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.
“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.”
“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.”