Tag Archives: Epix

Perpetual Grace’s DPs, colorist weigh in on show’s gritty look

You don’t have to get very far into watching the Epix series Perpetual Grace LTD to realize just how ominous this show feels. It begins with the opening shots, and by the time you’ve spent a few minutes with the dark, mysterious characters who populate this world — and gathered hints of the many schemes within schemes that perpetuate the story — the show’s tone is clear. With its black-and-white flashbacks and the occasional, gritty flash-forwards, Perpetual Grace gets pretty dark, and the action goes in directions you won’t see coming.

This bizarre show revolves around James (Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson), who gets caught up in what initially seems like a simple con that quickly gets out of control. Sir Ben Kingsley, Jacki Weaver, Chris Conrad and Luis Guzmán also star as an assortment of strange and volatile characters.

The series comes from the minds of executive producer Steve Conrad, who also served in that role on Amazon’s quirky drama Patriot, and Bruce Terris, who was both a writer and a first AD on that show.

These showrunners developed the look with other Patriot veterans: cinematographers James Whitaker and Nicole Hirsch Whitaker, who incorporated colorist Sean Coleman’s input before commencing principal photography.

Coleman left his grading suite at Company 3 in Santa Monica to spend several days at the series’ New Mexico location. While there he worked with the DPs to build customized LUTs for them to use during production. This meant that everyone on set could get a strong sense of how lighting, costumes, sets and locations would read with the show’s signature looks applied.

The Whitakers on set

“I’ve never been able to work with the final colorist this way,” says Whitaker, who also alternated directing duties with Conrad. “It was great having him there on set where we could talk about the subtleties of color. What should the sky look like? What should blood look like? Faces? Clothes? Using Resolve, he made two LUTs — “the main one for the color portions and a different one specifically for the black-and-white parts.”

The main look of the show is inspired by film noir and western movie tropes, and all with a tip of the hat to Roger Deakins’ outstanding work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. “For me,” says Whitaker, “it’s about strong contrast, deep blacks and desert colors … the moodier the better. I don’t love very blue skies, but we wanted to keep some tonality there.”

“It’s real sweaty, gritty, warm, nicotine-stained kind of thing,” Coleman elaborates.

“When we showed up in New Mexico,” Whitaker recalls, “all these colors did exist at various times of the day, and we just leaned into them. When you have landscapes with big, blue skies, strong greens and browns, you can lean in the other way and make it overly saturated. We leaned into it the other way, holding the brown earth tones but pulling out some of the color, which is always better for skin tones.”

The LUTs, Whitaker notes, offer a lot more flexibility than the DPs would have if they used optical filters. Beyond the nondestructive aspect of a LUT, it also allows for a lot more complexity. “If you think about a ‘sepia’ or ‘tobacco’ filter or something like that, you think of an overall wash that goes across the entire frame, and I get immediately bored by that. It’s tricky to do something that feels like it’s from a film a long time ago without dating the project you’re working on now; you want a lot of flexibility to get [the imagery] where you want it to go.”

The series was shot in November through February, often in brutally cold environments. Almost the entire series (the present-day scenes and black-and-white flashbacks) was shot on ARRI Alexa cameras in a 2.0:1 aspect ratio. A frequent Whitaker/Hirsch Whitaker collaborator, DIT Ryan Kunkleman applied and controlled the LUTs so the set monitors reflected their effect on the look.

The flash forwards, which usually occur in very quick spurts, were shot on a 16mm Bolex camera using Kodak’s 7203 (50D) and 7207 (250D) color negative film, which was pushed two stops in processing to enhance grain in post by Coleman.

Final color was done at Company 3’s Santa Monica facility, working primarily alongside the Whitakers. “We enhanced the noir look with the strong, detailed blacks,” says Coleman. Even though a lot of the show exudes the dry desert heat, it was actually shot over a particularly cold winter in New Mexico. “Things were sometimes kind of cold-looking, so sometimes we’d twist things a bit. We also added some digital ‘grain’ to sort of muck it up a little.”

For the black and white, Coleman took the color material in Resolve and isolated just the blue channel in order to manipulate it independent of the red and green, “to make it more inky,” he says. “Normally, you might just drain the color out, but you can really go further than that if you want a strong black-and-white look. When you adjust the individual channel, you affect the image in a way that’s similar to the effect of shooting black-and-white film through a yellow filter. It helps us make darker skies and richer blacks.”

