ONFILM Interview: John Bartley, ASC, CSC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
bartley.jpg
John Bartley, ASC, CSC - Photo by D. Kirkland
ONFILM

“Everything you do in life helps you later on. I began my career lighting variety shows and TV news programs in Australia and as a gaffer in Canada. When I shot The X Files, we blended light and darkness so the audience saw some things, but wasn’t sure whether they saw other things. That added to the aura of mystery. For Lost, we strive for a lot of color saturation, particularly greens. There are also campfire scenes with saturated red tones lighting the darkness, and flash-forward and flashback sequences weaved into each episode. As a cinematographer, I have to be flexible and trust my instincts, especially when directors or actors do something spontaneous. I think movies and television have a great affect on society, because so many people get their ideas about past, current and future history from them.”

John Bartley, ASC, CSC earned an Emmy® Award and another nomination for The X Files, an Emmy nomination for Lost, and three ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nominations for The X Files. His other television credits include The Matthew Shepard Story; Black River; Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus; and the episodic series The Commish.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

A Conversation with John Bartley, ASC, CSC;
by Bob Fisher

 

 

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?

BARTLEY: I was born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand. It’s a city located on the southern tip of the north island. There is a channel between the two islands, and the wind can be extreme. We call it Windy Wellington.

QUESTION: What did your family do for a living?

BARTLEY: My father was a career Army officer. After he retired from the Army, he was the manager of an automobile parts shop and also worked for a local newspaper. My dad died at the early age of 53 when I was only 12 years old. My mother was the cashier at a local theater since she was 17 years old. They featured everything from stage plays to rock ‘n roll concerts. My brother and I were with her in the back of the ticket booth until she went home at night.

QUESTION: Did that experience influence your thinking about a career?

BARTLEY: I loved watching theater and saw many shows. During the week, we only got to stay until nine o’clock at night and then we would go home. But, on Saturdays mom would let us stay and see the whole musical or play. My first job in the theater was helping the actors with their wardrobes. That lasted about two weeks. To tell the truth, I didn’t know what to do with my life when I finished school. One of my uncles had an electrical contracting business. I worked with him as an apprentice electrician for four years and eight months, including backstage work at theaters.

QUESTION: What was the next step that you took in your career and life?

BARTLEY: I learned about the outside world by listening the BBC and other programs on short wave radio. After I finished my apprenticeship, I decided to move to Sydney, Australia. I stayed with some friends from New Zealand who worked for a theater company. They gave me a ticket to a stage production. After the play, I thanked the manager of the theater and told him that I thought the play was great. He introduced me to the lighting director who offered me a job.

QUESTION: What was your job?

BARTLEY: My first job was operating a rear screen projector during a stage play called The Flintstones. When it got to the end of a reel, I stopped the projector and loaded the next clip. After doing that for a while, I sent resumes to the three television stations in Sydney. I was hired as lighting director for Channel 7 in Sydney.

QUESTION: What did you do as lighting director for a TV station?

BARTLEY: I was responsible for lighting everything from variety shows to news broadcasts. I was really lucky. I didn’t know anything about television, but there were two lighting technicians at the station who taught me what I needed to know.

QUESTION: Did you learn things that helped you later in your career?

BARTLEY: Everything you do in life helps you later on. Television was black and white in those days. I learned how to use light to accentuate black-and-white tones and colors, so they helped tell stories on television screens.

QUESTION: What was the next step in your life and career?

BARTLEY: I decided to explore a different part of the world by moving to Toronto. It took about five months for me to get a work visa. After I got to Toronto, I found out that I couldn’t work at a TV station because I wasn’t in the union. I got a job with an equipment rental company. I initially worked in the maintenance department repairing and maintaining lighting and grip equipment. After a while, they sent me out on non-union jobs as a lamp operator on electrical crews.

QUESTION: Let’s turn the page to the next chapter.

BARTLEY: After about a year, they asked me to run their office in Vancouver. I remember thinking that they were going to pay me to see the country. The first job I did after arriving in Vancouver was changing a flat tire on the camera van.

QUESTION: When and how did you become a gaffer?

BARTLEY: That happened in 1976 on a film called Who’ll Save Our Children? The cinematographer was Don Wilder. For some reason, he decided to give me a chance. George Schaefer was the director and Shirley Jones and Len Cariou were in the cast. After that I worked as a gaffer on everything from commercials to TV programs and movies with Sven Nykvist (ASC), Hiro Norita (ASC), Tak Fujimoto (ASC), Frank Tidy, BSC, Bob Stevens (ASC) and other amazing cinematographers. There is no school like that.

QUESTION: This question could apply to all of them, but tell us what it was like working with Sven Nykvist?

BARTLEY: He was a wonderful human being. Sven just used a spot meter. I remember being too intimidated to bring my light meter out, so I learned to trust my eye. Sven was a brilliant filmmaker and warm human being. He showed me how to create looks by keeping the light level low and very subtly bringing it up to reveal things to the audience.

QUESTION: When and how did you begin working as a cinematographer?

