Epix drama “Perpetual Grace LTD” brings a modern noir take on lawlessness and duplicity to the Old West. To play up a sense of timelessness, the crew mixed ingenuity and modern technology in realizing creators Steve Conrad and Bruce Terris’ seemingly simple idea of using black and white for the series’ key flashback scenes.
Set decorator Adrian Segura used the monochrome setting on his iPhone to get an idea of how things would look on camera. “The challenge was definitely to deliver a good set in color that was also going to shoot well in black and white,” he says.
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Segura recognized that for the actors to do their jobs well, the sets had to be believable in person, not just look good on screen. Additionally, there was talk that the decision to use black and white for the flashbacks was not set in stone, so everything had to work in color too.
Part of that process involved an awareness of textiles, since they all have particular looks on camera. Segura credits production designer Laura Fox’s keen eye for detail in considering everything from flat versus glossy wall paint to the shine that comes from polyester.
“There would be things that looked great to the eye,” says Segura, “but we’d put a black-and-white lens on and they were too dull, too Gothic. It was interesting trying to find the right mixture of color and sheen and texture.”
Segura’s degree of difficulty included a set that was conceived to be an all-white room. Instead of putting artwork on the walls, he filled space by hanging white bathrobes on a wall rack and dressing the area in oversize lampshades. “It was a challenge because blank spaces are not good in our world,” he says. “But in the end it looked great.”
For director of photography Nicole Whitaker, jumping between color and black and white proved less demanding. Unlike in the days of film, advancements in technology mean that final color filters are added in post-production. Essentially, Whitaker shoots as the eye sees, creating the equivalent of a film negative, and all the filters, or lookup tables, are added later and can be changed at any time.
Whitaker relied on monitors to see how the scenes and lighting would look with the chosen lookup tables in place. In addition to the black-and-white LUTs, the color scenes use what Whitaker calls a “tobacco stain,” so named from the days when a yellow filter was added directly to film camera lenses. The color palette accentuated some of the natural hues of the New Mexico landscape where they shot, making it integral to the storyline and the look of the show.
For Conrad, who also wrote and directed many of the episodes, the location played a role in the series. “Vast amounts of space with few people lends itself to privacy,” he says, “which sometimes lends itself to criminality.”
Adds Terris: “In the American West, there is a feeling of lawlessness. The story wouldn’t work on the East Coast.”
Those choices affected Whitaker’s approach. “I felt like I wasn’t only shooting people,” she says. “I was also shooting the landscape, and that became an important character to me as a cinematographer.”
Whitaker references Oscar-winning director of photography Roger Deakins’ work on “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007) as meaningful to the appearance of “Perpetual Grace.” “It was a huge influence,” says Whitaker. “It was a gritty Western — a super dismal location-based film.”
She also credits Conrad with creating a collaborative environment. “We had to shoot very quickly. It was part of my challenge to do something that looks beautiful, and do it fast. We never compromised. If the sun wasn’t in the right place, we waited.”
The location — Santa Fe — also presented the crew with an unexpected problem in the form of record-breaking cold temperatures that dipped into the single digits. For Segura, the weather added a particular complication when dressing a street with helium-filled balloons for a parade scene. “Gas gets heavier in the cold,” he says, “and the balloons weren’t floating like they should. We were tying balloons to balloons and hoping they would float each other up, which they did, but we definitely had to get creative.”