The truth is out there, and although FBI special agents Mulder and Scully seem to always come up empty-handed at the end of a case on TV, DP Ward Russell caught the evidence on film for The X-Files' big-screen debut. Director Rob Bowman, a veteran of the television show, wanted to break away from the blatant moodiness of the early series in favor of a more subtle yet still eerie atmosphere. He approached Ward Russell, DP of Days of Thunder and The Last Boy Scout, and they established some parameters: motivated lighting effects, an active camera, and restrained use of color.
"They gave me a stack of TV episodes for reference, and I found there were many elements in the series that were much like the style I've developed working for Tony Scott--very moody, a lot of smoke, colorful images," Russell explains. "In the early days of the TV show there were massive quantities of atmosphere in the air, but they no longer felt that was appropriate, so we continually used less ambience, only where it was necessary." The one element from the TV series he used liberally was darkness, "not by just making things dark, but even in brightly lit scenes by surrounding the foreground in darkness."
The opening sequence involves creatures traversing an ice field and going down into subterranean caverns. "We would just light small areas of the cavern, and the rest would be surrounded in blackness; we used that as an element of the frame," Russell says. The scene was mostly lit "by torches the creatures were carrying; the only augmentation was a bit of flicker light on the surrounding bits of cave." In a later scene, some boys are playing outdoors and one of them falls through a hole into an underground chamber. "That is lit merely by the shaft of sunlight that comes through the hole and the bounce light that emanates from that. Again, vast areas were just left in blackness."
Bowman, who is known for his psychological approach to directing the TV show, encouraged lots of camera movement to further draw the audience into the action. "There was a lot of handheld involved," Russell says. "Rob likes the feeling of the little bit of energy that adds to a scene: You become more involved with what's going on. Very seldom was anything static; even when we were on a dolly the camera was usually moving."
A vivid example of this is when Mulder and Scully narrowly escape an explosion in a Dallas office building. "We had 11 cameras in various positions. The director wanted at all times to be with the two heroes as they run out of the building and jump in their car, and, as they're driving away, the explosion goes off. Instead of being back in a wide shot or long lens shot, we were on an insert car, with cameras in the car and looking through the windscreens, seeing the building out the rear window of the car, for several of the shots. He wanted that immediacy of being right with the people the whole time, not falling back, which was a unique way of doing it." Since this escape scene was obviously not done in front of the real explosion, the look of it had to be recreated. "Their car was rigged to jump up in the air and all the windows broke out. We had a truck alongside with a generator and massive Maxi Brutes with orange and red gel so that we could simulate the explosion, get the color on their faces and on the side of the car as we were shooting it."
Overall, though, the movie's color palette was kept subtle. "For night we used 1/2 blue on tungsten lights, or 1/2 CTO on HMIs. We always tried to make everything slightly cool at night but not really blue," Russell explains. "And our day exteriors have almost a yellowish tinge to them, just so that something is not quite in kilter; not enough so that it looks unnatural, just to keep the audience a little off-balance. Those are really the only two times that we played with extreme colors. Everything else was dictated by the sets."
Which, in the world of The X-Files, can run the gamut from Mulder and Scully's apartments, to corridors in secret facilities, to night exterior street scenes (set in Washington DC and shot in Los Angeles), to exotic locations such as the aforementioned ice cavern and a nighttime helicopter chase in a cornfield. "I used four Musco Lights for that," Russell says, "because not only did we film it from the ground, we had cameras in helicopters, and they had zoom lenses, so I had to have enough light so that they could use their zooms." While the Musco Lights provided "basic moonlight ambience," the helicopters were equipped with xenon searchlights to cut through it. This scene also included one of the few uses of artificial haze, which entailed some ingenuity. "We completely encircled about a quarter- to half-mile-square cornfield with plastic tubes about a foot in diameter, with holes in them, and put a relatively small smoke machine on the end of it. It was wonderful; the wind would just blow the smoke in lines, trails, wisps through the air, and it would form these wonderful patterns."
The most constant challenges on the project were timing and logistics. "The size and amount of moving from one location to another, there was never a time to rest, it was unrelenting," the DP comments. "I have to say we got it done on their schedule and within their budget." With "about 76 different sets or locations on a 60-day schedule," and lead actors due back on the Vancouver TV set about two-thirds of the way through, "It necessitated an excessive amount of equipment," he says. "Where we would normally take two nights and shoot one direction one night, and move all the equipment around and shoot another direction the next night, we had to do it all in one night--sometimes as many as three different angles." Having enough equipment to cover all those angles entailed having enough crew to set it all up in time. Rigging gaffer Mike Amorelli hired crews to strike previous nights' equipment and move ahead to put in cable and lights for the next shots. "He would have as many as 20 or 30 people in various spots getting things ready for us. He did a great job."
The pre-rigging crews proved their worth when during one scene some creatures weren't working properly. "We had to move to a different stage set at a moment's notice, because we were just stuck until they could rework them," Russell says. "Fortunately, we had it almost completely pre-rigged, so that my guys, by working some long hours that night, were able to get it ready for the next morning."
