Six Feet Under Walks a Fine Visual Line Between Life and Death

It doesn't take long to recognize that there's something different, something, well, weird about the HBO series Six Feet Under, which started its second season in March. The look and the feel of the show, which is about a dysfunctional family of funeral home operators, bears little resemblance to the typical television drama. It's hard to put your finger on what it is — certainly the language, sex, and subject matter are much more explicit than in a network series, but you could say that about any show on HBO or Showtime. No, there's an organic peculiarity to the program: It has a basic stillness about it, and something dreamlike as well.

Director of photography Alan Caso, who shot the Six Feet Under pilot and the majority of episodes since, says the show's particular quality was arrived at through close collaboration with series creator Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning scribe of American Beauty. “Alan was looking for a different reality,” the DP. “It's a funeral home, so there's a fine line between life and death, and a fine line between reality and fantasy.” He adds that during the first season, “we were feeling our way around,” but now everyone is much more confident about the series, especially given its slow blossoming into popularity last summer. Far from pushing up daisies, Six Feet Under has returned to the air stronger than ever, with an intact cast including Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall as Fisher brothers Nate and David, Frances Conroy as mother Ruth, Lauren Ambrose as sister Claire, and Rachel Griffths as Nate's girlfriend Brenda.

There are ghosts on hand, too — chief among them the Fisher family patriarch (Richard Jenkins), who died in the pilot. But the DP says, “We never do ghosts with the typical set of tricks. We either cut to them, or dolly around somebody, and boom, they're there. The world of death is always very near by; it's just a fact of life, like eating, sleeping, and all the other bodily functions.”

According to Caso, whose credits include the feature films 84 Charlie Mopic and Reindeer Games, there are a number of techniques by which Six Feet Under nails its style. “It's a long list of factors that come together to make up a slightly different view of the world than is usually presented on a TV series,” he says. “Lighting-wise, it's very naturally motivated: moody, yet not stylized like so many network TV shows now, which go for a very high style. We've denaturated the color quite a bit, because a funeral home is not Technicolor, it's much more of a somber, earth-toned kind of thing.” Caso adds that 3/4 of this desaturation is accomplished by the production and costume design, and the rest in telecine. “It's the feeling you get around death, the feeling you get around the desperation of life — things are more muted.”

The DP favors a fairly low contrast by using Kodak's 320T Vision 77 stock for day exteriors and some day interiors, but he rates it at 200, to “kick a little contrast back in.” For nights and other day interiors, he uses the 500T Vision 79 stock, and occasionally goes to the 800T 89 film on locations where he needs to grab ambient light.

Perhaps most crucially, Six Feet Under's shooting style places it firmly in the cinematic realm. Camera angles are often low, “almost never on eye level.” The DP says, “99% of TV is all middle-sized lenses or very long telephoto lenses. But I've thrown out lenses between 35 and 75mm — we don't use them, they're not even on the truck. Everything we shoot is either really wide-angle, or long, 150 to 100mm. Our masters are generally shot with a 21mm. We're placing the audience inside the personal space of the actor with a 21, 24mm lens all the time: We want to make it a little uncomfortable to be there. Last year, I did use 40, 50, and 60mm lenses, because it was convenient. This season, we're much more militant about getting it further out there.”

In addition, Caso says, “I go for extreme depth of focus. It's not rare that I'll be shooting a night interior at t5.6, or day interiors at t8. I'm always playing foreground, background, and several planes between, so the viewer's always aware of different dimensions.

“We play the wide shot a lot,” the DP continues. “We move the camera only when it's organically motivated by the actors. It's never movement for movement's sake, for the kinetic thrill, like on some network shows, where it's almost a mandate to keep the camera going.” Steadicam is frequently used, and two cameras are employed during some scenes. “But usually the second camera is never shooting the same subject, it's shooting somebody else or some other little detail, around to the deeper side of the light. The problem is, when you get two cameras shooting wide lenses, you inevitably get into each other's shots.”