Sean Coleman

“We’ve booked a whole lot of hours together, and that provides a level of comfort,” says Hirsch Whitaker about her and Whitaker’s work with Coleman. “He does some wonderful painting [in Resolve] that helps make a character pop in the frame or direct the viewer’s eye to a specific part of the frame. He really enjoys the collaborative element of color grading.”

Whitaker seconds that emotion: “As a cinematographer, I look at color grading a bit like working on set. It’s not a one-person job. It takes a lot of people to make these images.”

Capturing Foley for Epix’s Berlin Station

Now in its second season on Epix, the drama series Berlin Station centers on undercover agents, diplomats and whistleblowers inhabiting a shadow world inside the German capital.

Leslie Bloome

Working under the direction of series supervising sound editor Ruy Garcia, Westchester, New York-based Foley studio Alchemy Post Sound is providing Berlin Station with cinematic sound. Practical effects, like the clatter of weapons and clinking glass, are recorded on the facility’s main Foley stage. Certain environmental effects are captured on location at sites whose ambience is like the show’s settings. Interior footsteps, meanwhile, are recorded in the facility’s new “live” room, a 1,300-square-foot space with natural reverb that’s used to replicate the environment of rooms with concrete, linoleum and tile floors.

Garcia wants a soundtrack with a lot of detail and depth of field,” explains lead Foley artist and Alchemy Post founder Leslie Bloome. “So, it’s important to perform sounds in the proper perspective. Our entire team of editors, engineers and Foley artists need to be on point regarding the location and depth of field of sounds we’re recording. Our aim is to make every setting feel like a real place.”

A frequent task for the Foley team is to come up with sounds for high-tech cameras, surveillance equipment and other spy gadgetry. Foley artist Joanna Fang notes that sophisticated wall safes appear in several episodes, each one featuring differing combinations of electronic, latch and door sounds. She adds that in one episode a character has a microchip concealed in his suit jacket and the Foley team needed to invent the muffled crunch the chip makes when the man is frisked. “It’s one of those little ‘non-sounds’ that Foley specializes in,” she says. “Most people take it for granted, but it helps tell the story.”

The team is also called on to create Foley effects associated with specific exterior and interior locations. This can include everything from seedy safe houses and bars to modern office suites and upscale hotel rooms. When possible, Alchemy prefers to record such effects on location at sites closely resembling those pictured on-screen. Bloome says that recording things like creaky wood floors on location results in effects that sound more real. “The natural ambiance allows us to grab the essence of the moment,” he explains, “and keep viewers engaged with the scene.”

Footsteps are another regular Foley task. Fang points out that there is a lot of cat-and-mouse action with one character following another or being pursued, and the patter of footsteps adds to the tension. “The footsteps are kind of tough,” she says. “Many of the characters are either diplomats or spies and they all wear hard soled shoes. It’s hard to build contrast, so we end up creating a hierarchy, dark powerful heels for strong characters, lighter shoes for secondary roles.”

For interior footsteps, large theatrical curtains are used to adjust the ambiance in the live stage to fit the scene. “If it’s an office or a small room in a house, we draw the curtains to cut the room in half; if it’s a hotel lobby, we open them up,” Fang explains. “It’s amazing. We’re not only creating depth and contrast by using different types of shoes and walking surfaces, we’re doing it by adjusting the size of the recording space.”

Alchemy edits their Foley in-house and delivers pre-mixed and synced Foley that can be dropped right into the final mix seamlessly. “The things we’re doing with location Foley and perspective mixing are really cool,” says Foley editor and mixer Nicholas Seaman. “But it also means the responsibility for getting the sound right falls squarely on our shoulders. There is no ‘fix in the mix.’ From our point of view, the Foley should be able to stand on its own. You should be able to watch a scene and understand what’s going on without hearing a single line of dialogue.”

The studio used Neumann U87 and KMR81 microphones, a Millennia mic-pre and Apogee converter, all recorded into Avid Pro Tools on a C24 console. In addition to recording a lot of guns, Alchemy also borrowed a Doomsday prep kit for some of the sounds.

The challenge to deliver sound effects that can stand up to that level of scrutiny keeps the Foley team on its toes. “It’s a fascinating show,” says Fang. “One moment, we’re inside the station with the usual office sounds and in the next edit, we’re in the field in the middle of a machine gun battle. From one episode to the next, we never know what’s going to be thrown at us.”