The film's basic package included a wide range of equipment, from 100W Dedolights to Mole-Richardson 20kWs, Kino Flo Mini-Flos to Wall-O-Lites, plus Mulder and Scully's ubiquitous handheld xenon searchlights, with Musco Lights, Night Suns, and Condors used for night shoots. The DP explains his basic approach as a kind of natural moodiness. "There was not a lot of hard light. When it's appropriate for backgrounds I use it, but most of the time I prefer soft light. I'm very fond of using fluorescents for foreground lighting. Hard light becomes a style more than a natural look." Because Gillian Anderson has "beautiful skin" and David Duchovny "takes light wonderfully," Russell stayed away from diffusion, preferring to "keep it clean and do the softening with my lighting rather than with things on the lens."
With Panavision Panaflex cameras, Primo zoom lenses, and a full range of Zeiss lenses, the DP used Kodak 5279 500ASA film stock "almost exclusively." Because most of the shoot was night exteriors or vast soundstage sets with low light levels--with only about three days of exterior daytime work--he says, "79 turned out to be a great stock. For some of the sequences I was able to push the stock a stop, rate it at 1000, and force-develop it, and it held up great." He had recommended the anamorphic format, "but for economic reasons the production opted to go with Super 35. They felt they could save some money, plus it would help the CGI people with their work."
The DP therefore worked closely with visual effects supervisor Mat Beck to make sure his lighting would work for the CGI crew, who would have to emulate it later. "There were many sequences where CGI scenery would be put in the background," Russell says. "We were onstage at least a third of the time, maybe as much as half. And probably half the work onstage was blue- or greenscreen." Beck, special effects supervisor for the TV show's first three seasons, was greenscreen cameraman on the film, "so that while we were shooting the live-action stuff," Russell explains, "they would shoot a bunch of greenscreen elements. We were working hand-in-hand through the whole project."
>From mission impossible to mission accomplished, Russell gives lots of credit to the entire behind-the-scenes team. "The director wanted to see tremendous, expansive areas. He was really enjoying the freedom of being able to do more than on the TV show, so it was always a challenge to be able to light it and get it all done in the amount of time provided. Somehow, we always seemed to achieve it, through the massive efforts of the production staff and my lighting staff. It was a great bunch of people to work with. They're all very talented and dedicated perfectionists, and it's enjoyable to work with people like that. They really care about what they're doing."
Director of Photography Ward Russell
Camera Operators Michael Chavez, Mark La Bonge
Camera Assistants Brad Edmiston, Steve Peterson
Gaffer Jerry Solomon
Rigging gaffer Mike Amorelli
Key grip Jim Sweet
Rigging grip Larry Sweet
2nd unit DPs Jon Joffin, Jan Kiesser - Canada Mike Benson, Josh Bliebtraub - USA
Special effects coordinator Paul Lombardi
Special effects 1st unit coordinator Chuck Stewart
BASIC LIGHTING PACKAGE (6) LTM 12kW/18kW HMIs (8) LTM 1,200W HMI Cinepars (5) LTM 575W HMI Cinepars (8) LTM Pepper 100 heads (4) K5600 Joker 200W HMI PARs (4) Mole-Richardson 20kWs (2) Mole-Richardson Big Eye 10kWs (2) Mole-Richardson Baby 10kWs (8) Mole-Richardson Baby 5kWs (10) Mole-Richardson Baby 2kWs (16) Mole-Richardson Baby 407s (12) Mole-Richardson Tweenie IIs (8) Mole-Richardson Mini Moles (4) Mole-Richardson Mighty Moles (4) Mole-Richardson Mickey Moles (2) Mole-Richardson 400W softlights (2) Mole-Richardson 750W softlights (4) Mole-Richardson 2kW Zip softlights (2) Mole-Richardson 4kW softlights (6) Mole-Richardson 1kW nooklights (6) Mole-Richardson 2kW nooklights (6) Mole-Richardson 9-lights (4) Mole-Richardson single Molepar heads (6) Mole-Richardson Maxi Brute 9-lights (3) Dedotec 100W Dedolight kits (2) Kino Flo Wall-O-Lites (4) Kino Flo 2' 4-bank (4) Kino Flo 4' 4-bank (4) Kino Flo 2' double fixture (4) Kino Flo 4' double fixture (2) Kino Flo 15" single fixture (1) Kino Flo Mini-Flo kit (3) xenon 2kWs (2) Xenotech xenon 4kWs (2) 75W handheld xenon searchlights (6) 1kW PAR cans (6) ETC Source Four ellipsoidals (1) Chimera package
ADDITIONAL EQUIPMENT Cornfield (3) 15-light Musco Lights (1) Musco Lights Mini Musco (2) 80' Condors with 7kW xenons (2) 80' Condors each with two 20kWs (5) bare 20kW globes in each dome