Ball, a graduate of Florida State Universitys 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 dont 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 didnt want a constant parade of close-ups, and Alans 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, Theyre too far away. But I said, No, lets 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. "Thats not because its 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; its 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 thats when he really gets to paint with the light."
Caso says he shares Balls dislike of TVs heavy reliance on close-ups: "We dont 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 TVs 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 theres 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 shows characters. "Its about making each shot reflect whats 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 shes so disconnected from her family and herself. Alan really understands the visual language. Its not about finding a groovy angle, its 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 Davids personal space, which takes the audience inside the action," Caso explains. "Viewers are not just armchair observers of this world; were putting them right in the middle of it, forcing them to feel the discomfiture of David and the other characters. Theres no backing away, theres 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. "Thats probably the most normal filmmaking we do. Nates a casual guy, the emotional lock of the family, so although hes dealing with a life-threatening [brain injury] and is really the most fragile of all, we keep him stabilized compositionally. Hes 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 Claires freaking out, the cinematography will reflect it," Caso says. "Likewise, when Nate gets himself in crazy places, we get right into his face. Theres a first-season scene where hes really stoned at his girlfriends 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 shows wild cards. "Brenda is all over the place, bouncing off the frame walls," Caso notes. "Shell be doing something normal, just sitting off in the corner, lying in a wacky position or dropping out of frame, and then shell loom out and do her thing. Billy is her alter ego, so hes also a roll of the dice. When theyre in a scene together, they push each others 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 Unders "ghosts," dead characters like Nathaniel who pop up from time to time to speak with and observe the Fishers. "Theyre not really ghosts," Ball stresses. "Theyre a literary device to articulate whats going on in the living characters minds, so I didnt want them to seem supernatural. I didnt want to do any spooky lighting or otherworldly stuff. When our characters are talking to the dead, its 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, Lets do this because weve done it before," he maintains. "There are more thematic ways to shoot a scene besides reprising a specific angle or lighting scheme. Its more about capturing the spirit of a composition or movement or blocking. For example, say were shooting Ruth alone in the dining room. The fact that shes alone at the table is the theme. Were 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 were getting ready to shoot, Ill say, Lets cross [over behind] the back of her head and show the table stretching out in front of her instead. Its clearly a reprise, but its 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 its 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."