We chat with Cinematographer Shawn Peters about the new Apple TV+ series and how the hunt for imperfection always results in authenticity.
By Brad Gullickson Published 17 March 2022
Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes builders. In this entry, we talk to cinematographer Shawn Peters about finding the flawed visuals for The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray in the book as well as the script.
Talk to enough cinematographers and you’ll learn that their work always starts with the script, especially the narrative. History dictates aesthetics. Read carefully enough, and it will tell you how the movie should feel and be seen.
With The Last Days of Ptolemy GrayDirector of Photography Shawn Peter started where it always does, with the words on the page. Beyond the scripts by Walter Mosley and Jerome Hairston, Peters also had Mosley’s novel. He threw himself into the book, in audio format (he’s a busy creator, after all, he has to put the words in every possible moment), and the text informed every decision.
With such intimate access, Peters solidified the ever-changing world of the protagonist in his mind. This provided the cinematographer with the opportunity to fully realize his frame in a way he had never done before.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray centers on the titular character of Samuel L. Jackson falling into his own memory after undergoing experimental treatment conducted by Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins). The sci-fi setup allowed Peters and the show’s directors (including Ramin Bahrani, Hanelle M. Culpepper, Guillermo Navarro, and Debbie Allen) to playfully craft multiple perspectives from a singular source. The result is a unique journey into the past where reality and fantasy merge in memory.
To achieve such a tapestry, the series runs several different memory devices. We are witnessing the natural recollection of Ptolemy from the past. We experience projections of its past within its present. And we walk through Dr. Rubin’s procedure, where memory is malleable, frequently contradicting what has been previously established.
Capturing these phased insights required an assured plan of action, the blueprint of which was Walter Mosley’s novel and the way Peters filtered it through his brain. The more comfortable he became with the book, the more confident he became about their deviations from it.
“It starts with my imagination,” says Peters. “How my imagination meets my personal memory reference. When you’re describing the world, novels are much more descriptive than screenplays, obviously. Even though the storyline differs a bit more explicitly from the novel, the novel still gave me the opportunity to think about the major worlds of this character in a way that I didn’t get from the scripts.
Ptolemy’s apartment was a major focus for Peters. He spent a good part of his pre-production process thinking about what this isolated place should look like and how it should evolve throughout the series. Work in collaboration with Hilda Mercadothe show’s other DP, they formulated his changing nature.
“It changes over time, he explains, with the introduction of different characters: his nephew, then Miss Robyn who takes care of him after the death of his nephew. As he transitions as the character from someone with a major declining mind to someone with greater mastery of his mind, his world changes.
Mosley’s book had all the answers. Peters came back to it again and again. Some days with a notepad and pen handy; other days, he let the prose invade him. The spectacle could control sights and sounds, but filmmakers needed Ptolemy’s experience to go beyond that for their audiences.
“In the novel,” Peters continues, “it’s really descriptive in terms of sensory perception. Smells and layers of that particular color of dirt. Thinking about that and working with the production designer and Ramin, we wanted people to know the smell of what they were looking at.
To add texture to the visuals, Peters sought out imperfection. With its Arri Alexa camera capturing an almost unreal amount of information, blurring its resolution created a more tactile image. The game of the lens became essential for the conversation he wanted to achieve between the spectator and the object.
“We use a lot of lens distortion for Ptolemy’s point of view,” says Peters. “When [Jackson] was in the frame, we used a lot of split diopters and broken glass. We wanted to smear the frame in as many ways as optically possible. All behind closed doors.
The usual lentil tray wasn’t enough either. Peters got a little crazy, a little more creative. A cinematographer cannot make imperfections; it has to come naturally or not – conception by accident.
“We used different types of broken glass,” he says. “Sometimes bottles. We would actually cut off their ends, the bottoms of the bottles. We can achieve many in-camera optical effects on the lines inside the glass. We used them for times when the past entered into its present.
They don’t make a series or a movie in The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray. They make a dozen, maybe two dozen. A new aesthetic was needed for each deeper dive into Ptolemy’s memory. An endless array of choices were required for lenses, lighting, and movement.
“That was my thing,” Peters says. “Many dreams of the past have been realized using optical processing or glass processing. We used several different lens sets, different color treatments. And they also varied according to the periods. Some of these memorabilia are from the 1930s; some of them are from the 70s or 80s. We had different looks and different lenses for each period.
Through the decisions Shawn Peters makes, the character of Ptolemy Gray becomes increasingly clear as the world around him fluctuates in a muddy soup. The cinematographer’s joy comes when he sees his decisions intertwine with what his actor provides him with. This is not always the case on all projects.
“The biggest challenge was creating this complex character with purpose and lighting,” he says. “Obviously we’re working with a terrific actor in Samuel Jackson. He does 90% of the work. But, there were times when I was like, ‘Wow.’ The lighting we chose, the camera support and the movement we chose elevated the game one hundred percent. That’s when you get goosebumps and you’re like, c is storytelling.
The alchemy of creation is really what it does for Shawn Peters. Rummage through the book, take out what he can and put it in front of his camera. That’s it for the artist who was a fan first. Not in his wildest fantasies, Peters didn’t think he’d be here with this particular job. It’s more than a job.
“I’m a big fan of Walter Mosley,” says Peters. “When I met him, he was looking through the monitor this time, he told me, this looks like the world I wrote.”
There is no other review that matters beyond that. The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray and Shawn Peters, Walter Mosley approved. He would retire, but he’s too busy working.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray East now streaming on Apple+TV.
Related Topics: Cinematography, Samuel L. Jackson, World Builders
Brad Gullickson is a weekly columnist for Film School Rejects and senior curator for One Perfect Shot. When he’s not talking about movies here, he’s talking about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Follow him on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He she)