, other times, we lit the actors and let everything in the backgrounds go dark, maybe with little highlights here and there. We didn’t reveal what’s in the darkness.

QUESTION: You earned more than a little recognition for your artful cinematography on The X Files. There were three consecutive nominations for Outstanding Achievement from your peers in the American Society of Cinematographers in 1995, 1996 and 1997. You were also nominated for an Emmy in 1995 and you won that award in 1996. We were wondering how those nominations by peers affected your career.

BARTLEY: I met a lot of people, and some said they would send me scripts someday, but I shot The X Files through 1995. That didn’t leave a lot of room for other projects.

QUESTION: Did The X Files affect your thinking about what you wanted to do?

BARTLEY: Not really. I enjoyed shooting the series. There were challenges everyday, and instantaneous decisions had to be made to keep pace with the schedule. I think shooting a television series is even more challenging today. Directors and producers have higher expectations. They want more shots and more alternatives without compromising. We used to do a wide shot and a couple of close-ups and move on to the next scene. Now, it’s more like 10 to 12 shots a scene. On Lost, we average 50 and 80 setups a day.

QUESTION: Why did you leave The X Files in the wake of all that success?

BARTLEY: I loved working with the people on The X Files, but I wanted to experience working in different places on different types of films. I went to Chicago, where I shot three episodes of a TV series called Early Edition. That led to an opportunity to shoot the first few episodes of The Visitor. Randy Zisk was the director. He and I have been friends ever since. That was the show which got me the hours I needed to become a member of the International Cinematographers Guild in the United States. That opened doors for me to work on other films produced in the United States.

QUESTION: That is a bit of an understatement. You have earned more than 20 credits during the past 10 years for movies made for television and episodic television. There are many notable achievements on that list. We are going to repeat an earlier question, and ask what you learned from working on those different projects.

BARTLEY: Every film and each director is a different experience.

QUESTION: How do you see television changing?

BARTLEY: I could take a month to answer that question. Things are always changing, and they are also staying the same. We shot The X Files in Super 35 format and framed for 4:3. We protected for 16:9, because we knew it was coming. We also do that on Lost.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about your experiences on Lost.

BARTLEY: I came onto Lost about mid-way through the first season. I was working on a television movie in New Orleans when my agent called and asked if I was interested in shooting alternate episodes of Lost. I had never been to Hawaii. They sent me some DVDs of episodes, and then I went to Hawaii and watched them shoot an episode for a day or so. Michael Bonvillian was the cinematographer, and there was a great crew.

QUESTION: How would you describe the look or visual style of Lost?

BARTLEY: As a lot of Lost takes place on a tropical island, the greens are saturated, skin tones are warm, and the hand-held camera is fast moving with four different sides of coverage. At night, a blue-green moonlight contrasts with saturated fire and torch light. Flashbacks and flash-forwards do not have a different look. It’s up to the audience to figure out forward or back.

QUESTION: Do you generally work with one or multiple cameras?

BARTLEY: In the beginning, it was mainly a one camera show. I liked that because it gave us more flexibility for lighting, and Paul Edwards, the operator, was always in the right place at the right time with the right composition. We are now mainly shooting with two cameras to get more coverage, but we are not compromising.

QUESTION: Cinematographers choose films to shoot with like artists choose paints for their palettes. What negatives are you currently using on Lost?

BARTLEY: We have mainly been using (KODAK VISION2 500T) 5218.

QUESTION: That’s interesting, because there are a lot of daylight exteriors.

BARTLEY: It is true that there are a fair number of daylight scenes on the island, but there are also flash forwards and flashbacks weaved into each episode. Many times, we are manipulating images while we shoot as well as in postproduction. There are also a lot of interior scenes that are filmed on sets on stages.

QUESTION: There are two of you shooting alternative episodes of Lost. How much prep time does that give you to get ready to shoot your episodes?

BARTLEY: We usually end up with four to five days of prep time after I read the script and talk with the director. Mainly, we use that time to scout locations. The gaffer and rigging gaffer have to see where we are shooting and what lighting I plan, so the cables and everything else are ready when we are. You have to plan, but you also have to be flexible when the directors or actors do something spontaneous.

QUESTION: Do you have different directors all the time?

BARTLEY: We have two producer/directors most of the time. Occasionally, they bring in other directors for specific episodes when that’s what the schedule requires.

QUESTION: What other negatives are used?

BARTLEY: The other negative is (KODAK VISION2 250D) 5205. It is supposed to be a daylight negative, but I have used it for scenes filmed in firelight and bright moonlight, usually when we want a contrast between very warm firelight and a cold night sky. There are no rules for making these types of decisions. You have to trust your instincts.

