Astronaut John Crichton assumed he would be home in time for dinner, but a freak accident during an experimental space mission catapults him across the universe into the midst of a major intergalactic conflict — a battle that 20th-century sci-fi pop culture never prepared him for. Caught aboard a living ship called Moya, Crichton joins a band of disparate aliens. Their bid to evade the Peacekeepers, a race of deadly mercenaries who will stop at nothing to capture him, leads them on an epic odyssey.

Farscape is a science-fiction drama that showcases feature-film-quality computer-generated special effects and innovative animatronic creatures created by The Jim Henson Creature Shop. The show was created by Rockne S. O'Bannon (The Twilight Zone, Alien Nation, Seaquest DSV), and is produced by Australia's Nine Films & Television and The Jim Henson Company in association with Hallmark Entertainment. The first 22-episode series of Farscape was filmed at Sydney's Fox Studios in Australia; the second series was filmed at Homebush in Sydney's west, where the third series is currently in production. Farscape is being shown on the SciFi Channel.

For the set and costume designers as well as the lighting people, Farscape is a visual delight offering the chance for imaginations to run wild. As a long-running series, the site at Homebush has three stages with permanent sets while each new episode usually requires a guest set. There are two stages through which the guest sets revolve.

Rigging gaffer Steve Johnson meets with the director and designer to discuss each episode and, in particular, the guest set in a model form. It is Johnson's job to second-guess director of photography Russell Bacon's choices and have the set ready to commence work.

“We've just filmed an episode called ‘Incubator,’” Johnson explains, displaying the model. “It's a torture chamber with a ‘heat condenser’ which had to go through three color changes. So we knew we had to light the set for three different states — a hot, cold, and 3200K look. The chamber is also constructed with a clear plastic finish which has its own lighting properties.”

Rather than taking the easy option of just lighting the set from above, Bacon and Johnson decided to also use 500 tungsten 40W lights hidden within the set to add an extra dimension to the walls. “We try to give each set something a little different even if it makes our job more difficult,” laughs Johnson. Also in this episode, Bacon wanted to do a quick iris pull on a xenon. Film xenons do not have an iris, so to achieve the desired effect Bacon used a Strong Gladiator 2kW xenon followspot.

As on many film sets time is the usual enemy for Johnson and the lighting crew. “It's very hard to light from models,” says Johnson. “You can have your ideas, but when you put them into practice you need some contingency time as some things invariably don't work. Often you only have one day to light the set and we don't have any gear of our own; it's all rented. Consequently if I need to add to the lighting it takes a day to get the gear. That's the difficult part.”

Panavision supplies the basic film lighting equipment, with intelligent lighting, which is often used on Farscape, hired from a variety of production companies in Sydney. “There's a lot of action happening so the director wants to have the versatility of changing speeds with his camera,” says Johnson. “We always have a lot of color changes and it's very expensive to get fluorescent lamps with electronic ballasts.”

Consequently the lighting stock on Farscape is usually tungsten, with appropriate gel coloring, all controlled through dimmers. The largest permanent rig is five Arri T12s rigged in the Command set and four Mole-Richardson 10kWs that are in the Maintenance Bay set for backlight.

Farscape does offer both Johnson and Bacon the opportunity to use a wide variety of fixtures other than just film lighting. “Being a science-fiction show we do push the parameters by using a lot of rock-and-roll-type lighting,” says Johnson. “These intelligent lights are expensive but they do give the DP versatility on the floor.”

Martin MAC 500s are used for color changes within space ships. None of the stages at Homebush have greenbeds, so intelligent lights such as the Martin MAC 500 allow for quick color changes without anyone having to access the roof to change gels.

“Most of this gear is produced for nightclubs or rock-and-roll venues which have low light levels,” continues Johnson. “We have an ambient light level of F2 to get exposure and those types of lamps have to work above that, so we need two or three stops above F2 before we can shoot with them.”

A favorite intelligent light is the Clay Paky Stage Zoom 1200: The show has had electronic ballasts especially fitted into theirs. “I like the versatility the Clay Paky Stage Zoom 1200s offer,” says Johnson. “We run them through a Jands Hog board. The gobos, strobing, and brightness are all useful. I usually get a console operator in for half a day and we work together getting a number of different looks for the DP to check out when he arrives.”

