What people really remember from “The X-Files” isn’t necessarily particular lines of dialogue, or exchanges between Mulder and Scully, but the ethereal images that the series beams out like a recurring nightmare. If any TV series ever can claim that its cinematographic look is a character in its own right, it is “The X-Files,” which was blessed with New Zealand-born John Bartley as the regular director of photography for the first three seasons.
Though the essential look of the show was established by creator Chris Carter — a mix of flatly lit exteriors, smoky interiors and an obsession with high-contrast, “black and white in color” tunnel and corridor scenes — Bartley’s continual presence firmly established the look.
Ironically, after Bartley’s departure, season four saw a rapid changeover of d.p.s, from Ron Stannett to Jon Joffin and, finally, to Joel Ransom, who shot the final 11 episodes of the fourth season, and is continuing into the fifth.
Ransom, who as second-unit d.p. shot the hillbilly burial scene as the opener for the controversial episode “Home,” found his sudden promotion a two-edged challenge: “Keeping up the standard that John set for the show is very tough, because you’re not only trying to attain his quality, but then surpass it. But because this is a really steady crew that’s loyal to the show, I was lucky to have John’s gaffer, Dave Tickel, and his key grip, Al Campbell, for the fourth season. So we had a kind of built-in continuity.”
When he was hired after the pilot was shot (by Tom DelRuth), Bartley had no such fortune: “It took us at least eight episodes to find the look we wanted week in and week out. If you look back at those early episodes, such as ‘Squeeze,’ ‘Ice,’ or ‘The Jersey Devil,’ you’ll see us experimenting with a lot of things, playing with various film stocks and tones.’
At the time in 1993, Bartley had just come off working as d.p. on the cop series “The Commish,” so filming UFOs, toxic monsters and trying out extreme lighting was a reach. “But,” he notes, “it also made us the recipient of the latest lighting technology, since companies saw ‘The X-Files’ as a show to try out their latest gear. So when we started, we used 12K HMI lights for the strongest light sources, but when the 18K HMIs came out, we used them right away. Rosco developed silver gels, and we grabbed those up.
“When I was on ‘The Commish,’ I first saw that super-powerful flashlight that Mulder and Scully use. But since we only had one, and couldn’t get a second for backup, I couldn’t use it on that show. Finally, on ‘The X-Files,’ we went to town with them.”
The standard “X-Files” lighting gear includes Arriflex cameras (“We always have two on set, even if we only need one,” Ransom says) and Kodak 5298 and 5293 color stock, which Bartley says allows the widest color temperature range and is suited to both the show’s noirish interiors and the frequently misty days of the Vancouver-area locations.
“The great advantage of the show’s Vancouver base,” Bartley says, “is the close proximity of a variety of locations, from woodlands to coast to hills to flatlands. It may be a bit cheaper with a Canadian crew, but it’s also more expensive for the production to house guest actors and directors.”
Both Bartley and Ransom take pains to stress that much of what appears to be exacting, time-consuming planning is actually, in Ransom’s words, “coming up with the best possible image on the run. We literally have no time.” The gaffer and key grip will study the upcoming episode’s location on Thursday and confer with Ransom on Friday. After Ransom studies the script over the weekend and finalizes any tests or equipment on Monday, he begins shooting on Tuesday on a tight eight-day schedule.
Though the experiments of the early days are over, new ones rear their head: Ransom at press time was readying to shoot an episode, written and directed by Carter, in black-and-white, a first for the show.
“How do we pull this off every week? I don’t know, to be honest,” Ransom says. And Bartley agrees, noting that the crew somehow manages the impossible on a limited-budget TV series: “There have been lots of shots where I thought, ‘We’re never going to get this,’ and we did.”