QUESTION: You were nominated for an Emmy this year. Tell us about that episode.

BARTLEY: ‘The Constant’ was the final episode of the season. It was the most lineal episode I shot all year. There were flash forward and flashback scenes, but they aren’t confusing for the audience. They always know where we are in time. We don’t want those scenes to be noticeably different to the eye. It is more like the audience innately knows they are watching things happening at different times and places.

QUESTION: Do you expose or process film for flash forward and flashback scenes?

BARTLEY: No. It’s in the performances, editing and the sound plays a huge role in Lost.

QUESTION: Tell us more about ‘The Constant’ episode.

BARTLEY: There is a new character named Desmond who arrives on the island in a yacht. He joins the people who are survivors of the plane crash. One of the survivors is a woman whom he is in love with, but her father is a business man who doesn’t think much of Desmond, because he’s an army officer who doesn’t have any money. That makes him a poor prospect as his daughter’s husband in the father’s mind.

QUESTION: This is a totally unfair question. Telling stories with moving images is a relatively new form of expression. What affect do you think that television and movies have on how we think and perceive the world we live in?

BARTLEY: I think movies and television have a great affect on society, because so many people get their ideas about past, current and future history that way.

QUESTION: Do you think filmmaking is a form of literature?

BARTLEY: Some films are obviously better than others, but I am always amazed when the Television Academy sends members DVDs of the different series and movies at Emmy time. Some incredible work is being done.

QUESTION: How do you answer when film students and other young people who want to be cinematographers ask for advice?

BARTLEY: I don’t think they come to me for advice. I think they just want to talk. Back in early 1995, a schoolgirl sent me an email from Australia. She was interested in cinematography, but lived in some country town that wasn’t anywhere near a film school. We exchanged emails from time to time. She would tell me what she was doing, and was always interested in hearing about what I was working on. We haven’t met, but I still get emails from her. She began working in the film industry in Australia as a video assist technician and is now pulling focus on some big movies. I still get emails from her about how hard it was to make certain shots and what she did. She always asks what I am working on and how it is going. The best advice I can give anyone it that there is nothing easy about working in this industry. You have to love it, because it is tough on family life when you are working 70 or 80 hours a week. Not everyone can do it.

Oscar and Academy Award are trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Seattle Times: Inside ‘The X-Files’

Seattle Times
Inside ‘The X-Files’
Janet I-Chin Tu

Seattle Times staff reporter

VANCOUVER, B.C. – So this is where sewer monsters lurk.

Vampires, too. Not to mention aliens, mutants and – scariest of all – shadowy government figures.

Here is where FBI Special Agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder chase down the bizarre, the grotesque and the sinister in an ever-frustrated attempt to uncover The Truth about paranormal phenomena and government conspiracies.

“Here,” of course, doesn’t really exist. Except in the surreal parallel world of television. And in the minds of millions of fans worldwide who have turned “The X-Files” into the hottest cult hit since a saucer-shaped spaceship took off to boldly go where no one had gone before.

In this side of the parallel universe, however, “here” does exist – in the form of three cavernous sound stages in a North Vancouver studio lot where many of “The X-Files” scenes are shot.

Here, a mere shopping cart’s roll away from a suburban strip mall, where families bustle around a grocery store, a movie theater, a Blockbuster Video – here is the FBI basement office where Mulder desperately wants to believe in the paranormally tinged theories he presents, and where an ever-skeptical Scully insists on scientific explanations for all things bizarre.

Here is where a cast and crew of about 250 labor to create the spooky, murky world of “The X-Files.”

Psychic insurance salesmen. Human-liver-eating mutants.

The North Pole. Arizona. Washington, D.C.

Each week “The X-Files” showcases different guest actors and different locations around the world.

“Each episode is like a whole different movie,” says co-executive producer R.W. (Bob) Goodwin (“Life Goes On,” “Hooperman,” “Mancuso, FBI”). On this day, Goodwin, who’s in charge of production in Vancouver, is also directing the season finale, airing 9 p.m. Friday on Fox, KCPQ-TV. (Watch for summer reruns.) “We have to scout locations, build new sets, cast the characters.”

There are only four permanent sets – Mulder’s apartment and office, Mulder’s boss’s office, and a multistory prison block. The rest are built anew each time. Boxes labeled “Scully’s Living Room,” filled with framed paintings, lamps and books, lie in a pile at one sound stage.

Scripts are written each week by the writing staff in Los Angeles. The Vancouver team has eight days – and about $1.5 million – to shoot each episode.

