The premise behind American Horror Story is that the troubled new owners of a creepy old house can’t escape the residual evil left by grisly events that previously unfolded in the residence. Cinematographer Michael Goi, ASC, says, “It reminds me of what Roger Corman said about The Fall of the House of Usher  [1960], when he was asked, ‘Where’s the monster?’ He said, ‘The house is the monster.'”

The series, which airs on the FX Network, was created and is produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, best known for the television phenomenon Glee. Murphy was reportedly inspired in part by Dark Shadows, an ABC television series he saw as a boy. The American Horror Story cast includes Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton and Jessica Lange.

Christopher Baffa, ASC, shot the pilot episode.
Christopher Baffa, ASC, shot the pilot.
Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

For the pilot, Murphy and Falchuk turned to Glee cinematographer Christopher Baffa, ASC, who had also worked with Murphy on Nip/Tuck and the feature Running with Scissors. Episodes of the first season have been photographed by Goi and John Aronson, ASC.

Baffa brought an interest in the history of architecture and interior design to the hour-long pilot. It was filmed in about 12 days at a 1908 mansion west of downtown Los Angeles variously described as Tudor or Collegiate Gothic in style. All interiors except for a few kitchen and attic scenes were done at the house. The location shoot dictated certain restrictions to Baffa and his crew on the pilot shoot.

“Shooting at the house created an interesting parallel,” says Baffa. “In the story, the house dictates the lives and paths of the characters, and in a way, it dictated a certain stylistic approach for us as filmmakers. We couldn’t pull walls or cheat much. A certain claustrophobia was unavoidable. But shooting there also brought a lot of credibility to the story.”

The house also presented opportunities. “We often used low angles, which showed off some pretty incredible ceilings,” says Baffa. “There was an inherent beauty in the woodwork and moldings, but I loved that it was also a bit oppressive. The presence, scale and visual power of the house, which tended to shrink the people in relation, were very important from a storytelling point of view.”

As they do on Glee, the filmmakers chose to create images using 35mm Kodak film and Panavision camera equipment for American Horror Story. Baffa used KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 exclusively on the pilot.

“Ryan is a purist, and a film enthusiast,” says Baffa. “While I am aware of the technical improvements in digital, I am in that camp as well. Film works for us on Glee, and there’s a lot to be said for that comfort level. I’m often asked why I am a film fan, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Film is film. Maybe that’s the key – it’s an emotional response or an inherent feeling, not something that is describable or definable.”

Michael Goi, ASC, shot six episodes.
Michael Goi, ASC, shot six episodes.
Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

Michael Goi, who photographed a half-dozen of the first season’s installments, agrees that film is the right choice for the episodes as well. “Shooting with film gives me the freedom to move really quickly with the cameras, unencumbered by trails of cables and the technical stuff that can slow the process down,” says Goi, the current president of the American Society of Cinematographers. “Film also allows me to really push the envelope in terms of how dark I want to go, knowing that there is always a lot more detail on the negative. On day interiors, to give the impression of daylight in this dark house, I can push the windows to the edge, and give the windows a believable quality of light, without it starting to look electronic. I don’t have to babysit, running back and forth to the monitor, checking the waveform monitors, et cetera. With film, it’s a fast process for me.”

For the series, the interiors of the house were recreated on three stages at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Both Baffa and Goi say that as the series has progressed, the imagery has become darker.

“For the pilot, we wanted to balance the darkness with some degree of accessibility, so people felt comfortable diving in, so to speak,” says Baffa. “Ryan and Brad find ways to create identification with characters and events that have some despicable traits. Images that are a bit more grounded in reality help facilitate that identification. Their characters and situations break so many rules that we feel that when it comes to the images, restraint is very important in allowing people to relate.”

In the pilot, the camera was often handheld, a technique Baffa has embraced over the course of his collaboration with Murphy. “We even discussed Super 16 at first,” Baffa notes. “The handheld camera is Ryan’s subtle way of introducing a certain intimacy and immediacy. It’s not gratuitous movement. It’s really the operator trying to keep it steady, and that gives the frame a bit of energy. If a director asks me for more movement, rather than asking the operator to move more, I’ll switch to the next longest lens and ask the operator to step back. That adds a little rumble. Handheld also makes a lot of things easier and quicker, which always helps.”

Once the series found its footing, Aronson and Goi felt comfortable with more aggressively dark, and at times, even slightly campy imagery.

Alexandra Breckenridge

“The creative team is always trying to find the balance between the horrific or disturbing elements of the show, and the quirkiness of some of the characters,” says Goi. “I think audiences have really responded. They seem to like the fact that it’s hard to predict how characters are going to react. The humor and offbeat qualities, rather than working against the horror elements, contrast them just enough.

“It reminds me of The Graduate, which is ostensibly a comedy, but has very dark imagery,” says Goi. “Robert Surtees [ASC] used so much blackness and shadow, but the comedy coexisted with that. That’s similar in some ways to what we’re trying to do with American Horror Story.”

Goi describes a scene in a recent episode where a boy is reaching under a table for his toy truck. In the blackness under the table, the camera pushes in, and a face begins to appear, very dimly at first.

“I think the current state of television broadcasting, in high definition, is great, because we can go into those darker territories and not worry about whether it’s watchable,” says Goi. “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t do that this this degree. “In lighting the cast, we often use very little fill light,” he continues. “I sometimes employ a really prominent half-light, and sometimes we make it fairly toppy so you can’t see the eyes. I found that the cast responds very supportively when we do something to enhance their performance. Sometimes the script allows us to get fairly wild and bizarre, taking the drama in a direction that the actors really respond to. That kind of support from the cast is really great.”

Post-production is handled at Encore with colorist Kevin Kirwan, who has also worked with Baffa and Goi on Glee. “I love to do things with lighting on the set when possible,” says Baffa. “But it’s nice to know that if you want to go in and take something to a slightly different level, or there’s a scene you want to distinguish for emotional reasons, you have those tools in telecine. In the pilot, we played with contrast and desaturated some colors because we thought it would help with the period element.”

American Horror Story, which premiered in October, has already been nominated for two Golden Globe awards: one for Best Drama Series, and one for Best Supporting Actress, recognizing Jessica Lange’s performances. The season one finale airs December 21 on FX.