An Interview with Stargate's Gaffer, Rick Dean

Rick Dean "Around here, they'll tell you that I'm the only real alien on the set," laughs Rick Dean. As the head of the lighting department on Stargate SG-1, he creates the special lighting effects that give the show its mood. "I can stare into 20 thousand watt lights at full spot, and people can't even begin to look at the things, so I tell them it's my alien inner eyelids that close, so I can do that. It's quite a joke around here about that. They honestly, truly believe I'm not from this planet, I'm sure. Seriously!" he tries to insist, still laughing.

Extraterrestrial theories aside, there is magic in what lights can accomplish on a show like Stargate. "It's a very busy show for lighting," he remarks, "It's a lot of cues, with the gate going on and off at the proper time, and the chevrons coming on and off in the proper sequence. And in all that flurry, making sure that all the stars look really good in the lights," he adds with a smile, acknowledging the human element amid the special effects. "I just love my job. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. I just love using light, and manipulating light. And I've been doing this for 24 years now, so I have a few tricks up my sleeve."

The Ontario steel mills might seem an unusual starting place to develop a love of light, but Rick's interest in the film and television industry was actually sparked back in high school. "I started out in the steel mills in Hamilton, Ontario. I've been through all the ranks and all that. The strange thing was, in high school, in Hamilton, Ontario, the middle of nowhere, away from Hollywood, my grade 11 and 12 English Lit teacher managed to talk them into giving us a half a year of a film course. So back then, in Hamilton, I thought, how am I ever going to use a film course? But it was fun! And when I moved out here to Vancouver, I started working at the rental shop that rents the lights and cameras and stuff to the movies, making extension cords. That was 24 years ago. And now I'm in charge of lighting on Stargate! There's a big journey in between, but it's amazing how things happen."

Part of that big journey involved learning the art of lighting through experience. "I basically learned it on the job. It's a hands-on type of thing. Film school is mainly for camera department stuff. There aren't too many people who go through film school and then become a gaffer. Usually it is just working. You start as a permitee, just going out and learning what the lights are. The best way is what I did, starting at the rental house, so I learned what all the lights were, what they were called, basically what they did, because I had to test them before I sent them out all the time. So I came out onto the set with full knowledge of the fixtures, and what does what. And then it just took refinement over the years to narrow it down to the easiest way to do something, and the quickest and most efficient way to do it. There are lots of ways to do certain things. Some of them take two hours to set up, some of them take 15 minutes, and you accomplish basically the same effect. But someone with little experience might go the long route to try and get a simple effect. A lot of times on this show, they'll mention we want to do something, and ten guys go running off all in different directions, doing all this stuff, and I have to say, 'Just wait a minute, if we just do this, it'll be great.' And they're all like, 'Wow! That's a good idea!' And it just comes through experience, and being around, and doing a bunch of different movies and shows.

"I did a lot of television. I was the head of the lighting department at BCTV here in Vancouver for about ten years. And then I'd worked on numerous features as far back as The Changeling with George C. Scott in 1978. And I did Friday the 13th. I got to meet 'Jason.' He was a real good buddy. I've been through them all, from television movies to features." With the nature of the business, and on the job training, it is his years of experience and innovations that pave the way for those now learning the trade. "Exactly!" he agrees. "I can't call myself an artist, really, but it all comes so simple to me after the experience, that when I try to show somebody else and they don't get it, it's sort of frustrating. It's like, 'Why don't you just get that?'" he laughs, acknowledging his experiences as a teacher, as well as gaffer.

Stargate SG-1 gave Rick an opportunity to indulge two of his passions, both lighting and science fiction, not to mention sharing a name with the star and executive producer, Richard Dean Anderson "I came into the show halfway through the third year, and then took over the show at the beginning of the fourth year. It's just a love I have for science fiction, and this show especially because everybody's so much fun. And having the name Richard Dean helps a lot! It is my real name, and it was strange at first, because people call me Rick Dean, and when I first came here, they all called him Rick, or Rick Dean. So we'd be standing there and somebody would go, 'Rick!' and we'd both go, 'What?!' Then, 'Rick Dean!' and both of us, 'What?!' So after a few weeks he's going, 'Yep, that's it! You've got to change your name!' And I said, 'Okay, Rick. You can call me Mister Dean!' So from then on, everybody's been calling me Mr. Dean. It's great!"

