"It’s not the warmest place," Caso agrees, "but what’s the family hearth like in, say, a Klingon house? It may be alien to us, but it’s home to them. It’s where they get to reach out and touch somebody in their own way. Some of the show’s more tender moments, when the characters have actually connected with each other, have taken place there.

"The kitchen is a very user-friendly location," Caso continues. "It’s an expansive room with all of these wonderful windows, a checkerboard floor, a porch out one door, a little entryway with the stairway going up to the second floor, and a dining room that sits off to the side. It’s a practical set, so there are a lot of different angles and accesses to great views. I always light from the floor – even before we introduced ceilings last season – but now we’re always looking up. The ceiling is made of muslin and canvas, so it lifts off fairly easily. I’ve got a few lights hung up there, but I hardly ever use them except when I need a little backlight that I can’t get anywhere else. Let’s face it: in the real world, you don’t have empty ceilings with lights shining down. If you were to light the scenes that way, which most TV shows do, it looks very unnatural and studio-like, so I always light everything through the windows and from the floor. If you walk onto one of my sets, you’ll see very few lights on set and very few turned on up above.

"For day scenes, I like lots of broad sources, usually 20Ks and 10Ks coming in through the windows. I’ll use very soft light for the faces and mix in little, hard shafts here and there – a fat, bright light that I always add. I’ll put up a Par light with a spot lens to create a really hot stab of sunlight hitting people from the waist down, or across their chest or arms. I tend to do that even in the night scenes, but in those situations I don’t have lots of lights burning because I let a lot fall off. I’ll bounce a light on the floor or off a wall, then have the actors walk around it while I just shoot above it. I’ll put a little crumpled, silver Rosco on the floor or by a doorjamb to pick up a little edge, a little nook here and there. I often invent wacky things to replicate natural-light situations."

Caso’s least favorite set is the viewing room ("It’s hard to light because it’s a long tunnel"), but he relishes shooting next door in the Wysteria Room, named for its floral wallpaper. That’s where David and Nate make funeral arrangements with next of kin who are in every imaginable mood. "We’ve shot just about every way you can possibly shoot while ‘conducting interviews,’" Caso observes. "Nate and David are always seated in two chairs facing the family members on the sofa, and no one’s moving around. I can use the light coming in from the viewing room or through the windows to rim-light or half-light the actors on the couch, so I never get into a flat-light situation. The coloring of the walls is just rich enough that they really absorb light, so I never have to worry about them getting too bright."

Then there’s the embalming room, easily the creepiest chamber in the Fisher house. "I wanted that area to feel very clinical, very much like a hospital from 1910," Ball says. "If I could have gotten the hospital set from The Elephant Man, I would have!" Featuring drab, yellow walls punctuated with hot flashes of chrome, the embalming room has a certain limbo-like feel – it’s neither heaven nor hell, but someplace in between. "It’s a transition place, absolutely," Caso confirms. "It’s the way station for the body between dying and going into the ground. That’s where your body is filling out its application.

"During the day and even at night, we have an eerie light coming through the windows," Caso continues. "There’s a lot of milk glass around and the tools of the trade, which look bright, sharp and very dangerous. I’ll usually aim a Par light or a spot lens at the chrome countertop in the back so the light will spill onto all of the chrome instruments; they just go nuclear, which looks great. I avoid toplight as much as possible – there are two fluorescents over the embalming table that I almost never turn on, but you’d never know that they’re not on. I use the lights above the set to separate the actors from the walls – carefully, because the walls get too bright if they’re hit with too much light. I try to keep the idea of a ‘way station’ subtle, because the minute everybody starts seeing how you play your hand, the game’s up."

Although the crew films just 13 episodes per season, the pace of production is brisk. "We have nine days to shoot each episode and create 60 minutes of finished product," Caso says. "That’s actually worse than a network show, where they have eight days to shoot 42 minutes. We have one extra day to shoot 18 more minutes, so we have to shoot seven minutes of finished product a day. We do between 15 and 37 setups a day, and it’s a handful."

Once each episode is in the can, it goes through a digital finish courtesy of Encore color timer Phil Azenzer. The entire first season was shot before the first episode aired, and Caso doesn’t feel that the early episodes quite reached their full visual potential. But he worked with Azenzer to give subsequent episodes exactly the polish they needed. Caso explains, "I wanted the whites to be really ‘poppy’ and searingly bright, so Phil brought the black level down and muted the colors while keeping the whites bright. He printed everything down a lot more than last year, to the point where it’s sometimes darker than even I would go, which gives the imagery a kind of chill."

In addition to its cast and creator, Six Feet Under’s consistent element is Caso’s cinematography. The producers depend on him to keep the visual themes consistent, despite the fact that he often works with a different director on each episode. "Alan is the gatekeeper of the look," Ball states emphatically. "That’s one thing I don’t have to worry about: the show is always going to look like the show. I thank my lucky stars that Alan understood what I was going for, even though I wasn’t able to articulate it in technical terms. Our show isn’t about kinetic visuals or brightness; it’s about repose and reflection. It’s about that place where life and death coincide."


4x3 (protected for 16x9)

Panavision Panaflex Gold, Panaflex SL

Primo lenses

Kodak Vision 320T 5277, Vision 500T 5279, Vision 800T 5289

Postproduction at Encore

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.