HBO’s new Perry Mason is relentlessly grim. This is, after all, a show that began with a baby being kidnapped and murdered and somehow only got bleaker from there (suicides, mutilated corpses, violent stabbings, heroin-addicted prostitutes, etc). But no matter how dark these individual episodes got (and they got really, really dark) there was a glimmer of undeniable beauty in each installment, courtesy of the opening title cards. Sleek and elegantly placed, they have become a highlight not only of individual episodes but of the series as a whole and a true hallmark of this new, unquestionably more mature version of Perry Mason.
These amazing titles are the work of Michael Riley, whose Shine Studio did the opening title card and the end credits, which were unique for each week’s episode (beginning with the amazing Angel’s Flight end credits of Episode 1). Shine had already worked on a number of HBO projects, including The Newsroom, Fahrenheit 451 and Temple Grandin and they were contacted about Perry Mason in mid-March, around the time of the shutdown, finally pitching on the project in April. Riley was very excited about the possibility of working on the show after seeing the new direction they took on the material. “They showed us the first couple of episodes, which we were just blown away with,” Riley explained. “We were just so thrilled to be considered to work on this project, to be able to design some ideas for it. And it was one of those things I really, really wanted to work on.”
In April, Shine pitched on the project, with creative oversight from Perry Mason producers Tim Van Patten (who also directed a number of episodes) and Susan Downey. “They said that what they wanted was both either a main title sequence or just a main title card,” Riley said. “They weren’t really sure what they wanted to do. And then they wanted some kind of a treatment for the end titles.” The shutdown following the emergence of the coronavirus actually informed Riley’s approach to the material, since they were locking edits at about the same time that Shine was pitching on the potential title and end credits sequences. “I sense in a way that there might’ve been some reluctance to change the edit to all of a sudden open up and then provide another one minute or 90 seconds to do an original title sequence that would air in that spot every week,” Riley said. So instead of a full-on, they took a different approach. “We leaned into pitching ideas for a main title card that would be integrated into their existing edit.”
But what would that title look like? The direction that Riley and the team at Shine got was to harken back to the time period but not slavishly so. “Do something that feels like it’s from the time period, but don’t just do something that’s vintage, do something that’s a little bit 2020,” was their edict according to Riley. The team tried to incorporate the essential glitz and style of Los Angeles back then but also include an element of “grit,” since while Los Angeles was booming, it was also the Great Depression. They “looked at a lot of typography from old movie titles from the 30s and 40s,” and also chose a font that was really thin so that you could still see the action through it. “They appreciated that. I think their editors liked it,” Riley said.
In addition to actual fonts from the period, they also tried to put themselves in the minds of artists creating those fonts back then. “Everything that we pitched, we tried to say, ‘Okay, this is the way … if we were working at say, Pac Title back in the day, and we were doing something, the way that lettering artists would be doing on the animation stand, what would we do?’” Riley said. This meant that there would be “legal typography” underneath the lettering, with copyright information and the studio stamp. Incredibly, the version that they pitched during the storyboard stage made it through virtually unscathed. “There was no change from it whatsoever,” Riley said.
The next conundrum that Riley and the Shine team faced was how to integrate the title card into each episode. This was part of the way that they could make the logo feel more modern. After initially proposing a more “3D tracked” version of the titles, they instead settled on something more classically rotoscoped, with the credits taking up physical space but not, say, following the movement of the performers or background elements. “That was fun and a fun idea to bring it into 2020,” Riley said. Shine proposed “five or six” places where each title could go, and since they were going with this semi-dimensional rotoscope approach, it didn’t matter what was in each scene. “You can find a spot for a logo, but then you’ve got a character or there’s a car that drives in front of it, or there’s a person that walks in front of it,” Riley said. “And they liked this because there were six different choices of where they could put it on their episode without having to change a frame of their edit.” After suggesting places where the title card could go and mocking up a loose version, the producers and sometimes the editors would choose their favorite spot (or suggest a different placement altogether).
As the episodes progressed, Riley and the Shine team also played with the dimensionality of the titles for each episode. “It was definitely not an accident. We just tried to have as much fun with it as we could,” Riley said. At the beginning of the season the title card was “more conservative,” but from the second episode on, they employed “a little bit more creative liberty” since the audience knew the show that they were watching and what to expect. And that the title cards were carrying on the spirit of the old-school storytelling with a very modern edge. They weren’t concerned with characters or objects obstructing the titles either, since HBO signed off on the copyright information being partially or fully covered.
Riley’s background is in graphic design and this truncated approach to the Perry Mason titles felt comfortable for him. “To me, when you’re doing these kinds of shorter ones, it’s almost more like designing a poster, because it’s less about the short film that unfolds and takes you all of these different places,” Riley said. “And if you can find a way to cleverly integrate it into an episode, I think there’s just as much fun, if not more, to be had by doing them uniquely.” Of course, they got to do longer sequences for the end credits, which changed with every episode and were always underscored by a tremendous track from Terence Blanchard, which Riley admitted to amounting to much of the end credits’ power. “If you have a great track, that’s half of it right there and even more,” he said.
When I asked Riley if they’d be back for the recently announced Season 2 of Perry Mason, and if they would have any more say, creatively, on where the cards would be placed (since they would no longer be something of an afterthought), he demurred. “The bottom line is if they call me to work on Perry Mason, I will be there in a minute in whatever way they want,” Riley said. A positively lawyerly response, you might say.
As for the current state of the title sequence in the age of the “skip intro” button, Riley was more optimistic. “It’s weird. There are so many people that want them. And here’s the thing that I think about title sequences nowadays — as long as it’s something that’s considered, that you thought about, I think it’s great, whether it’s short or it’s long,” Riley said. “My only objection is when they don’t do anything, and they just cut it on with whatever the marketing department’s artwork is, because I think there’s a creative opportunity that’s missed there. And you think, ‘Okay, well, if they didn’t think about the main title card, then there could be other things that might’ve been missed.’” In that sense, the title cards for Perry Mason perfectly tee up what’s to follow, both from a storytelling perspective and a sense of tone and atmosphere. Like everything else about the show, it makes it very clear that this isn’t your father’s Perry Mason.
For more on Perry Mason, check out our recaps and other recent coverage.