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Emmy FYC: “The X-Files” Production Designer Mark Freeborn

Still of Rhys Darby in Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster and The X-Files. Photo credit: Fox Networks

By Marjorie Galas

Mark Freeborn was excited to be inducted into the “The X-Files” television universe.  Although the production designer was not involved with the original series, he had a long-standing relationship with the show’s creator, Chris Carter.  Freeborn worked as production designer on Carter’s “Millennium”, “Harsh Realm” and “The X-Files” spin-offs “The Lone Gunman” and theatrical release “The X-Files: I Want To Believe.”  Thrilled to reteam with Carter, Freeborn began his process by revisiting the original series, reviewing the trajectory of the look over the show’s nine seasons.  His goal was to push its signature dark, moody aesthetic to points of even greater intensity.

“I wanted to pull it down further and play with the dirt and decay,” said Freeborn.  “For example, Mulder’s completely let himself go. The dinginess of his home reflects his emotional state.  The office was closed, and had to show the state of darkness and decay.”

If recreating some iconic sets, such as Mulder’s (David Duchovny) apartment and office, wasn’t tricky enough, Freeborn had another challenge that greatly affected the overall look of the series.   The six episode reboot was shot in California during the summer, instead of the original’s fall schedule in various Canadian locations.   The abundance of light and vastly different color tempurature required a deeper color palette, and placed extra challenges on outdoor locations resulting in extremely early shooting schedules.

“A lot of the palette was established years ago on ‘The X-Files’ and a similar palette was used on ‘Millineum’, however we had to go slightly darker,” said Freeborn.  “We worked with a lot of colors based in nature.  Both Chris and I rarely use red, unless it is used specifically in the story.”

One of Freeborn’s greatest design challenges on the show came in the creation of space crafts used in the first episode.   While the craft falling to Earth was a visual effect, every other shot of the craft required a practical build.  Freeborn and his team constructed the giant craft in a sound stage, then disassembled the piece, packed it on a truck and drove it three and a half hours to the practical location.  The creation had a base of plywood and steel, and Styrofoam blocks were cut and fitted into the body like a puzzle.  Each panel was painted separately – with special attention paid to assure the paint wouldn’t chip or scrap off during dismantling and re-assembly.

Much like the original series, the six episode arc featured stand-alone episodes that provided unique settings such as a backwoods tourist hotel, a high tech medical facility, a homeless camp and an art studio in the basement of an abandoned building.  Having worked with the writers and directors of the new episodes from past Carter projects, including Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, James Wong (not to mention Carter himself), Freeborn had an insight into each individual’s intent and stylistic choices.  While Freeborn indicates he has massive amounts of creative opportunities working on a show that married social commentary, fantasy and darkly comic elements, his main goal was always to create environments that fully serviced each individual story.

An example of Freeborn’s commitment to servicing the story is found in an episode written by Darin Morgan entitled “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” Set in a small, woodsy town, the story featured a man who would turn into a blood thirsty reptile at the rise of a full moon.  A hallmark of Morgan’s writing, the script was quick witted and full of absurdity but had a deep rooted and sincere philosophical focus.  While the concept of the creature was comical, it was actually based on reality.  Freeborn’s design aimed to balanced the complexity of the script.  The rooms of the hotel were slightly cartoon-ish, featuring wood paneling and cheap carpets, and the set dressing was adorned with stereotypical furnishings in muted forest colors.  This location was offset with a tinge of darkness, with the snake-like compartments behind the walls used to spy on occupants; a design that both served the story and mirrored the deep connections of perception and reality displayed in the writing.

“I can get into Chris’ head, and some with Glen, Jim and Darin,” said Freeborn.  “There is a lot of mutual respect.  I’m very free to work, but I don’t want to surprise them.  There is no creative vanity.  Ultimately it is about servicing the script.”

Freeborn cherishes the connections he’s made with all the talented staff who’ve emerged from the Carter universe.  Prior to “The X-Files” reboot, Freeborn collaborated with fellow Carter alum Vince Gilligan on every season of the critically acclaimed “Breaking Bad.”  At this time there are no set dates for additional episodes of “The X-Files” – however, if the show does return, Freeborn would enjoy the opportunity to re-unite with the creative minds Carter attracts.

“We’ll see what the future holds,” said Freeborn.