Widely credited alongside art director/production designer Graeme Murray for helping to establish “the X-Files look,” director of photography John S. Bartley, ASC, CSC, who shot the series’ first three seasons, notes that although certain elements of the style were set early on, many of the other details “evolved as we shot, as these things usually do.”
From the outset, the 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme and shot by Tak Fujimoto, ASC, was “a touchstone,” according to X-Files creator Chris Carter. “I don’t consider that a really dark movie, but it has beautiful dark photography, and I wanted our images to be dark and scary,” he says. The film’s strong point-of-view camerawork was also inspirational. “Point of view is essential in The X-Files because you can’t watch someone be scared; you’ve got to be scared for them or with them,” says Carter.
“The X-Files pilot set not the style, but the intention of style,” he notes, “and then John Bartley, over the first year of the show, really defined the look. By the third episode [“Conduit”], he was really pushing limits.”
Bartley, who earned three ASC nominations for his work on the series (for “Duane Barry,” “731” and “Grotesque”) and shot second unit for the new X-Files feature, recalls some aspects of the show’s early days in Vancouver:
“In the beginning, we didn’t have any money, and that had a lot to do with the look! Most of our sets weren’t finished — if you looked down the end of a hallway, there
was nothing there, or there might be the sets of some other production, so we’d put something down there like a bright light or an object that couldn’t be identified. We started off building our sets in an old brewery in Vancouver, and it was really hard to make that work. We’d pump smoke into the building [to create atmosphere], and it would leak out the roof. Midway through the first season, [20th Century Fox Television executive] Charlie Goldstein came up for a visit, and when he saw where we were working, he went out and got us a studio that day.
“We didn’t really know where we were going at first, and I think it took the first six episodes for the show to kick in. It was ‘Ice,’ directed by David Nutter, that really pushed things to a new level. Some directors got the show and some didn’t, and after a while, we ended up with a nucleus of directors who all brought something to it. Chris was always the guiding light. Whenever a director wasn’t sure of something, I’d say, ‘The phone’s on the monitor. Call Chris.’
“I never heard Chris say, ‘It’s too dark.’ If anything, he said, ‘Go darker.’ And I know where I can reach the bottom. To try to control how much [network engineers] could brighten the picture, I’d put a bright light behind the actor and keep the actor’s face down; they couldn’t bring up the face without bringing up the light in back too much. Today, of course, they can get around that with Power Windows!
“Graeme Murray would try to give me shiny paint so I could get sheens off walls. That takes about three layers of paint, a lot of time, but when you put a light down the end of the hallway, you get a nice sheen. We liked to do that.
“Creating the spaceships was a lot of fun, but it was hard on the electrical department. We’d have just about every light we could generate hanging from a truss from a crane; we’d pump all that light down, and the visual-effects crew would build the CG spaceship around it.
“The first time we were shooting out in an open area, it was really overcast, and it started to rain. David and Gillian were wearing black raincoats, and the props people handed them black umbrellas. I had to get some bounce light into their faces, and the umbrellas were hard on the sound department, too — you could hear the rain beating down. As we moved in for tighter shots, the sound crew stretched a big piece of black Duvatyn over the umbrellas to get rid of the noise, and just then, the stills photographer took a big wide shot of the scene. That photo ended up in one of the first X-Files calendars, Duvatyn and all.”