Another favorite contemporary fixture for Johnson is the Studio Due CityColor. “We had a good effect in the last series where we had a Palace set with silk walls, and the set had to evolve into different rooms,” explains Johnson. “We backlit the silk walls with the CityColors so the set had continuity of design except for the colors.”

On the day of my visit to the set of Farscape, the construction team was busy building for the episode entitled “Scratch and Sniff.” The set had a distinct 1960s psychedelic look to it and so Johnson had ordered a couple of Clay Paky VIP [Versatile Image Projector] DIAs with oil wheels to project groovy effects as well as three Clay Paky Stage Zoom 1200 fixtures.

Stage 10 houses the Command Module, Neural Cluster, and Transporter Pod sets with a Jands Event 120 desk for control and Jands HP6, HP12, and 10kW dimmers. Stage 18 accommodates the Maintenance Bay, Crew Quarters, Galley, and Passage Bays with lighting controlled by a Jands Hog 500. Stage 12 hosts the Pilot, Talon Bridge, Talon Passageway, and Talon Strategy Room sets. Stage 12 runs over 350 channels and, as with the other stages, utilizes a Jands desk and dimmers.

Each episode takes 10 days to film. There are two lighting teams: The A unit works for the first seven days and the B unit finishes the episode. Gaffer Martin Perrot heads the lighting crew of four including a console operator. Johnson is the only full-time rigging lighting staff.

“When Bacon arrives with his shooting crew, the set is lit and he just brings on his floor lights to light the cast,” says Johnson. “He'll bring in his Kino Flos and smaller lamps, 1kWs and 650Ws.”

To save on budget Johnson has adapted some lighting sources of his own. Instead of using 2k Blondies to backlight items such as windows he has built a board of light bulbs. “They're striplights with 40W white bubbles and we use them to make light boxes,” he says. “The start-up costs are greater but you make returns over time. They're reusable, you can swap them easily between windows, and they don't take up much space. We can also attach them to the set so if the set has to shift they go with it. It helps free up the lighting guys a bit. I nearly always use them through diffusion.”

In the Talon Passageway permanent set, the production team was keen to lower the rental cost of lighting; Johnson installed 4,000 festoon bulbs to light through the side walls.

“As gaffers, we have a tendency to overlight,” says Johnson. “When filming, it's much easier to turn a light off than to add one which takes half an hour of shooting time.

We may lay the perimeters but the DP makes the critical. I might know what amps are being drawn and where they are going but the DP is the one that has the eye, the meter, and calls the stops.”

DP Russell Bacon, who has worked on a variety of Australian films and television productions, is working on his second series of Farscape. “Once you've done this job, nothing else scares you because you have to work pretty fast,” he laughs. “You have to pull every technique you know out of the bag but at least it gives you a chance to express yourself. I try to give each episode a different feel and look; each of the directors has an idea of what they want to do and I try putting that onto the screen.

“Trying to keep to the schedule is my biggest challenge on Farscape as it's a really tight turnaround. The episodes are pretty big; there's a lot of action in each one.”

Bacon uses one Steadicam and three Panavision G2 cameras. As a rule, just one film stock, Kodak 200T, is used on Farscape. “Both myself and the B unit DP, Danny Batterham, are very familiar with the Kodak 200T film,” says Bacon. “We've only once had to use 500T for a very dark scene. We've done different things with the filming: We've bleach-bypassed episodes, done lots of ramping, and used infrared heat-seeking cameras for night vision. If you think of it, we'll have a go at it! If there's a new toy we'll try to use it.”

Generally Primo Zoom lenses are used on the G2 cameras. “It means you have to light it up a bit more but the focus pullers are used to that now,” added Bacon. “I hardly ever use filters unless we're colorizing something. We do use some classic soft effect filters on the cast wearing prosthetics and the animation characters if they look a bit rubbery.”

Bacon was particularly pleased with the episode entitled “Eat Me” where an identical ship to Moya, named Rohvu, was dying. “We just rigged the entire Moya original set blue and it looked really good,” says Bacon. “It was simple but effective. We just try to make each episode look different; no two are ever the same, and that's our aim.”

Contact the author at cat@bb.com.au.