Critics have called Breaking Bad the best television show ever. In this, the fifth and final season for the seven-time Emmy-winning drama, we find out who keeps its visuals burning hot
by Jon Silberg
photos by Lewis Jacobs, Gregory Peters, Goug Hyun, & Ursula Coyote
Behaviorists who posit, “people never change” will find no quarter with the rabidly loyal fan base of AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad. No character in episodic television has morphed more than Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) mild-mannered chemistry teacher, who when the show debuted in 2008 began mixing up high-quality methamphetamine to pay for his cancer treatments, only to have transformed into a ruthless drug kingpin by this fifth (and final) season.
Breaking Bad’s creator, X-Files alumnus Vince Gilligan, has described his series arc as “taking Mr. Chips and transforming him into Scarface,” and he’s not kidding. With the help of creative partners like Guild cinematographer Michael Slovis, ASC, who has visually underscored the show’s transformation since coming onboard at the start of the second season, Breaking Bad has turned up the heat in narrative and character complexity each year, reaching its highest count of Emmy nominations last season. (Cinematographers Nelson Cragg and Marshall Adams have also shot episodes, though Slovis is charged with maintaining the Breaking Bad look.)
Shot in the vast, arid desert of New Mexico, Breaking Bad feels like nothing else on television; with seven Emmy Awards and counting, the show’s smart, brooding blend of pulp and high art has prompted critics to call it “the best dramatic series, ever.” We caught up with some of the creative engines − Gilligan, Slovis, producer/director Michelle MacLaren, and gaffer Steve Litecky − to talk about its daring visual evolution from concept to completion.
Look? What Look?
Vince Gilligan, Creator: John Toll [ASC] shot our pilot, which was amazing. And then Ray Villalobos shot the first season, and when he left, one of our directors suggested Michael for both his speed and artistry. They say you either get good or you get fast, but I think Michael is the exception that proves the rule. He’s fast as lightning and a true artist.
I told him I did not want the bland lighting you sometimes see in television. I did not need to see in every corner. He said, “You’re absolutely sure?” I said: ‘Think of The Godfather as a good touchstone − as much shadow as light, and he said, ‘That’s wonderful.’”
Michael Slovis, Cinematographer/Director: After my first set of dailies, Sony Television called and said, “What’s going on over there? All of a sudden the show is so dark!” [Laughs.] I was ready to pack my bags and go home. Then I got a call from Vince saying, “This is what I want. Don’t change a thing.” And then I got a call from AMC saying, “It’s beautiful.” And finally, Sony called back, and they said, “OK, we get it.”
Gilligan: Prepping the pilot, I was thinking about The French Connection, specifically in terms of a handheld verite style where the operator is holding the camera as still as humanly possible. Like newsreel guys of the old days who were traveling light and maybe didn’t have a tripod with them so they themselves were the tripod.
Then Sony Television asked if I’d consider shooting [the pilot] in New Mexico, where some money could be deferred [due to rebate incentives] and I’d wind up with a lot more on the screen as a producer. I agreed, and when I got out there with this [French Connection] idea, I couldn’t believe the vastness of the prairie and the Sandia Mountains; these huge cumulous clouds, which actually help determine distance in a sky that just went on forever. Being there, and it wasn’t planned at all, made me think of the western ethos, and this visual sense we now have, in cinematic terms, came from seeing these locations.
Big, Bad and Wide All Over
Michelle MacLaren, Executive Producer, Director: I came on to direct the episode “Four Days Out” in season two, and it was a great experience. We wanted the show to be shot like a modern-day western. I’m a huge Sergio Leone fan, and I love wide lenses with something going on in the foreground and these wide vistas in the background. That episode was set out in the desert and I wanted to use a 14-millimeter lens, and Michael loved that. We immediately bonded.
Slovis: I carry a lot of wide, close-focus lenses on this show. We have a 14-, 24- and 32-millimeter close-focus lens. We can get drips of water out of faucets or a bug or something in the foreground and have the actors in the background. We will put a headlight or bumper of a car, or even someone’s eye in the foreground and let the background go out of focus or let the foreground go out of focus and let the background be sharp. We don’t do it just to be unusual. Vince and all of us who work on the show always insist that the look is there in the service of the story.
MacLaren: We don’t ever want to do a shot because it’s just a cool shot that’s gratuitous, which may take viewers out of the story. Michael approaches shooting from a storytelling point of view. Whose head are we in? What is the arc of the scene? How do we influence story with camera? He’s very good at that.
Slovis: The challenge of shooting wide and letting scenes go on for a long time without cutting is that the audience sees in every direction; they see more of the production design, and it can be harder to hide the mic, and there are fewer places to light from. Most importantly, the actors have to make the scene work without the “cinema magic” you get when you cut.