Before shooting begins, series creator Chris Carter flies from the “X-Files” office on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in L.A. to oversee final casting, location and production decisions. Writing producers fly up from L.A. for the last two days prior to shooting. Goodwin commutes from Bellingham. The raw footage is shipped to L.A. for one to three weeks of post-production work by a team of about 50. It all adds up to 12- to 15-hour work days for cast and crew.

It takes a lot of work to make a half-flukeworm, half-human mutant believable.

Gray. Dark. Shadowy.

It’s a spooky place, the “X-Files” universe.

Secret government informers whisper furtively in underground garages. All manner of bizarre creatures skulk in dark forests, nightclubs, ventilation ducts, made all the eerier by shadows-and-fog lighting. Thank John Bartley, the Emmy-nominated director of photography, for that.

TV Guide named the blue light that often bathes the show one of the 50 greatest things on television.

“Chris Carter didn’t like the blue lighting at first,” Bartley says. “His comment to me was `It looks like `Silk Stalkings’ (a syndicated Miami Vice-in-heat kind of show). But I persisted. I think he likes it now.”

There is, however, one place in this “X-Files” world where the light perpetually shines. It’s almost always daytime in the office of FBI Assistant Director Walter S. Skinner, Mulder and Scully’s boss.

Seven huge klieg lights (ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 watts each) are trained through the windows of Skinner’s office. They turn the dusty backstage darkness into a sun-lit room, and make the flat sheet hanging behind the windows look like a building next door.

They also heat the set to a toasty tropical temperature.

Skinner always looks like he’s about to break into a sweat, the stress of his job about to make him explode.

Truth be told, it’s not necessarily the job.

“It’s just hot in there,” Bartley says. Mitch Pileggi, the actor who portrays Walter S. Skinner, holds a personal fan up to his face in between takes. He’s cooling down after a scene of high-pitched tension.

Skinner walks a tightrope daily. Caught between obeying his questionable superiors, and loyalty to his loose-cannon agent, Mulder, he’s a taciturn man, tightly held in, a disciplined former military man. Words seem to leave his mouth reluctantly, from behind clenched teeth.

His character is a far cry from the charming, gregarious Pileggi. Off-camera he’s a tactile man, hugging crew members, giving a pat on the back here, a hand around the shoulder there. His teeth aren’t clenched. They’re bared constantly in a huge grin.

“A lot of Skinner’s character, I based on my dad,” Pileggi says. “He was a former contractor with the Defense Department. He just had this bearing.”

But Pileggi is a fun-lovin’ guy – goofy at times during rehearsal – finding quirky little tidbits about his character. Like the fact that Skinner’s middle name is “Sergei.”

“While filming `Avatar’ (a recent episode highlighting Skinner’s personal life), I had a scene where I was unpacking a box of Skinner’s personal belongings. The camera didn’t show this, but one of the things in the box was Skinner’s high-school diploma, with the name `Walter Sergei Skinner’ on it. Apparently Sergei was a friend of Chris Carter’s.

“It was bad enough you saddled me with `Walter,’ ” Pileggi reports telling Carter. “But `Sergei’?!?”

Now this is stranger than any “X-Files” episode.

Skinner and Mulder are standing in Skinner’s office, dippin’ their knees, snappin’ their fingers in a little doo-wop dance.

A second ago, they were yelling at each other.

Mulder: “What’s his name?!?”

Skinner: “They don’t have names!”

Another Mulder tirade. Skinner is supposed to counter with “Cool off, Mulder.”

Instead, Pileggi pops out with: “Cool, boy!”

“Cool!” counters David Duchovny, the actor who plays Mulder, instantly dipping into a jazzy, finger-snapping beat.

Pileggi and Duchovny start dipping and snapping in unison.

The crew, watching on a monitor outside the set, bursts into laughter.

It’s official. David Duchovny is one of the world’s 50 most beautiful people.

It says so right here in People magazine.

But perhaps more than the physical beauty, it’s the Princeton- and Yale-educated actor’s intelligence and quirky, out-of-left-field wit that has fans steaming up the Internet.

Get him started on a subject and you don’t know where that mind will zing.

So how do you enjoy working with Bob Goodwin as director, he’s asked.

“He’s easygoing. I know him well. As John (Bartley) said, new directors are like new sex partners,” Duchovny says with a sly grin. “It’s nice when you have someone you know. Who knows how to touch you.

“Oh, I’m kidding, of course,” he amends a second later. “But seriously, there’s a big element of trust involved. The camera’s in your face. You want someone you can trust even when your biorhythmical mood is off. When your cycle’s off. Like with PMS. I certainly have been PMS-ed from time to time, for the past few months even. The thing is, when I suffer from PMS, everyone else has to, too.” (For the record, he said this with a chuckle.)