A show like Stargate provides endless opportunities for creative lighting effects, and that's what Rick Dean finds so exciting. "Oh, I love it! I just love working with light. Light is just my thing. I've done a lot of rock and roll type lighting, and colored moving lights, and all that. But this type of lighting I just love because you can create the mood, and you get to go to other planets. And because you get to do other planets, there are no rules in the lighting. You know, this planet might have three suns. There's a lot of stuff you can get away with because you're not on Earth."

As with every other aspect of Stargate, creating effective lighting is a genuine collaboration of departments. As the gaffer, Rick coordinates with the grip department to introduce "practical" effects, those that are created on set as opposed to within the computer of a visual effects artist. The "interactive" effects use light reacting with the actors, props, or sets, and often provide the foundation for the visual effects to be added later. "The gaffer is the head of the lighting department, and electricity, and all that," Rick explains. "The grips are light refinement, basically. When we put a big light in to key light somebody, then they'll put a flag down on top to take it off the walls behind them, and siders, to take it off. They isolate the light to just what we want it on, because lights inherently blast all over the place. So if the light's too bright, they put in a type of diffusion, either opal or light grid, or some type of diffusion, to soften the light and make it more complimentary. The gaffer and the key grip, who's the head of the gripping department, we're the two heads of departments that talk to each other, and then we relay to our guys exactly what we want to do. And if they're not sure how to do it, we explain it to them, but if you have a good, trained crew, you just tell them to go out and do it. I have six guys on my crew, plus there's the grip crew of six guys. So it's a real team effort, a group thing. I mean, I come up with the ideas and stuff, but then all these other people execute it for me. The grip and lighting work very closely together, and the key grip and I are both basically under the director of photography. So he sets the shot up with the director, and then he tells us, okay, we're going to light this crowd of people over here. And then I'll decide what type of fixture we need to do that, and then set that in place. And then the key grip will refine it, soften it, or cut it down a bit, or whatever we decide we need to do."

In general, it is the director of photography, or "DP," who coordinates with the director to decide how a particular scene will be shot. He takes the light meter readings, and selects the f-stop settings that the cameras will use. "He takes a lot of the meter readings. A lot of gaffers don't do a lot of readings. We all carry meters so we can double check and all that, but it's depending how much the director of photography trusts you. On this show, both Pete Woeste and Jim Menard trust me that I can go out and meter it and give them the stop. Sometimes they'll even leave me in charge of giving the cameramen stop for the camera, but most times, the DP will do that." The director of photography also determines the best way to light the scene, again coordinating with the lighting department, and sometimes relying on the gaffer's particular expertise to create the desired effect. "Sometimes they have the idea," Rick explains. "Sometimes they know what they want but they don't know how to get it, so they come to me."

Very often, "practical" lighting effects are used in scenes that might otherwise require special effects. Showing the event horizon of an active stargate onscreen is an expensive visual effect, but an equally effective, and far less expensive, technique is to use a flickering blue light, reflected off the faces of the actors, to give the impression of an active wormhole, even when the stargate doesn't appear on the screen. "It just cuts down the cost of the show, to do visual effects and stuff, if we can manage to do it practically, with the lighting," Rick explains, referring to an explosion against the wall of the gateroom in the scene they are currently filming. "The one we just did there, the explosion behind the gate, would have been a vis-effects, but I just decided to use an 18K bounced out of a mirror cloth, and flash the 18,000 watt light. That gives the explosion light on the back of the wall, so now Vis-Effects doesn't have to do that. They'll look at it, depending on the exposure, but they won't have to do much to it. It should work very practically."

When explosions are called for, lighting effects are not only cost effective, but also safer for the actors. "For explosion interactive, if we're out and we shoot an explosion, then we turn around to show the people, we'll use orange colored light off of a shiny surface to flash on them to impersonate the explosion. They can't be close enough to the explosion to get the light on their face and then be safe. So we shoot them with either stunt people or whatever, in proximity to the explosion, and then when we go in for close-ups, it's my job to impersonate that flash of light, of whatever color it is. Sometimes it's bright blue light if we're on a different planet, and one of the ascended beings is going by or something."

