Cinematographer Christian Sprenger on overcoming challenges of ‘Last Man on Earth’ (Podcast)

You wouldn’t expect the Coen Brother’s bleak, nihilistic Best Picture-winner “No Country for Old Men” (2007) to be the main source of visual inspiration for a TV comedy, but that’s the first title cinematographer Christian Sprenger brings up when discussing his work on “The Last Man on Earth.”

In our exclusive audio interview (listen below), Sprenger cited Oscar-nominated D.P. Roger Deakins’ use of “very static, wide, well-graphically composed shots that are very classic storytelling” as a major point of reference for him when figuring out the style of the show. He further elaborates, “It takes place in a desert, and there’s lots of hot, direct sunlight, and we really liked the confidence in the photography that they had to let things be dark or let things be super bright.” 

So what exactly, you may ask, does such austere camerawork have to do with a show where goofball Will Forte slowly learns he’s not quite the last man on Earth? “Because our show takes place in Arizona,” explains Sprenger, “and there’s no more luxuries of running water or air conditioning, we wanted to be reminding the audience that we live in a much grittier environment now: we wanted the photography to sort of emulate that.

“Ultimately,” he concludes, “the story is about a man who’s alone in…an empty world, so especially in the pilot, we chose to shoot a lot of big, wide, empty shots where…the only movement in the shot is him. The locations play a really important role in the story because it’s essentially about a world where there’s nothing else in it…so it’s very important visually to see that as much as possible, or to constantly be reminding the audience that’s the world that we’re living in.”

Sprenger praises creator Forte and executive producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The LEGO Movie,” “21 Jump Street) with helping support this darker visual style by having “a lot of confidence in the fact that the audience doesn’t need to have jokes spoon-fed to them, and they don’t have to constantly be one-liner jokes, or laugh-out-loud jokes necessarily. I think what that allows you to do is play in a little bit more of a dark comedy environment where things may be funny or you may chuckle to yourself, but in the grand scheme of things it’s still more about the plot and the character development, and it doesn’t have to be this sort of network, sitcomy, joke-joke-joke pattern that we’ve really been conditioned to expect from network television.”

Of course, what audiences have come to expect from network television has changed significantly over the years. “I think, undeniably, television has moved into a much more cinematic place,” says Sprenger. “The lines have blurred for acting, the lines have blurred for directing…we’re able to watch movies and television side-by-side and they can look just as good. So I think that as a cinematographer, your responsibilities have increased to hold a more cinematic image up for the audience.”

Sprenger is hoping to reap his first Emmy nomination this year. Check out our full interview below for more about his work on the show, including the moment during the filming of the pilot he thought he would be fired, and what you might be able to expect from season two.

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