Practical Concerns

The impact of all this on the lighting style is that it limits one's choices. “Because of the low angles, we're always throwing in ceiling pieces,” says Caso. “I try to avoid lighting from above on studio sets anyway, though it's convenient to do so. With ceiling pieces in there half the time, it's negated that. So we're almost forced to light practically, even on the stage. If you're using wider lenses as well, it narrows your edges. I'm a person who doesn't light very much from camera area at all, I like half-light, edge-light, backlight, with just a little fill from camera. So I'm always pushing the edges of the frame; it takes more time, but at least you're not dealing with multiple shadows. The light is simple — you just have to shoot underneath or hide it or do something so it doesn't get into the frame.” Gaffer Roger Sassen says a “huge Kino Flo package” helps the show out in all the situations where lighting from the floor is a necessity.

Overall, says Caso, “There's nothing for us to be derivative of, because there's no subject matter like this on TV. That means we have to come up with stuff that's unusual and particular to us — the way we solve it is to say, ‘Let's just write our own language.’”

Geared for Naturalism

The show shoots on a nine-day schedule, which is one day more than the normal hour-long network series, but less time per script page if you consider the commercial-free time slot a cable show must fill. Caso says episodes average two to five days on location around Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, with the rest onstage at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. Standing sets include various rooms in the Fisher family home — kitchen, living room, front hall, bedrooms — and adjacent business. The latter spaces include the prep room, the lab-like space in the basement where bodies are embalmed and dressed; the slumber room, where bodies are shown; and the wisteria room, where families are met.

“The set sort of dictates what we do,” says Sassen, who has been working with Caso for more than a dozen years. “It's like grandma's funeral home; the prep room is like the basement of grandma's house.” Meaning that, overall, the Fisher home does have something of a warm, comforting feel to it. The kitchen, for example, is a large, homey space, lit with “probably 30 2ks and a dozen 5ks, with 40 skypans on the cyc outside,” says Sassen. Most of the studio lights are Mole-Richardson, with 10ks at the upper range because, the gaffer says, “I need the punch but not the big spread of a 20k. And we use Lee 129, a heavy white diffusion, in front of them.”

Originally, Sassen adds, “We had a dozen space lights outside the kitchen windows, then GAM came around and showed us their new Top Lights, which are like high-tech chicken coops. So we took out our 12 space lights and put in five Top Lights, because we got just as much poop out of them.” Four nine-light Maxi Brutes with VNSP globes are hung over the sun porch outside the kitchen.

“For sunlight, I like to use either a PAR light with a very narrow spot, or a full spot, cut and broken down and clipped off so you're getting the essence of the center of the beam,” says Caso. He also likes to use bounce light creatively, wrapping b-board or door edges with Rosco foil, and to mix soft light with small, overexposed hot spots on an actor's shoulders or on tabletops. For nighttime interiors, the DP and gaffer use steel blue Lee 117 rather than standard CTB as a moonlight filter. “And we pretty much turn on only the practicals we need,” says Sassen. Caso explains, “There's nothing more irritating than a source that's on just to be on. What I love is practicals that aren't on in the shots.”

Though the prep room has a couple of overhead fluorescent tubes, Caso says those often go unused. “I don't feel like I need to make this look like Quincy,” he says. “The reality can be tweaked a little bit.” Frequently he uses the room's crinkled-glass windows for an “eerie” source light. Otherwise, the set contains “probably 40 babies, 20 tweenies, a dozen PAR cans, and a half-dozen ellipsoidals,” says Sassen. The dark-paneled slumber room and other funeral areas, which also include new office and casket room sets, are comparatively somber, and are lit primarily with about 40 2ks. Rounding out the package on this contiguous stage are a dozen Kino Flo 2Banks, six 5ks, and 12-15 10ks. Bodies laid out in a casket are always lit with pink pinspots, “just to give them some life,” says the gaffer.

Sassen rents all of his equipment from Cinelease in Burbank. “Most of the stuff is brand-new this year, right from Mole,” he says. The show's location package includes Mole tungsten lights and LTM HMIs, and the production allows for Musco rental on big night exteriors.

Wherever he's working, Caso likes to remain flexible. He says, “Sometimes when we're shooting on practical locations, if the natural light is good, I'll just rush it together. Or if we're rehearsing on a stage with a work light and it looks great, that may be the way I'll light it. Sometimes a performance tells me where I'd like to light. You have to go with it. When I get in a situation like that, I turn two or three lights off, because the more complicated the lighting, the more restricted they are. I just think simple is better.”

Contact the author at jcalhoun@primediabusiness.com.