Ball, a graduate of Florida State University’s School of Theatre, feels that the series’ aesthetic "probably comes from my theater background – I was a playwright before I sold my soul to the devil and became a sitcom writer. One of the problems I have with TV is that it tends to spoon-feed viewers. I don’t like doing that because I want subtext to remain subtext, and I enjoy the possibility of creating different interpretations so that the show is not exactly the same experience for everyone. I didn’t want a constant parade of close-ups, and Alan’s always been on board with that. When we were shooting the pilot, we set up a shot of Nate and Claire looking down a forced-perspective hallway, and everybody said, ‘They’re too far away.’ But I said, ‘No, let’s leave it wide.’

"Also, we have such a great cast that we can play an entire scene wide and not go in for traditional coverage, so we like to have a few scenes in every show that are just one-shots," Ball continues. "That’s not because it’s expedient, but because it gives the show a slightly different rhythm. Our show is not so much about cutting back and forth between close-ups; it’s about actually composing a picture within a frame, and I wanted those compositions to have some subtext. I think Alan loves the wide shots because that’s when he really gets to paint with the light."

Caso says he shares Ball’s dislike of TV’s heavy reliance on close-ups: "We don’t rely on the ‘Get to the close-ups so we can get to the dialogue’ approach. We hold off till they really mean something, and then we cut in, and those close-ups have great impact."

Caso consciously avoids most of TV’s visual vernacular, such has keeping the camera at eye level. "I insist on some bizarre compositions. I like low and high angles, stacking two-shots, getting everybody involved and using depth diagonally in the frame. We play with deep focus a lot, working with planes of color so that there’s always something more than the main subject to look at. I also like to split focus, with a big face welling up with tears in the foreground and the person in the background also in focus."

Ball and Caso also chose to create distinct photographic treatments for each of the show’s characters. "It’s about making each shot reflect what’s going on internally for these characters, and in the story, on an unconscious visual level," Ball states. "Why do we shoot Ruth sitting far away from everyone? Because she’s so disconnected from her family and herself. Alan really understands the visual language. It’s not about finding a groovy angle, it’s about finding out what that angle tells us about the character."

Similarly, Caso tries to position and shoot David, the gay family member, so that his discomfort is palpable. "We put the camera inside David’s personal space, which takes the audience inside the action," Caso explains. "Viewers are not just armchair observers of this world; we’re putting them right in the middle of it, forcing them to feel the discomfiture of David and the other characters. There’s no backing away, there’s no getting out of it."

Caso considers Nate and Claire to be the series’ sanest characters, so he often poses them casually in a shot. "That’s probably the most normal filmmaking we do. Nate’s a casual guy, the emotional lock of the family, so although he’s dealing with a life-threatening [brain injury] and is really the most fragile of all, we keep him stabilized compositionally. He’s usually the centerpiece. While Claire may look normal in the shot, we like the world around her to be really skewed because her world is very skewed. "

When Nate and Claire get stirred up, though, Caso likes to pull out all the stops. "When Claire’s freaking out, the cinematography will reflect it," Caso says. "Likewise, when Nate gets himself in crazy places, we get right into his face. There’s a first-season scene where he’s really stoned at his girlfriend’s house, and we had him wear a rig so that the camera would be 10 inches from his face no matter where he walked."

Visually, Brenda and her disturbed brother Billy are the show’s wild cards. "Brenda is all over the place, bouncing off the frame walls," Caso notes. "She’ll be doing something normal, just sitting off in the corner, lying in a wacky position or dropping out of frame, and then she’ll loom out and do her thing. Billy is her alter ego, so he’s also a roll of the dice. When they’re in a scene together, they push each other’s buttons and drive each other crazy, so we position them at opposite ends of the frame to show that the dynamic between them, and its effect on their world, is pretty crazy."

More straightforward is the approach to Six Feet Under’s "ghosts," dead characters like Nathaniel who pop up from time to time to speak with and observe the Fishers. "They’re not really ghosts," Ball stresses. "They’re a literary device to articulate what’s going on in the living characters’ minds, so I didn’t want them to seem supernatural. I didn’t want to do any spooky lighting or otherworldly stuff. When our characters are talking to the dead, it’s not much different than staring at the wall. When death has touched your life in such a frighteningly intimate way, your entire world becomes surreal. Alan really understood that concept, and we decided to play the reality of those moments the same as [we would] the reality of any other."

Although the show has a signature look, Caso says he is wary of repeating himself. "Very rarely do I say, ‘Let’s do this because we’ve done it before,’" he maintains. "There are more thematic ways to shoot a scene besides reprising a specific angle or lighting scheme. It’s more about capturing the spirit of a composition or movement or blocking. For example, say we’re shooting Ruth alone in the dining room. The fact that she’s alone at the table is the theme. We’re not always going to put a 14mm lens at one end of the table to make her a small figure at the other end, even if the director loved it in Episode 2 last year. When we’re getting ready to shoot, I’ll say, ‘Let’s cross [over behind] the back of her head and show the table stretching out in front of her instead.’ It’s clearly a reprise, but it’s shot in a different way."

Just as each character has his or her own visual scheme, so too does each room of the Fisher & Sons funeral home. Much of the action is played in the kitchen, which Ball insists is the most important location because the story is a family drama. "The kitchen is the heart of the home, the source of nourishment and sustenance, the congregating place, the hearth," Ball notes. "But it’s not a completely warm and rosy place, because the Fishers live in the constant presence of death. Death is like the fifth family member. I choose to think that this throws their lives into stark relief, so when we were doing production design for the pilot, I wanted everything to have a slightly unhealthy pallor. But I wanted the kitchen to feel safe, almost like it has its own protective bubble. We found ways to visualize that by shooting from outside, looking in the windows."

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.