His dog, a border collie named Blue, is led onto the set. The offspring of a dog featured in several earlier “X-Files” episodes, Blue hops onto the canvas chair that has Duchovny’s name painted on the back, rising on her hind legs to give Duchovny a kiss.

Then Duchovny is called back onto the set. Giving his dog a last pat, he walks back into Skinner’s office. Blue follows him with her eyes, then settles back in the chair to quietly watch her owner’s work on the monitor. There’s enough unresolved sexual tension in the air to jump-start a thousand moribund soap operas. Since the very first episode, the slow-burn chemistry between Mulder and Scully has had fans in a delicious torment, debating the pros and cons of a romantic/sexual relationship, analyzing the details of each gesture, each word spoken by the characters.

On this subject Chris Carter is adamant. In numerous interviews, he has stated that there will be a relationship between the two main characters “when hell freezes over,” as he recently said in USA Today.

Still, that doesn’t preclude the stars posing for provocative magazine covers. There were Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who portrays Scully, posing bare-chested in bed on the cover of Rolling Stone. TV Guide recently had the two in a series of photographic clinches.

What gives?

“For me, it was a conscious choice as an actress to get away from the stereotype of Scully,” Anderson says, of her departure from the smart, tough and oh-so-serious forensic pathologist Scully. “I wanted to show that I had other sides to me.”

Like a mischievous side.

By most accounts, Anderson is the biggest prankster on a set filled with them.

People have been known to hide under desks during filming, popping out at inopportune moments. There was the “Day in the Life of the X-Files” gag videotape sent to a Fox executive, lampooning a typical day’s shoot. And there was the infamous mooning of the camera at a Christmas party.

On this day, at any given time, several people are walking around with clothespins stuck all over their clothes. It’s a running gag with the crew, to clip as many clothespins to each other’s clothes as possible, without the victim knowing.

“Last year (director) Rob Bowman and I would try to pin clothespins on each other regularly,” Anderson says. “I won with 37 at once on this big red coat of his.”

It was the eyebrows that first captured viewers’ attentions – wiggling, squirming arches of hair that defined the flamboyant, credibility-straining psychic, The Stupendous Yappi.

In two episodes this season, actor Jaap (pronounced Yapp) Broeker has portrayed Yappi, trying to solve a crime using his questionable psychic abilities, and pitching alien autopsy tapes on television.

Broeker came by the job just standin’ around the set. Literally. The debonair actor from Holland is Duchovny’s stand-in, filling in for him on the set when scenes are blocked or lighting is measured.

“I was wearing my French beret that day, speaking with this European accent I have, doing my eyebrow thing,” Broeker says. “(Writer/producer) Darin Morgan saw me, and came up to me and said, `I’m going to write a scene for you.’ ” Now, in addition to “Jaap,” the actor is known on the set as “Stupe.”

In the “X-Files” world, bruises happen. A lot. So do cuts, gunshot wounds and stitches, not to mention vampire bites and decomposing corpses.

It’s up to Fern Levin, key makeup artist, to know what these things should look like, and to recreate them.

She’s established a network of medical advisers and pathologists in the area that she can call to ask how bodily injuries or dead bodies should look.

She gets stunned silence in reply to her questions sometimes.

“I called up a hospital’s burn unit once to ask what a severe burn should look like,” she says. “The person there asked what type of burn it was. I told them it was a vampire burn. Another time I asked them what a burn from flying-saucer exhaust might look like.”

“The Truth is Out There,” the show proclaims.

Maybe. But what’s definitely out there is “The X-Files” itself, seeping into our pop consciousness, tapping into some kind of jittery, pre- millennial Zeitgeist.

A ratings sewer-dweller when it debuted in 1993, the program is now Fox TV’s top-rated show and recently began infiltrating the Top-20 Nielsen ratings.

Its stars have adorned magazine covers worldwide, an album of music inspired by the show has been released, and its catchphrases (“Trust No One,” “I Want to Believe”) are gaining popular usage.

Locally, more than 2,000 people attended an “X-Files” convention held in Bellevue last year. A similar number is expected at this year’s “X-Files” convention in Bellevue on Oct. 13. The Associated Students of the University of Washington’s Experimental College has held “The Real X-Files” course (exploring paranormal phenomena) for two quarters now. Everett School District’s Continuing Schools Program held its first “X-Files” course recently, with videotape viewing and discussion of the show.

Fans are drawn to the show by the taut writing, dark tone, clever witticisms, fine acting and cinematography. Or maybe by something subtler – a sympatico, perhaps, with the show’s point of view that even with so many things out of their control, there’s the will to find a truth, a belief.

For whatever reason, the ranks of X-Philes (as the show’s fans call themselves) are growing.

They want to believe.

And the show gives them something to believe in.

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.”