We’ve done shots that sit there for a minute or two minutes that a lot of TV shows wouldn’t consider doing. And that might be all we shoot! In season two there’s a teaser where a drug deal is going down on a park bench. That shot literally went on for about eight minutes.
It All Boils Down to Chemistry
Slovis: I like to shoot with whatever [media] is appropriate for the palette of the story. AMC wants its shows shot on film and Vince likes the look; for me film is absolutely the right way to go for Breaking Bad. The texture, the feel, the contrast range; the way it records highlights. Everything about film lends itself to telling a story with this kind of scope.
And we burn the look in. I have an extensive filter pack that I use to get certain looks. I don’t do any broad-spectrum log-c or s-log transfers. I only want the colorist to be painting with a “fine brush,” not doing primary color grading for each shot. The dailies are ninety-five percent of the finished show.
MacLaren: In the first show I did as a director, I wanted a shot of the two characters outside the RV where they’ve been cooking the meth. It was supposed to be at sunset, but it looked like we lost the light. Michael just pulled out a filter and put it on the lens, and it’s a beautiful sunset shot. If you were standing there in the moment, you’d have thought the light’s gone and the day’s over. And with his filter we got this magic.
Gilligan: I love that Michael imposes his look, on film, on the set, in an old-school fashion. Gels on the lights; filters on the lenses. And then close discussions with the dailies timer. On so many sets, with a digital camera feeding into an HD monitor, everyone from the producer to the writer to the executives to the craft service person is standing there saying, “I wonder if it could be a little more red.” I’m a kibitzer, and the guy who would be standing there saying, “Hey Michael, can you make it a little more blue,” which would drive him crazy, and rightly so. I could never make it look as good as Michael does on his worst day. He’s an artist and I want the artists’ eye. I don’t want cinematography by committee.
The Superlab (Hidden Beneath the Laundromat)
Gilligan: It’s an underground lab that’s built for creating this illicit substance while avoiding police detection. You want enough space for it to be visually interesting because you’ll see it for many episodes, but you still want it to feel real.
The Superlab is the biggest, most expensive standing set we’ve done. When I first walked through what [production designer] Mark Freeborn had built, I said, “My God! This looks like it weighs a million tons!” But Mark had the idea to make it look like press-form concrete when it was really plywood or something like that with plaster over it.
When I saw it for the first time in dailies, it was that much more impressive because of the way Michael lit and shot it. On film it seems so much larger than it really is. It looks like it’s as big as a football field. I love the attention to detail that Mark and Michael give to the visuals. They sweat the small stuff. I know the writers and I sweat the small stuff in the conception, and Michael and Mark do the same in the look of the show.
Slovis: Mark was very helpful about building lighting into the Superlab. I think it tends to look better when practical lighting is part of the set and it’s also a very pragmatic approach. If I’m just switching dimmers or adding a backlight or a little something to an actor’s eyes we can move much faster than we could if I had to light in all directions.
The fluorescents in the catwalk above worked very well dramatically because whenever [local drug cartel boss ] Gus would be looking down at him, he would be backlit.
Litecky: We used a lot of very narrow spot PARS pointing straight down from the ceiling for the main lighting. They were designed with the cowling and painting to blend in with the Superlab. Lots of hard lighting into these stainless-steel barrels, and none of [the barrels] were dulled down at all. Mike also likes to use reflections. Then we could do a lot of backlighting and this hard light from above. When we went in close on an actor, we could use Image 80s to key from one side, but there was really very little lighting on the floor. We also built in banks of fluorescent lighting for when people were between the upstairs of the Laundromat and downstairs in the lab.
For me the Superlab was one of the most fun sets to be involved with, both because of the ideas behind it and because everything was built in.
Slovis: It was very interesting to tie together the look of the laundry upstairs, which was a real industrial laundry facility, and the Superlab set downstairs. We don’t really have a huge budget, so we have to come up with ways to make things work. These real laundry machines can be pushed forward, so we would have actors sort of crouch down to enter and then we’d pick them up doing a “Groucho” coming down the stairs, and it all looks very seamless.
I let the laundry go a kind of fluorescent green and then supplemented with just a few hot spots. I call them “laser beams of light.” Rather than lighting up the whole space, I could throw these hot spots – which are many, many stops over the shooting stop – onto a wall. It works as a framing element, and the bounce helps illuminate the shot.
The White House and Crazy-A** POVs
Slovis: Walter White’s house – we call it the White House – has been around from the beginning, but I try to light that interior so the viewer can feel the pressure he’s under. I’ve always tried to keep the pressure on our characters visually, and if you watch the series progress, you see that more and more. I’m not looking to duplicate what the lighting in someone’s house would look like during the day so much as to represent where [the character] is emotionally.
