LOS ANGELES -- Walk into the unmarked office in a nondescript suburban industrial complex and, suddenly, a feeling of dread descends.
A corpse in a body bag is propped by the front desk. A head that's a dead ringer for actress Adrienne Barbeau is tucked into a trophy case.
In the realm of MastersFX, the bizarre is commonplace. So is the art of death - the special effects studio has supplied make-believe bodies and prosthetics for HBO's "Six Feet Under" from the start.
When the mortuary drama returns for its fourth season 9 p.m. EDT Sunday, the company's Emmy-winning handiwork will be on display again. If a stiff is needed for the Fisher family morgue, this is where it comes from.
MastersFX also has designed special effects for HBO's "Carnivale" (hence the Barbeau head, used in a scene in which her character ostensibly dies and is revived); "Kingdom Hospital"; "Stargate SG-1"; "Stargate Atlantis" and for films including "Hidalgo" and "Predator."
As clever as the monsters, aliens, animals and other figments of the company's imagination are, it's the human corpses and heads - mundane but astonishing in their realism - that catch the eye.
The "Six Feet Under" trademark opening, with some poor soul meeting his or her demise, doesn't allow much leeway when the victim ends up on a mortuary table and closely scrutinized by the camera.
"Their work is a huge element of the show because if these bodies or injuries didn't look 100 percent real we wouldn't be giving viewers the you-are-there sense," said executive producer Alan Poul.
"They (the bodies) just have to be super-lifelike or it's going to blow the quality of the scene," agreed MastersFX effects producer Dan Rebert.
The company's contributions are detailed in a 20-minute feature included in the second-season DVD out in July, Poul said. "Six Feet Under" was created by Alan Ball and stars Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Rachel Griffiths, Freddy Rodriguez and Lauren Ambrose.
Full artificial bodies or heads are required when a scripted injury is so grievous it would be difficult to simulate on an actor or when a scene would be more easily filmed with an inanimate form.
With a fake corpse's cost roughly the same as a moderately priced car, only one or two are made per season, Rebert said. In other cases makeup and prosthetics are used on actors.
(If the camera captures a bit of eye movement or breathing by someone playing dead, digital effects can be used to erase the evidence of life, Poul said.)
A body's creation represents equal parts technology and artistry, said Todd Masters, who founded the company in 1986. Special effects in general encompass "drawing, sculpting, performance, painting. Everything you can do in a creative environment," he said.
The MastersFX studio, deliberately placed in an anonymous, out-of-the-way building to thwart would-be souvenir collectors (Masters recalls "Star Trek" fans rifling trash bins) is where the morbid magic happens. (A second studio is in Vancouver, British Columbia.)
The process starts with a "life cast" of an actor's head, made with a seaweed derivative called alginate that's also used by dentists use to form tooth impressions, Rebert said.
The fragile, rubbery material is reinforced with a plaster jacket to hold its shape and then filled with clay, which can be easily modeled to open or close the eyes and add injuries.
Life-casting a full nude body is trickier, Rebert said: The cast is removed in pieces and reassembled on a steel-welded framework, or armature.
"We build it on an armature standing up so we can walk around it and see what it's going to look like," he said. A fiberglass mold is made from the ensuing clay sculpture.
"Once we have the mold, we take silicone and brush or cast it in for the skin. Silicone is a skin-like material, and we plasticize it and get a pretty realistic feeling."
The fake stiff is far from complete. The equivalent of a skeleton is placed inside, made to be floppy so when the body is laid down gravity pulls it into a natural position.
The muscle structure and internal weight of a human body also is re-created. Among the finishing touches in the weeks-long effort: Hair is placed, strand by strand, on the newly born "skull."
Injuries demand a special creativity, Rebert said. In creating the head of a woman who slammed into a cherry picker (after exuberantly popping up through a Las Vegas limousine's sunroof), the MastersFX designers were told to think of art, not forensics.
"We had real pictures of heads with that type of damage and they (the producers) thought it was too much," he recalled. "They wanted it to look more like a Picasso painting ... rather than be literally, 'This is crushed skull."'
Those who appear as "Six Feet Under" victims respond variously to seeing a lifeless version of themselves. The woman playing the cherry-picker victim was fascinated; an actress in another episode was decidedly less so.
"She had finished a heart-wrenching scene, going through the convulsions of dying" in bed, recalled Masters. Moments later, he came in bearing the limp look-alike to take her place.
"She had issues with that," he said.
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