How the Cameras in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey Kept the Past Alive

The best visual stories, whether TV or film, have a clear justification for why they look the way they do. Sometimes the goal for a cinematographer is to make things look as beautiful as possible, but, when a show follows a single character’s perspective as closely as does “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” the job it to ground the story’s look in that character’s relationship to the world. And Ptolemy Grey’s (Samuel L. Jackson) relationship to his world at the start of the series is one teetering on the edge. He is, as another famous character once put it, an old man filled with regret, waiting to die alone. Cinematographer Shawn Peters, who shot the first, third, and sixth episodes of the series, spoke to IndieWire about how Ptolemy’s changing levels of clarity informed the look of the series.

“I was 100 perfect working on a specific lens for each feeling,” Peters said. “So we have three sets of lenses and two or three separate special lenses that radiates throughout the series.” For the opening of the show, where we meet Ptolemy puttering around his cluttered apartment, Peters used a set of “Falcon” lenses from L.A. shop Camtec, which Peters explained retain a high level of sharpness but don’t pop a lot of color.

“It’s not desaturated, but it’s around the edge. It’s a tiny bit needed, and we were going for that,” Peters said of audience’s initial view into Ptolemy’s world: closed off, dusty, dirty, and above all overwhelming. Dealing with dementia has left Ptolemy metaphorically and visually dwarfed by the baggage and detritus from his past.

In addition to clouding and draining color from the lens view, Peters also closed off as much light as he could get away with in the apartment, while making the light sources dour and overcast. Our view into the show is just as clouded as Ptolemy’s mind.

“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey”

Apple TV+

“[Then] when the character of Robyn (Dominique Fishback) comes in, we switched lenses to Tokina Vistas, which are large format but I had them detuned… so [they had] the perfect detailing. They’re much more warm,” Peters said. “If you notice, when she came in it was much warmer, the windows were open, we had a lot more directional sunlight coming in.”

The brightness that Robyn brings to Ptolemy’s life and to the series as a whole is tempered by glimpses into Ptolemy’s past. At first that past is indistinct flashes of memory, but sometimes they rub up against the everyday reality of the present. Peters wanted to distinguish these moments of temporal dislocation from the full flashbacks to events that defined Ptolemy, and he and directors Ramin Bahrani and Hanelle M. Culpepper were able to make a lot of that in the camera.

“A lot of times when we were showing some of Coydog [Damon Gupton] or his ex Sensia [Cynthia Kaye McWilliams], we were using just optics: things over the glass. In one situation, we took a Martinelli’s bottle to special effects department to cut the glass off. and used that over the lens,” Peters said.

“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey”

Apple TV+

Peters said that, for these moments of blurred perspective, he and Bahrani were inspired by the work in the film “At Eternity’s Gate” and wanted to create distinctive moments of dislocation that conveyed what Ptolemy was feeling. The look of the show is balanced between an expressive view of Ptolemy’s world and compositions that draw in the viewer. The moments of flare with special lenses — or Martinelli’s bottles — stand in contrast to a world that warms up as Ptolemy becomes more and more part of it again, and grows colder as his mind makes him more distant.

“I wanted to help push it,” Peters said of how the show’s look helps accentuate the emotions of the characters. “I was teetering the line between trying to create something that is somewhat beautiful to a certain extent, but not so graphically beautiful that the cinematography is so present that it distracts from the performances [and their ability to] connect a reality to the person.”

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