The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents August 2008 Return to Table of Contents
The X-Files
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
Early Days
Greetings From
Green Porno
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Mulder and Scully return to the FBI in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, shot by Bill Roe, ASC, and directed by Chris Carter.

Unit Photography by Diyah Pera
Picking up with Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) six years after we last saw them, The X-Files: I Want to Believe reveals that the pair have abandoned their perilous pursuits at the FBI to live as ordinary citizens; Scully has resumed her career in medicine, and Mulder’s interest in unexplained phenomena has become more a hobby than a vocation. Some of the traumatic events in their shared past are not entirely behind them, however, and when the FBI comes calling about a series of apparent kidnappings — mysteriously linked to a defrocked priest (Billy Connolly) who claims to have visions of the victims — the grim case shatters the peace they have tried to forge. 

Fans of The X-Files, which ended its nine-season run on television in 2002, will recognize in I Want to Believe elements of a “stand-alone” episode, which usually presented an X-File that had nothing to do with the alien-related conspiracy that came to define the series’ narrative core. Such cases sent Mulder and Scully in pursuit of serial killers, mad scientists, evolutionary oddities and other earthbound evildoers. “This movie is a classic X-File in that sense — dark and gruesome,” says director of photography Bill Roe, ASC. “But there are a lot of angles to the story, and a big one is Mulder and Scully’s relationship and how it’s affected by this case; there are some really intense scenes between them.” 

X-Files creator Chris Carter, who is making his feature-directing debut with the new film, notes that although its subject differentiates it from the first X-Files feature, the conspiracy-themed Fight the Future (directed by Rob Bowman and shot by Ward Russell; AC July ’98), the visual goals were essentially the same. “I wanted David and Gillian to look great onscreen, and I knew there were things we wanted to obscure, to hide in shadows,” says Carter. “I’d call that the heart and soul of the X-Files look: certain things are scary because you half-see them.” Touching on another stylistic hallmark of the series, which grounded fantastic subject matter in realistic settings, he adds, “We shot a lot of this movie in snow, in urban environments and in medical environments — one sterile, one not-so-sterile — and the nature of those environments dictated the look of the movie. The look is the look of The X-Files; we didn’t really want to change that.” 

Given that The X-Files scored a record 10 ASC Award nominations during its nine years on the air, few would argue with him. The pilot, shot by Thomas A. Del Ruth, ASC, started the run; John S. Bartley, ASC, CSC, the series’ original director of photography, earned three nominations; Joel Ransom, CSC, earned one; and Roe, who shot the series from 1998-2002, earned five, winning twice (for “Drive” and “Agua Mala”). Throughout the show’s remarkable evolution from an ultra-low-budget effort shot in a drafty brewery (see sidebar on page 32) to an international hit that cost $4 million per episode, it looked like nothing else on television. “John Bartley deserves an enormous amount of credit for defining the look, Joel Ransom and Jon Joffin took it further, and Bill, from day one, just effortlessly had it,” says Frank Spotnitz, an executive producer/writer on the series and producer/co-writer of I Want to Believe. The show’s venerated style was never easy, however. “Everything in the X-Files world wants to feel designed,” Spotnitz observes. “It’s composed and shot so the pieces feel like they were meant to cut together. It’s a very formal style, a hard one to pull off, and reconnecting with it after six years was probably harder for me than reconnecting with the characters.” 

Roe’s expertise in that style, and the close working relationship he and Carter established on the series, led the director to invite him aboard I Want to Believe, the cinematographer’s third feature. “On the set, Bill has the presence of everyone’s favorite dad: gentle but very commanding,” says Carter, who was prepping another picture with the cinematographer, an independent feature, when he spoke to AC. “He has done every job in the camera department, so there’s a sense you’re with a true journeyman. His lighting is very painterly … and he is, thank God, an inveterate operator, so he really helps you work out the shots.” 

Roe spent eight years working as an operator before moving up to cinematographer, in 1997, and Spotnitz calls that grounding “key to his talent. Bill has an amazing sense of composition, framing and how the camera should move within space. I didn’t realize until I directed an episode of the show how hard it is to move the camera, and in my shot lists, I had it moving all over the place, but Bill didn’t look at me like I was crazy. In fact, he was excited by the challenge, and he and his crew really rose to the occasion.” Acknowledging that he misses operating “every day,” Roe observes, “It’s not just about finding the frame; it’s also knowing how to get there in a way that makes sense. You have to think backward, in a way.” 

That ability is especially important on The X-Files, where the camera is seldom stationary, even in simple dialogue scenes. “It’s all about the delivery of information — when, with whom, and for what character — and the camera is often telling you the story by delivering that information,” says Carter. “We’ve always used the frame and moves to reveal, to hide, to scare.” In keeping with his approach to the series, Roe had two cameras running all the time on I Want to Believe, and “I think we moved them just about every way you can: cranes, dollies, jib arms, handheld, Cablecam, helicopter, a lot of Steadicam, even a bobsled,” he recalls. “We were talking about it the other day, and I said, ‘Is there anything we didn’t do?’” 

Fortunately, many of Roe’s collaborators on the feature were already well-versed in the X-Files style because they had helped create it. The production filmed in and around Vancouver, British Columbia, where the series spent its first five seasons, and a number of the show’s original crewmembers returned to the fold. In Roe’s department, these veterans included gaffer David Tickell, A-camera/Steadicam operator Marty McInally (who started on the series as a focus puller), and best boy/gaffer Bill Kassis. In an unexpected turn, Bartley became available to shoot second unit when the writers’ strike shut down his regular gig, ABC’s Lost. “I think everybody in Vancouver worked on The X-Files at one time or another,” says Roe, who came aboard the series when it moved to Los Angeles. “We had a really terrific crew, and I’d had a chance to work with some of them before, on Elektra [2005]. 

“This was a difficult show,” he continues, adding key grip Dave Dawson, A-camera 1st AC Stephen Maier, and B-camera operator Michael Wrinch to the list of invaluable collaborators. “We shot a lot of six-day weeks, and we were working in freezing cold, mostly at snowed-in locations. Also, we never really got out of nights — a typical day would start at noon and end at 3 or 4 a.m. It’s still painful to think about! You’ve got to have a good attitude in situations like that, and our crew did.” Tickell, the gaffer on the series for four years, notes, “There were a lot of bitter-cold nights and a lot of wet nights, but it wouldn’t have been The X-Files otherwise.” 

Though maintaining the X-Files look was a given, during prep, the filmmakers considered achieving that look in a new way: digitally. Except for a humorous foray into high-definition (HD) video on the episode “X-Cops,” which Roe shot in the run-and-gun style of Cops (using Panavised Sony HDW-F900s), The X-Files was a 35mm show. “We debated whether to shoot this movie with the [Panavision] Genesis,” says Roe, whose HD credits include the series Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003) and the ASC-nominated telefilm Faith of My Fathers (2005). “Frank Spotnitz fell in love with the Genesis on Night Stalker [2005], and we entertained the idea for a long time.”

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