How'd They Do That Spot?

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It's not easy to visually communicate something unsettlingly profound yet painfully banal about life and death in under two minutes, but the open of HBO's acclaimed series Six Feet Under manages to do it with gentle aplomb. It's the work of Seattle-based design/production studio Digital Kitchen, headed by founder/CCO Paul Matthaeus, who notes that "there's tremendous irony in the mortician's business. On one level, it's very practical. There's this need for loved ones to get one last look at someone who's passed. On the flipside, whoever this is, they're dead. There's a tremendous amount of icky stuff that's done, just for the visual aspect."

Much the same can be said of the open itself, though the stuff is more tricky than icky. The series is directed by Alan Ball, best known as the writer of American Beauty, but he was not involved in the open, says Matthaeus. "We did it all. We came to him with four different approaches to the main titles. This is pretty much shot as we boarded it, though it contains some elements of our other ideas." The open was shot in Seattle, which was chosen for its silvery light. The opening shot of the lone tree in the distance, however, immediately required some finessing. "It was winter in Seattle and most trees were leafless," recalls Matthaeus. "An evergreen holly was available, but very rarely does a single tree grow on a hill." One was found on private property, and Digital Kitchen paid to have it cut and moved to the location, a grassy knoll at a lakefront site. Wires were removed in Flame at Digital Kitchen's Chicago office. The raven, too, is a "natural" element that required some unnatural assistance. "The raven was actually a crow," says Matthaeus. "For some reason I can't figure out, ravens are protected here in the Northwest. We did get a trained crow that was tethered, we had the trainer, the whole deal. But because the crow was tethered, he wouldn't fly like we wanted him to, he knew he'd be jerked on the end of his tether. So we're out there trying to shoot elements in a cemetery - and there's lots of crows flying around! So the opening shot of the crow with the tree in the background, we just happened to catch that and we composited it with the other elements in Flame. The tight shot of the crow at the end is the trained crow."

The shot early on of the hands letting go was speed-ramped in Avid. The brief time-lapse shot of decomposing flowers is inspired by a painting. "This was brought in from another board," explains Matthaeus. "This was about watching things, particularly flowers, decompose before your eyes. It's that whole concept that our time here is limited and we're all in the process of dying. I can't remember the painter, but back in my art history days I recall a painting of a twentysomething nymph holding a flower. The painting was called We Both Shall Fade. In the music, there's this point of poignancy, this emotional upwelling, that Alan wanted to drive home, and he really liked the flower idea." The wilting flower required motion control, "shot over eight hours in a sweltering hot room," Matthaeus adds. "It's a bunch of lilies that essentially wilt because they're not in water. They don't naturally turn brown, so we turned them brown in the Flame."

As for Alan Ball's credit in the cemetery scene, "It was our idea," he continues. "We saw the opportunity to weave the credits into the environment, and we thought it would be a lot of fun to put Alan's on the headstone. It happened to fall in the right spot." The credit is created in Photoshop and motion-tracked in Flame to match movement.

By far the most overarching effect is a computer-generated filmic patina applied to all live action, in AfterEffects. "One of the things we used as a visual inspiration was the 20x24 Polaroid, which I'd used a number of years ago," says Matthaeus. "It has a sort of a dusty quality to the color, but at the same time it seems like some of the colors are bleeding out, like there's too much ink on it. We wanted to have something that wasn't out of the box, you just dial it in during transfers. We took the footage into the computer, created a couple of layers and we blurred some, bleached some and just amped up that silvery sort of quality, but without it looking like it had a heavy soft-focus filter over the top of it."

The open is getting about as much attention as the show, Matthaeus happily notes. "And I think the open plays quite naturally, which is what we were shooting for. It's not supposed to look like it's been screwed around with a lot." Just like a corpse.

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