John Bartley shoots The X-Files on the edge of darkness

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.”

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