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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 23, 2010

For John Bartley, it's all about 'painting with light'

 •  Lost in emotions

By Heidi Chang
Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bartley says six years of living in Hawaii, with its values such as friendship and family, has changed him.

Courtesy of The Vilcek Foundation

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

“Lost” cinematographer John Bartley and director Jack Bender, center, talk with some of the cast members on set near London Bridge. Bartley credits the cast and writers for attracting a worldwide audience.


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bartley and Bender. Bartley won’t divulge anything about the season finale, but he promises it will be exciting.


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When you're working as a cinematographer on the hit TV drama "Lost," be prepared to capture the unexpected, like the wrath of polar bears, or wild boars suddenly charging at you out of the jungle.

That's what John Bartley has been doing ever since he started working on "Lost" during its first season in 2004.

Bartley, one of the two directors of photography for ABC's hit show, has worked on the series the longest.

For Bartley, creating the eerie and mysterious world inhabited by survivors of a plane crash was a constant challenge, from dealing with Hawai'i's changing weather to shooting near or in the ocean, or night scenes in the jungle, with no light.

And don't forget those flashback scenes made to look like Nigeria, Korea, Iraq, Scotland ... or Pittsburgh with snow.

Bartley thinks Hawai'i's ability to double for so many diverse locations in "Lost" has helped change its image as a tropical backlot. He also credits Hawai'i's good weather and tax incentives for attracting TV and film productions.


So what is the look of "Lost?"

"You might say it has a lot to do with the lighting and camera moves capturing the ensemble cast," Bartley said. "The actors don't wear makeup. It's not glamorous or pretty, but it works in a raw way.

"I don't think it's a real new look for television, but it's an interesting look for television ... the camera moving all the time. It stops during the flashbacks. But when we're in the jungle with these characters, and there's tension building, we do a lot of hand-held camera work. ... I think it adds much to the tension in the show.

There's a color scheme, too: "saturated green colors and the warm sun," Bartley said.


In the TV and film industry, Bartley is known for his skillful use of darkness and shadow. In fact, one Web site dubbed him the "Shadow Master of the Macabre."

Bartley laughed when that nickname was raised: "You know what's funny, I don't even like the supernatural or any of that kind of stuff," he said. "I actually prefer normal, dramatic stuff. I do like fantasy."

He added, "I really like painting with light."

Bartley, who was born in New Zealand, got his start working in television and film in Australia and Canada. His big break came in the '90s, when he worked on "The X-Files" as a director of photography, and won an Emmy.

Now 63, the gray-haired Bartley says he never planned his career.

"I just got lucky, worked on some really good movies," he recalled, noting his early work with the late cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who won two Oscars for films made with legendary director Ingmar Berman.

Early on, Bartley was also a fan of Alfred Hitchcock. "I found 'The Birds' the most terrifying movie I'd ever seen. And today, every time I see a flock of birds, I think about that," he said, laughing.


Bartley credits the talented cast, and the storytelling, for making "Lost" so successful in attracting a worldwide audience.

"I think everybody has interesting lives (in the series)," he said. "And I think gradually we get to know these characters, and we get to see what they've done before. We get to delve into their past.

"In the sixth season, we explored side stories — what would happen if the plane didn't crash. But the characters still remained connected in some form, even though they don't know why."

Bartley also noted the appeal of the show's international cast. "These people are from all over — Canada, Korea, Australia, U.K. — it makes for an interesting group of people," he said.


Looking back, Bartley says working on "Lost" has made him a better cinematographer.

"I'm much more comfortable working out in the daytime now than I was before," he said. And he remains passionate about his future work as a cinematographer. "I love what I'm doing. And when it's not so good, it makes me strive to do better."

Reflecting on his six years of living in Hawai'i, Bartley said, "I think it does change you as a person. Hawai'i is a special place, with an emphasis on different values, on things like friendship and family."

For now, Bartley is based in Los Angeles. He's currently in negotiations to shoot a new TV series called "Undercover" for NBC, and Bad Robot Productions, a company owned by J.J. Abrams, which produces "Lost."

As for the "Lost" finale, Bartley won't divulge anything, but he promises it will be exciting.

"As a viewer, it's been a great journey watching these people, (seeing) how the characters have changed," says Bartley. "A lot of these characters have done some pretty nasty things. They're flawed. I think everybody in real life and the show has problems. And we feel good, because for an hour, watching "Lost," we forget about our own."