Litecky: Mostly [for the house] we use hard light coming in from outside with very little fill light. When we go in for close-ups, it gets tickled, especially for the ladies, but it’s not unusual to light Walter just by heavily keying from one side, with the fill side maybe four stops less, or just have a very bright light on someone from the chest down and leave their face almost in shadow.
Slovis: We put the camera in some unusual places, which has become part of the language of Breaking Bad. Sometimes the director comes up with an idea after reading through the script, and often it’ll just say on the page: “And now another one of our patented POV shots.”
MacLaren: In Episode 4.02, I wanted to put the camera on one of those vacuum cleaner things – a Roomba – so it’s the morning after this big party and you see the Roomba in the foreground as it moves across the floor and these characters passed out. It’s the Roomba’s POV, which sounds odd but tells the story of the party and all the drinking that went on. Vince is so supportive about trying things like that, and Mike is great because you can go to him with these crazy ideas and he can make it happen with his wonderful team of gaffers and grips.
Slovis: Though I shoot Breaking Bad in 35 millimeter, these are some of the times we experiment with digital cameras. We’ve used Canon 5D and 7D DSLRs. For the Roomba, the grips fastened a Panasonic HVX 200A to it.
MacLaren: The property master brought in a remote-control car motor, and the grips built wheels and put the Roomba on top of this little device so they could drive the camera around remotely on the Roomba.
Slovis: Many of these iconic-type shots require the talent and skills of every department. On one episode I directed, we put a 7D on a shovel, looking over the back of the shovel in the trunk of a car as the character grabs the shovel and starts digging. There’s no piece of equipment you can rent for that kind of shot. And you can’t light the way you would for a traditional angle.
If you want to be looking from below as someone brings a plunger down into a toilet, the construction department needs to make a 10-foot high stanchion and a Plexiglas floor. Then the set decorator and prop department will bring in a toilet and make sure it gets fixed to the perfect spot in the Plexiglas, and then it has to be water sealed. Then the special effects department pumps in the water. Meanwhile, the gaffer has to make sure there’s no lighting in the shot or anything reflecting in the Plexiglas.
When people talk about Breaking Bad, they often focus on these strange POV shots, which are mostly about getting the camera into a perspective the viewers know you couldn’t really do. They’re fun to do, but they wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it weren’t for the straightforward way we shoot the really emotional scenes. A good example is the first episode of Season 3 – the one that starts out with all those people crawling through the desert. One of the characters walks back and shoots the driver of the truck who was crawling away from the scene. And it’s all seen from far away – no strange angles or camera placement. At the end of season 4, when we see Gus walk out of the building, we don’t see that a big part of his face is blown off until he turns, because it’s continuous. These are the kinds of shots that really hit the emotions.
Gilligan: [Regarding the many flashbacks and flash-forwards] we don’t do a sepia tone for a flashback or a blue tone for a flash-forward because the different looks are based on geography, not chronology. For example, many moments in season three took place south of the border in Mexico and Michael had this thought of enriching the colors a little. He combined filters in the camera, so the Mexico scenes went more golden or straw colored, and that became one of the show’s visual idioms. I like that we move back and forth in time, like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Everything’s equally weighted so when talking with Michael it made more sense to differentiate visually based on topography or geography.
Darkest Days Ahead
MacLaren: Michael’s lighting started out dark and in many ways has gotten even darker as the series goes on. Michael loves dark. He loves silhouettes. Of course, the story is getting more intense and heightened, so it makes sense that the visual storytelling does too. He’s made it darker as the story gets darker. And we all just say, “Go for it.”
Slovis: The whole series has been about this person’s transition from a milquetoast kind of person to a horrific criminal, on top in a violent world. His transition is complete, so in the final episodes we will see the consequences of his actions. That’s one thing Breaking Bad has always been about: the consequences of people’s actions.
Gilligan: I’m not being coy when I say I don’t know the complete width and breadth of [the final episodes] visually because I don’t know the full width and breadth of the story. We’re still hashing it out. But I do love the idea of taking more chances the deeper we go. So definitely I would say more risk-taking photographically. Exposures that are not typically seen on television; the idea that we don’t need to see the actors’ faces. I’m not someone who thinks the camerawork and lighting should draw undue attention. They should always be in service to the story. But having said that if we have room to play without saying, ‘look at us,’ that’s what I’m looking forward to seeing from Michael in the coming episodes; edgier, bolder lighting, and even edgier compositions.
Slovis: For me, it’s a real mix of emotions that the series is ending. This is the longest I’ve ever been on any show, and since I live on the East Coast, [the New Mexico location] is far away from my family. But Breaking Bad has also been one of the best experiences of my career. We’ve all been given a tremendous amount of creative freedom to try new things and take chances. And we must have been pretty successful at it. Now I get calls from producers all the time asking me to shoot their shows with a lot of shadow and silhouettes!