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Creating A World For “The Last Man On Earth”: Production Designer Bruce Robert Hill

Production Designer Bruce Robert Hill incorporated stronger colors into the neutral environment and enhanced natural lighting for “The Last Man on Earth” staring Will Forte. Photo Credit: Fox Networks

By: Marjorie Galas

Bruce Robert Hill’s agent knows what’s best for him. While Hill likes to find his own projects, the tables were turned on “The Last Man on Earth.”

“My agency told me I had to take a look at the project,” said Hill.  “I read the script and just loved the twist of the genre.”

Created by actor Will Forte, “The Last Man on Earth” follows Phil Miller, a middle of the road everyman who, after a virus decimated the Earth’s human population, is alone and sullen. Hill was enamored with the pilot script that took the pandemic genre and “turned it on its ear.” He embraced the story’s Arizona setting, understanding its role in the underlying social commentary the show’s writers were highlighting.

“The fact that, out of anywhere he could be, Phil chose Tucson, one of the hottest, driest, most desolate places, speaks to his nature,” said Hill. “He settles in a McMansion community – its got a larger than life, pumped up aesthetic. It’s saying ’Look at what we’ve become’ – excessive and materialistic.”

The sets Chatsworth, California location doubles nicely for the rocky, barren landscape of Arizona. Hill focused on a production design that utilized neutral colors and natural lighting to its fullest capacity. Jagged rock formations were incorporated for their imposing and majestic qualities. Richer, darker tones were frequently introduced, adding contrast to the set’s abundant neutrality. Bountiful windows, dressed with sheer curtains, were incorporated to allow DP Christian Sprenger an opportunity to use natural light in the electricity-less setting. The art department crafted jerry-rigged, candle-filled candelabras and floor lamps made of flashlights fastened together to introduce light sources for evening scenes.

When conceptualizing environments, Hill found it was important the locations reflect a quality of their previous owners personalities. The original aesthetic lays below the surface of the materials Phil and Carol (the first person Phil encounters on Earth who enters his life when he’s lost all motivation) incorporate into their new living situations.

“I put some thought into that. All these houses before they arrived, so their personalities were not there yet. They did not do the original decorating,” said Hill.

In addition to physical sets, Hill and his team also created a virtual set that replicated the cul-de-sac where Phil lives. Making a full model of the location, the crew utilized a 360 degree green screen that produced a real – time virtual world in camera.

“To shoot some scenes, such as night scenes, it would be logistically and budgetary-wise impossible,” said Hill. “Instead of being a slave to the elements, we had more control on stage and saved time and money.”

Essential to bringing Hill’s production design to life on “The Last Man on Earth” is set decorator Bob Gould. The two men had worked together on “Starship Troopers” and Hill states Gould is one of the best decorators he could possibly work with. When selecting interior mansion decorations, the two men focused on items that balanced the signature of a financially well-off home with the kitsch associated with specific areas of the country. They then selected the objects Phil and Carol would surround themselves with. Working on a five-day shooting schedule, the team generally had anywhere from a day and a half to a few hours to dress a scene. They had to move fast to accomplish all set ups.

“For Phil’s house in the pilot, we broke it into three phases,” said Hill. “There was the first phase when Phil walks into the door, then the artifact phase when he brings in items from all around the country. The last was, the desolation phase, required Gould to fill the house with layers of water bottles, booze bottles and trash.”

As with all jobs he takes on, Hill did a lot of research for “The Last Man on Earth.” While contemporary pandemic fare including “The Road”, “I Am Legend”, “The Wrong Man” and “The Walking Dead” were all observed, Hill was conscious of veering into a dark and scary dystopian world. He manipulated photos, removing cars from roads and creating vacant scenes to use as reference points. As the show progresses, Hill will incorporate natural decay in the set pieces. Layers of dirt and dust will become visible, landscaping will shrivel and disrepair due to the lack of attendance will be introduced.

While Hill holds high regard for his team and the crew involved in bringing “The Last Man on Earth” to life, he’s especially grateful to have the experience of working with Will Forte. From the actor’s ability to infuse the carefully crafted scripts with scene enhancing improve to his clear vision for the life of the series, he’s delighted to be working with Forte.

“In an upcoming episode, we have a carnival scene that we filled with all sorts of fair material. Will asked us to pull stuff out; he wanted it to feel as if Phil had put it together. And Phil is very lazy and does everything only half way,” said Hill. “Will has a very clear vision and feel for what he wants. He leans towards the minimal. He’s unassuming and very humble. It’s refreshing to work with someone so nice.”

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