Dramatic context key to f/x

'X-Files'

Considering its subject matter, a show like “The X-Files” would seem the perfect vehicle for jaw-dropping special effects of every possible variety. “X-Files” has indeed earned critical acclaim and award nominations during its first four years for making those phenomena seem realistic via the use of sophisticated digital effects and special makeup and prosthetic work.

However, the philosophy since the show’s pilot has always been, “Be subtle, don’t try to be a million-dollar effects show,” according to Lori Kallsen-George, the show’s visual effects supervisor.

She adds, “Chris Carter feels the imagination is a very fertile area, so as much as possible, our effects are as subtle as possible, or flash on the screen only briefly, so that viewers will be thinking about them in the context of how they fit that story, rather than saying, ‘Wow, that was great 3-D.’ ”

Kallsen-George took over as the show’s visual effects supervisor midway through last season after Mat Beck, who was there from the birth of “The X-Files” through season three, left to do feature film work. (Digital f/x facility Area 51 handled the early episodes of season four until Kallsen-George could take over permanently.)

Beck, who is currently supervising digital effects for next year’s “X-Files” movie, set up a digital production model that, for the most part, Kallsen-George has kept intact: routinely using a group of five or six digital animation shops throughout the Los Angeles area on a per-shot basis to insert an average of 600 to 700 digital shots into a typical “X-Files” season.

The reason the computer’s input on the show varies, Beck explains, is that unlike many shows, effects required for each “X-Files” episode differ from week to week.

Ever-changing moods

“The shows never have the same imagery from week to week,” Beck says. “They might need morphing in one episode, spaceships the next week, bugs the next week, a rotting corpse the next, but it is never the same. As a result, at one time or another, we used just about every type of effect you can think of.”

Of those effects, the technique most commonly utilized probably is the extensive makeup effects. Under the direction of Toby Lindala, head of the show’s special effects makeup department, “X-Files” regularly utilizes masks, prosthetics, false skins, dummies and animatronic creatures. Lindala, who has been with the show since its inception, was nominated for an Emmy last year for his work on the episode “Leonard Betts,” which featured a man who lives off cancer cells, using them to regenerate missing limbs, including an acclaimed scene in which he literally lost his head and then grew it back.

“In a lot of ways, I guess we are a bit of a throwback,” says Lindala, who is based in Vancouver, where the show is shot. “That’s in keeping with our philosophy of getting the audience to relate to things that exist, or could exist, in the real world, as opposed to something where your first thought is, ‘That’s neat, but it’s not real.’ In four years, we’ve done all sorts of things: regenerating limbs, severed heads, heads bursting, mummified corpses … we’ve also created nine different designs for alien bodies. And all those designs are based on actual references or reports of aliens, so even our aliens are based on a look that might be vaguely familiar to viewers.”

Lindala now has a staff of 16 people, after starting the show four years ago doing all the prosthetic work himself. In those days, he used lots of gelatin-based materials, but lately, foam latex painted to appear translucent is his favorite ingredient of choice, so much so that Kallsen-George calls him “the master of goopy goo.” He also works closely with the show’s regular makeup department head, Laverne Basham — the person responsible for makeup work on the show’s stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, as well as guest stars — and with Kallsen-George’s digital team, since many effects require crossover work with several different departments.

“In the third season, when we were still working with Mat Beck, we had a show where we needed to show actor Peter Boyle’s body decomposing,” Lindala says. “That’s a good example of a show where we had to work closely with the digital people. We built three duplicate bodies of the actor in three different stages of decomposition, and Mat then composited it all from one body to the next to show it decomposing. It was a very sophisticated composite shot that we all had to work very hard together to pull off.”

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