Based on the novels of Erle Stanley Gardner, HBO’s Perry Mason tells the origin story of the titular famed defense lawyer, played by Matthew Rhys, in 1932 Los Angeles. To emulate that period of time, cinematographer David Franco referenced early color photography for the tools needed to shoot the series.
In this series, Mason is a low-rent private investigator haunted by his experiences during The Great War. After being assigned to the case of a child kidnapping, he quickly becomes suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the case.
Franco is nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (One Hour) category for his work on the second episode, titled “Chapter 2.” The cinematography of this episode showcased a variety of scenery and color choices, as well as flashbacks to Mason’s time in The Great War.
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DEADLINE: What were your initial thoughts on what the cinematography of the series should look like?
DAVID FRANCO: My initial thought was that it should be in black and white, because of the time period. I tried to sell that to HBO, but it didn’t go very far. So, from there, I didn’t want to fall in the trap of the desaturated look that you end up with a lot of the time in doing period pieces. So, I tried to go to the vivid color of the early color photography, while trying to apply as much of the film noir look as possible without being too self-conscious. So, it’s trying to keep a little bit of a naturalistic feel to it, but also trying to push it as far as possible towards the noir genre.
DEADLINE: So how do you approach creating that naturalistic feeling?
FRANCO: The obvious thing that people see is the shading, the light and darkness, the shadows and where you put character in view. But I would say that people are less aware of the lensing that we use. People really need to know the film language to realize what lenses we’ve found, because it creates a much different impression when you do a close up with a long lens or with a wide lens, you know, so obviously it applies for this project. It applies to a lot of my projects. I mean, I’m always trying to be with the character as much as possible, move the character and be with the character. So, the camera has to be in the middle of the scene. You know, we have a tendency to avoid being further away from the action when you’re using long lens, so I want to be with them. So that impression, I think, stays when people look at it on their TV. I think they feel that part of the story much more.
DEADLINE: Since you’re already using these techniques to film in a period setting, how do you approach the flashback sequences?
FRANCO: There’s always a big discussion of how much do you do to stand them out, right? But the lucky part is that it’s a war sequence, so obviously we’re in a flashback. So, we actually barely changed it. I did a little bit more desaturation, but since what’s happening in rest of the story can’t be mistaken for a flashback, I didn’t need to do anything on the lensing or lining parts. And, for me, that’s when I like it the most, so I don’t have to create an artifice for people to figure out.