In its first season, HBO’s “Perry Mason” received Emmy and ASC award nominations for David Franco’s exquisitely atmospheric cinematography, which avoided the desaturated look so common to period shows and evoked the 1930s by referencing early color still photography. One might have thought it would be difficult to improve upon the look established by Franco and alternating cinematographer Darran Tiernan, but the new season of “Perry Mason” that premiered March 6 is even more vivid and involving thanks to slight changes in color and a more subjective approach to the camerawork.
When the gritty origin story of Erle Stanley Gardner’s defense attorney premiered in 2020, cinematographer Eliot Rockett was one of its fans. Now, he joins the series — along with showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler — for Season 2, lensing the premiere and alternating subsequent episodes with Tiernan and John Grillo. “I thought the first season was great, so there was a certain degree of anxiety,” he told IndieWire. “They were big shoes to fill, for sure.”
In Rockett’s initial discussions with the producers, he learned they wanted to keep what they felt worked about the first season while expanding the visual language to forge greater connections between the audience and the characters. “Hopefully the evolution is incremental,” Rockett said. “I don’t want anybody to turn on ‘Perry Mason’ this year and think, ‘This isn’t the same show.’ I want everyone to turn it on and feel like they’re back where they were, watching something that they loved.”
That said, Rockett feels variations are inevitable simply by filtering the show through the sensibilities of new personnel behind the camera. “Whenever a new set of people comes through, or the show changes hands, you’re not going to do things the same way other people did,” he said. “[Director] Tim Van Patten and the DPs last season were doing something very distinct, and as much as I want to respect that and move forward with it, I also have to acknowledge that I’m a different person. The directors are going to be different, the writers are different, the showrunners are different, the whole thing’s different.”
In Season 2, the show is still drenched in shadows reminiscent of film noir, but it’s not as dark overall — it’s easier to make out the details in both the production design and the actors’ gestures and glances, which makes scenes like the one in which Mason’s associate, Della Street, meets a new love interest crackle with subtle tension. Rockett’s introduction of new color shifts involving the yellows in the highlights and cyans in the shadows broadens the show’s palette and creates a warmth that envelops the viewer, making this season of “Perry Mason” less distancing than the first.
According to Rockett, this was all by design after his initial conversations with the producers, though ultimately it’s less about intellectual strategies than individual taste. “I only have my own personal aesthetic to fall back on,” Rockett said. “I can understand what the showrunners or writers or directors are saying they want it to look like, and I can try to digest that as much as I can. But what comes back out is influenced simply by what I think looks good and what I feel the framing should be. The choices are driven by how you see things regardless of the project, and that’s how you get jobs. People can look at the work and say, ‘This person makes images that resonate in this particular way, and that’s what we’re looking for.'”
Rockett’s implication that there’s a continuity to his approach from project to project might surprise those who have followed his varied body of work; just last year, he shot two movies for Ti West, “X” and “Pearl,” that were equally exceptional in their craft yet completely different in their influences and style. One was a down-and-dirty homage to ’70s exploitation movies, the other a vibrant evocation of classical Hollywood melodrama — and now Rockett is in pre-production on the third film in the series, “Maxxxine,” which is set in 1980s Los Angeles and promises to incorporate a completely different set of influences.
“It’s like if you were in the kitchen and one night you were going to make a pasta dish with a red sauce, and the next night you were going to do a Japanese-style tempura thing or something,” Rockett said. “Those would be two very different dishes, but the particular way you would cook them would be, ‘Well, this is the way that tastes good to me.’ The basis for all of it is the idea that you’re using the camera for more than just to record what is happening in front of it. Hopefully you’re adding to it, creating cinema. And you need to take into account the history of it and what different people who are succeeding are doing, but the core of it is listening to your personal aesthetic. You’ve got to hang on to your gut sense about how all of that feels, because if you start second guessing yourself about it, all hope is lost.”