BARTLEY: Around 1986, I began shooting film on weekends. Originally, it was trailers for movies and music videos that we often shot with short ends. Most of the time, they weren’t paying jobs. I did a lot of favors usually for young, aspiring directors.

QUESTION: When and how did you earn your first cinematography credit?

BARTLEY: It was in 1989. I got a phone call from David Saperstein, the director who also wrote the script for Beyond the Stars. He told me about his film, and asked if I was interested in shooting it. It was a science fiction movie with an absolutely great cast, including Martin Sheen, Sharon Stone and F. Murray Abraham. After I said yes, he asked if I could bring my reel to the hotel where he was staying. I didn’t have a reel, so I brought a bunch of three-quarter-inch videotapes of music videos and other things I had shot and my three-quarter-inch videotape machine to his hotel. He watched them over the weekend and called me Monday morning and asked me to shoot his film.

QUESTION: Did that first film push your career as a cinematographer into high gear?

BARTLEY: I thought my career would really take off, but absolutely nothing happened. I went back to mainly shooting commercials. I didn’t know what to think.

QUESTION: What kept you going in pursuit of your dream?

BARTLEY: It takes perseverance, but at times that is easier to say than do. A few years later, I shot a few low budget movies and began a two season run on a television series called The Commish, which was produced in Vancouver, Canada. Michael Chiklis was in the leading role as a police commissioner. There were a lot of great scripts.

QUESTION: You shot a few movies after two years of The Commish. In 1993, you began working on a classic television series, The X Files. Tell us about that experience.

BARTLEY: I had worked with Bob Goodwin, the producer, on other projects. He called and said he was starting a new series that I might like. Bob asked me to meet with him, Charlie Goldstein from 20th Century Fox and Chris Carter, who created, co-produced, scripted and occasionally directed episodes. Tom Del Ruth (ASC) had shot the pilot. During that first meeting, they discussed their ideas for making a program with a science fiction theme that looked and felt believable. They were planning to produce 12 episodes that first season. After our conversation, I went back home and thinking that I really wanted to do that show. I tried to contact Bob at the hotel at about 4 p.m., but he had already checked out. I called him at home, but his wife didn’t know where he was. He called me at about 5 p.m., and jokingly said that he tried really hard to convince them I wouldn’t want to shoot The X Files, but they still wanted me. We filmed The X Files in Vancouver (Canada) from 1993 through 1996.

QUESTION: The X Files was about two main characters who investigate stories about aliens on Earth. How would you describe the look or visual style that evolved?

BARTLEY: The look was dictated by the stories. I still remember shooting episode six that was directed by David Nutter. It was called ‘Ice.’ I think that episode took the series to the next level. David pushed the envelope and challenged me to make every shot better. We blended light and darkness. The audience saw some things, and they weren’t sure whether they saw other things. That added to the aura of mystery.

QUESTION: The use of darkness on television was a bit revolutionary at that time.

BARTLEY: A still photographer came up to me one day and said, ‘I figured you out. You light the walls, but you don’t light the actors.’ I told him sometimes that’s true. You light walls and let the actors find their light at the right moments. But, other times, we lit the actors and let everything in the backgrounds go dark, maybe with little highlights here and there. We didn’t reveal what’s in the darkness.

QUESTION: You earned more than a little recognition for your artful cinematography on The X Files. There were three consecutive nominations for Outstanding Achievement from your peers in the American Society of Cinematographers in 1995, 1996 and 1997. You were also nominated for an Emmy in 1995 and you won that award in 1996. We were wondering how those nominations by peers affected your career.

BARTLEY: I met a lot of people, and some said they would send me scripts someday, but I shot The X Files through 1995. That didn’t leave a lot of room for other projects.

QUESTION: Did The X Files affect your thinking about what you wanted to do?

BARTLEY: Not really. I enjoyed shooting the series. There were challenges everyday, and instantaneous decisions had to be made to keep pace with the schedule. I think shooting a television series is even more challenging today. Directors and producers have higher expectations. They want more shots and more alternatives without compromising. We used to do a wide shot and a couple of close-ups and move on to the next scene. Now, it’s more like 10 to 12 shots a scene. On Lost, we average 50 and 80 setups a day.

QUESTION: Why did you leave The X Files in the wake of all that success?

BARTLEY: I loved working with the people on The X Files, but I wanted to experience working in different places on different types of films. I went to Chicago, where I shot three episodes of a TV series called Early Edition. That led to an opportunity to shoot the first few episodes of The Visitor. Randy Zisk was the director. He and I have been friends ever since. That was the show which got me the hours I needed to become a member of the International Cinematographers Guild in the United States. That opened doors for me to work on other films produced in the United States.

QUESTION: That is a bit of an understatement. You have earned more than 20 credits during the past 10 years for movies made for television and episodic television. There are many notable achievements on that list. We are going to repeat an earlier question, and ask what you learned from working on those different projects.

BARTLEY: Every film and each director is a different experience.

QUESTION: How do you see television changing?