Many of the visual effects used in the series are actually enhanced by practical lighting. The ring transporter, for example, could be done entirely as a visual effect, but special lighting makes the effect more believable. "What we do is we have hot lights when the rings come down. We bring up these bright lights and make the people glow, and then Vis-Effects puts the rings in. Then we take our lights out, and then the rings go away. We work quite hand-in-hand with Visual Effects. Their stuff's good, but if they take just a plain picture with no lighting, there's nothing to build from. So we give them a little interactive. When there's staff blasts and stuff like that, sometimes we use strobes to light the person. Special Effects put in the little explosions on them, and then we just enhance that by flashing light at the same time. There are just little subtle things we throw in that just give the illusion. It softens the transfer from a plain picture to a visual effects picture, because your eyes see a light start to change, which gets your mind's attention, and then the visual effects take over. So it really helps them out to give them some type of interactive whenever there's any type of beaming or ringing or any of that stuff."

Subtle illusions can also very effectively set the mood of a scene, or of an episode. Nightwalkers, for example, relied on sharp contrasts of light and shadow to give the feel of a horror movie. Director Peter DeLuise and director of photography Peter Woeste designed the scenes specifically with that in mind, and the nighttime arrival of the NID agents, approaching in a long row and carrying flashlights, made particularly effective use of strong backlighting to set the tone. Having established the look he wanted, Peter Woeste turned to Rick Dean to carry it out. "For that particular shot he says, I want you all to line up in heavy backlight. And so then I decide to bring in what they call a starlight crane, which goes 125 feet in the air, and put two 18 thousand watt lights up there. That's what gives them the long shadows, and the glow, and the heavy backlight and all that. They come up with the concept, and then basically it's up to me to decide what fixture and what equipment is going to accomplish that effect for them."

Orchestrating lighting effects and coordinating with DPs, grips, and visual effects is the typical job of a gaffer, but Rick's favorite part of the job is the part that many gaffers don't do. It's the hands-on part he loves the most, the chance to get right into the scene and be the light. Many viewers may be surprised to learn, for example, that ascended beings are more than just glowy visual effects. In order to create believable shadows, the likes of Oma Desala and Orlin are in fact played by Rick Dean, wearing his special hat. "When Shifu, a few years ago, came through and went up the ramp, that was actually me. I actually have a hat I wear with a strap, and a light mounts on the top. And I just walk through the shot where he would be, and then they just cover me with the white glow. I do a lot of that. In Ascension where the glowy people are around, I do many passes through whatever room they're in. It's like a bare 5000 watt bulb, which gives all the shadows on the walls and everything. And then Visual Effects takes me and the light out of the shot, and puts in the center glow part that's supposed to be creating the light. For all the shadows and everything that moved when Daniel Jackson ascended out of the bed in the infirmary, I was up on top of the walls with a long pole with a light down in there, and I went up over each wall slowly so it gave all the shadows of everything in the room, going up the wall. And then they put in the actual person floating up. That's one thing I love, getting right in there and being the light. I have to be in the middle of it. I can't just sit back. I'm sure there's miles of footage on shelves from the old shows of me running around with hats and my lights, and lights on long poles. When I first started doing it, nobody else had ever seen a gaffer that would jump in and do this stuff. I think they thought I was pretty crazy at first, but now they've gotten used to me!" he laughs.

Rick has been an avid science fiction fan since even before he was a gaffer. "Oh, huge, huge!" he declares. "I used to sit and watch Star Trek and eat dinner every day." Looking down at the alien prominently displayed on his shirt, he admits with a grin, "Most of my clothes have aliens on them somewhere." Being a fan himself, he truly enjoys mingling with the fans of Stargate whom he has had the opportunity to meet. He has attended the Gatecon conventions in Vancouver, and has volunteered his time to conduct the tour of the studio for certain lucky fans. It gives him the opportunity to do what he loves, to share science fiction, to work with lights, and to meet other fans. "I do all the tours for the contest winners, and I do a bit of a show for them. I have them in the halls, and have the red flashers come on, and tell them it's an unauthorized incoming wormhole. And then we have the iris in with the interactive going on, like the gate's really active. It's the only way to make it look like the gate's really working without getting cheesy. It's so much fun. I did it the first year, and it was so much fun that I volunteered again last year." With the enthusiasm of a fan, he declares, "I just do it on my own time because I love the show and I think it's great that fans go to this trouble to come here and show their appreciation, you know? I just love it!"

Ritter, Kate. "Let There Be Light." September 12, 2002.

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