HBO's acclaimed series Six Feet Under, shot by Alan Caso, ASC, bucks television conventions.

Week after week, director of photography Alan Caso, ASC brings the dead to life on Six Feet Under. Nominated for 23 Emmys this year (including Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series), the acclaimed HBO series follows the Fisher family, morticians whose work has an odd way of following them around after hours.

Visually, Six Feet Under strives for more than simply creating a "look" – the show actually develops visual themes, using the camera to tell the audience about its colorful characters. The Fishers, who reside in the mortuary’s living quarters, include Ruth, the distant matriarch; her adolescent daughter Claire; sons David and Nate; and the deceased but ever-present patriarch, Nathaniel. Rounding out the cast are Nate’s unhinged girlfriend, Brenda; her mentally ill brother Billy, and David’s boyfriend, Keith.

For series creator Alan Ball, the show’s wry tagline, "Your whole life is leading up to this …," is accurate. "When I was an adolescent, I had some very striking experiences at funerals," says Ball, whose Oscar for American Beauty’s screenplay helped him convince HBO to back his groundbreaking series. "What I remember most about the funeral homes was that everything seemed muffled inside. I remember the colors being very muted, the music being very soft and soothing, and everything feeling like it was a bit trapped in time, so I put all of that into the pilot script. When I write, I visualize things, and I wanted to show that these characters are kind of buried. But whatever problems the Fishers have, they really love each other; they just don’t know how to express it. I very much wanted the scenes inside the mortuary to have a different feel, as though there’s something almost cocoon-like about the home itself. They’re sort of living ‘six feet under,’ if you will."

In his search for a cinematographer, however, Ball sought someone who could do far more than just capture that feeling. He wanted a director of photography who would bring a cinematic sensibility to TV, and who would strive to create a visual palette that would not only tell the story of the Fisher & Sons funeral home, but also comment on it. He also wanted someone who would work with him, despite the fact that he had never directed before. "I interviewed a lot of cinematographers, and I sensed that they were thinking, ‘Ah, first-time director,’ [which might later lead them to] argue with the way I wanted to shoot things," Ball says. "I wanted somebody who would collaborate with me, not bully me. I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t know anything about lighting or camera angles, but I wanted to use them in a way that was organic and that supported what was going on in the characters’ lives."

Luckily, Ball found Caso, whose credits include Muppets in Space and film and TV projects helmed by John Frankenheimer (Reindeer Games, George Wallace). Ball quickly realized that Caso knew how to frame a shot for maximum dramatic impact; he also sensed that the cameraman was eager to develop a unique look for the series. "Alan really didn’t know what he wanted, but he knew he wanted the visual language to be different," Caso explains. "The minute I read the script, I knew exactly what the language was and where I wanted to go with it. I gave him all of my ideas and we kicked them back and forth. By the end of three weeks, we had a pretty solid idea of what to do."

Together, the pair developed what Ball calls "an anti-TV language." Caso describes it as "a combination of very painterly, motivated, natural lighting, desaturated colors, and lots of depth."

Caso chose Primo lenses to film the show, noting that "they’re very sharp, yet give me a soft edge. I usually keep a quarter Tiffen Pro-Mist on the lens to give everything a nice patina. I also felt that we should stay away from all of the ‘normal’ TV lenses, which encompass the middle range from 30mm to 75mm. Those lenses can’t be found on our truck."

The show’s famously "frigid" imagery is captured on Kodak film stocks. "This show needed a sharper, more contrasty edge, and Kodak renders the pastels really well," Caso details. "I use low-contrast Vision [320T] 5277 for most exteriors, but I’ll use [Vision 800T] 5289 when I’m outside in an available-light, night situation. For every other night exterior and all interiors, I like [Vision 500T] 5279, which is a multi-use workhorse that has great color and contrast range. It’s also pretty malleable; I can underdevelop and overexpose it, it desaturates easily, and it holds secondary colors very well."

The combined effect of these choices is imagery that evokes a black-and-white look – but in color. "We didn’t want to go too dark and bleary, but we wanted really muted, desaturated tones," Caso recalls. "I let the blacks sit down really well, but I always have a little bit of detail in there. I like mixing light, and I always have something bright in the frame, like an edge or a hot spot on a body or a wall – a little light at the end of the tunnel, you might say, because I think death is in the backwater of everybody’s consciousness."

Ball found Caso extremely helpful in shaping the horrific car crash that kills Nathaniel early in the pilot episode. This key moment set the visual tone for the deaths that would open each subsequent episode. More importantly, Caso understood how to visualize the ongoing conflict of fantasy vs. reality that makes the show so different. "I had envisioned a fantasy sequence where David starts screaming in front of everyone, and Alan came up with this idea to ‘push in’ on him," Ball recalls. "Then, when we cut back and see the other characters, you see that he’s no longer screaming, and it’s all going on inside his head."

Six Feet Under is permeated by other visual elements that were established in the pilot, including playing much of the action in wider shots. "Producers have this desperate need to constantly move the camera," says Caso, who adds that this trend is not always appropriate. "I think that shows like CSI, NYPD Blue and ER really need [movement], but this show absolutely does not. We actually took our approach to the other extreme. We said, ‘Let’s just format this like we’re shooting 1:85:1 and it’s going to be on the big screen. Let’s not be afraid of the wide shot – let’s go really wide. Let’s provide these proscenia for the actors to play in and make bold statements about the emptiness of someone’s life by isolating him, creating a conflict within the composition of the frame, or show his misery by making him look small and insignificant in the frame.’" Caso notes that he does enjoy moving the camera when it’s called for, however. "Having been a Steadicam operator for many years, I understand how to move a camera on several levels," he says. "That’s probably why I’m choosy about when I do it."

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.