BARTLEY: I could take a month to answer that question. Things are always changing, and they are also staying the same. We shot The X Files in Super 35 format and framed for 4:3. We protected for 16:9, because we knew it was coming. We also do that on Lost.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about your experiences on Lost.

BARTLEY: I came onto Lost about mid-way through the first season. I was working on a television movie in New Orleans when my agent called and asked if I was interested in shooting alternate episodes of Lost. I had never been to Hawaii. They sent me some DVDs of episodes, and then I went to Hawaii and watched them shoot an episode for a day or so. Michael Bonvillian was the cinematographer, and there was a great crew.

QUESTION: How would you describe the look or visual style of Lost?

BARTLEY: As a lot of Lost takes place on a tropical island, the greens are saturated, skin tones are warm, and the hand-held camera is fast moving with four different sides of coverage. At night, a blue-green moonlight contrasts with saturated fire and torch light. Flashbacks and flash-forwards do not have a different look. It’s up to the audience to figure out forward or back.

QUESTION: Do you generally work with one or multiple cameras?

BARTLEY: In the beginning, it was mainly a one camera show. I liked that because it gave us more flexibility for lighting, and Paul Edwards, the operator, was always in the right place at the right time with the right composition. We are now mainly shooting with two cameras to get more coverage, but we are not compromising.

QUESTION: Cinematographers choose films to shoot with like artists choose paints for their palettes. What negatives are you currently using on Lost?

BARTLEY: We have mainly been using (KODAK VISION2 500T) 5218.

QUESTION: That’s interesting, because there are a lot of daylight exteriors.

BARTLEY: It is true that there are a fair number of daylight scenes on the island, but there are also flash forwards and flashbacks weaved into each episode. Many times, we are manipulating images while we shoot as well as in postproduction. There are also a lot of interior scenes that are filmed on sets on stages.

QUESTION: There are two of you shooting alternative episodes of Lost. How much prep time does that give you to get ready to shoot your episodes?

BARTLEY: We usually end up with four to five days of prep time after I read the script and talk with the director. Mainly, we use that time to scout locations. The gaffer and rigging gaffer have to see where we are shooting and what lighting I plan, so the cables and everything else are ready when we are. You have to plan, but you also have to be flexible when the directors or actors do something spontaneous.

QUESTION: Do you have different directors all the time?

BARTLEY: We have two producer/directors most of the time. Occasionally, they bring in other directors for specific episodes when that’s what the schedule requires.

QUESTION: What other negatives are used?

BARTLEY: The other negative is (KODAK VISION2 250D) 5205. It is supposed to be a daylight negative, but I have used it for scenes filmed in firelight and bright moonlight, usually when we want a contrast between very warm firelight and a cold night sky. There are no rules for making these types of decisions. You have to trust your instincts.

QUESTION: You were nominated for an Emmy this year. Tell us about that episode.

BARTLEY: ‘The Constant’ was the final episode of the season. It was the most lineal episode I shot all year. There were flash forward and flashback scenes, but they aren’t confusing for the audience. They always know where we are in time. We don’t want those scenes to be noticeably different to the eye. It is more like the audience innately knows they are watching things happening at different times and places.

QUESTION: Do you expose or process film for flash forward and flashback scenes?

BARTLEY: No. It’s in the performances, editing and the sound plays a huge role in Lost.

QUESTION: Tell us more about ‘The Constant’ episode.

BARTLEY: There is a new character named Desmond who arrives on the island in a yacht. He joins the people who are survivors of the plane crash. One of the survivors is a woman whom he is in love with, but her father is a business man who doesn’t think much of Desmond, because he’s an army officer who doesn’t have any money. That makes him a poor prospect as his daughter’s husband in the father’s mind.

QUESTION: This is a totally unfair question. Telling stories with moving images is a relatively new form of expression. What affect do you think that television and movies have on how we think and perceive the world we live in?

BARTLEY: I think movies and television have a great affect on society, because so many people get their ideas about past, current and future history that way.

QUESTION: Do you think filmmaking is a form of literature?

BARTLEY: Some films are obviously better than others, but I am always amazed when the Television Academy sends members DVDs of the different series and movies at Emmy time. Some incredible work is being done.

QUESTION: How do you answer when film students and other young people who want to be cinematographers ask for advice?

BARTLEY: I don’t think they come to me for advice. I think they just want to talk. Back in early 1995, a schoolgirl sent me an email from Australia. She was interested in cinematography, but lived in some country town that wasn’t anywhere near a film school. We exchanged emails from time to time. She would tell me what she was doing, and was always interested in hearing about what I was working on. We haven’t met, but I still get emails from her. She began working in the film industry in Australia as a video assist technician and is now pulling focus on some big movies. I still get emails from her about how hard it was to make certain shots and what she did. She always asks what I am working on and how it is going. The best advice I can give anyone it that there is nothing easy about working in this industry. You have to love it, because it is tough on family life when you are working 70 or 80 hours a week. Not everyone can do it.

Oscar and Academy Award are trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.