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Breaking Bad: Visual Style Takes A Dark Turn

Ursula Coyote/AMC

As once mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) willingly plunges into moral decline during the final stretch of "Breaking Bad," director of photography Michael Slovis will be manipulating each episode’s visual style, sending viewers on a turbulent voyage.  After discussing the season’s overall tone with creator/show runner Vince Gilligan, he then selects a photographic calling card that enhances every bit of the scripts’ subtext.

"The lead always has to come from the material," said Slovis.  "You never want to say this is Michael Slovis photography or this is ‘Breaking Bad’ photography.  Vince gives me a lot of freedom.  Turning over a baby is a very trusting move and I am so appreciative."

Upon joining "Breaking Bad" in season two, Slovis and Gilligan petitioned AMC to shoot "Breaking Bad" in 2.35 widescreen.  While that request couldn’t be accommodated, the show continues to be shot on film, which Gilligan sadly feels may be one of the last television series in history to do so.  Both men honor the medium, and Slovis has a passion to fully utilize the high-resolution and contrast range a variety of film stocks provide. 

Through the past four seasons Slovis has introduced strong imagery into the show to enhance the viewer’s emotional response, resulting in diverse POV shots (shooting from the bottom of a pool or the blade of a shovel), extreme spacial relationships between characters, and unusual uses of color saturation, such as opening season three in a sepia tone that was carefully matched with the hues of the New Mexico desert where the series is shot.  Believing that "a picture is worth a thousand words," Gilligan fully entrusts Slovis’ abilities to provide visual depth to his dark and edgy show without tipping the scale towards unsubstantiated flashy images.

"Indeed, the look has evolved over the four seasons that Michael has been a DP.  He is an innate storyteller, and approaches lighting and camera placement with those thoughts in mind," said Gilligan.  "He does not go for flash; he goes for substance over surface always."

Slovis has paid close attention to lighting, choosing film stocks that balance tones and highlights for interior and exterior setups and cleverly weaving practical lights into interior sets.  In season four he worked with production designer Mark Freeborn to incorporate a light grid into the set design of the super lab.  This structure effectively brought out the sterile, metallic confines of the setting while being functional in the context of the shot.  As season five unfolds, Slovis is quite literally exploring the darkness that has fallen over the White household, likening the sense of intentionally under-lit lighting design to the dark vision one experiences after stepping into bright sunlight from a dark room.

"This season is emotional; there’s little attention to justifying light sources," said Slovis.  "If you see a little guy with a bald head in total silhouette, everyone knows its Walter.  You don’t have to show faces, you can use emotionally evocative images."

"We are not afraid of the dark in terms of story or photographically.  Michael, going forward with courage visually speaking, is a great boon to our show," said Gilligan.  "We are really swinging for the fences and taking chances and putting exposures on film and on TV that would probably scare the hell out of executives at other television networks."

In addition to his role as DP, Slovis has also been able to enter the stable of the show’s directors.  Although directors are not matched to particular episodes – the order is dictated more by availability – Slovis directs episodes at the beginning or end of a season as to avoid disrupting the development of the visual style.  With nearly ten years of experience directing episodic television such as "CSI" and "30 Rock,” Gilligan found it easy to let Slovis take the reins.

"When he starts prepping an episode he takes off his DP hat and puts on his director’s hat and pours over the script very carefully," said Gilligan.  "The only thing that becomes disconcerting is if he is directing, he’s not shooting.  Luckily, Michael knows a great many very talented DPs and always finds us somebody good to stand in his stead."

There are three essential abilities Slovis looks for when hiring a DP.  They must be a great cinematographer, they have to be able to maintain the pace (shooting days are 12 1/2 hours and there may be upwards of 25-40 set ups a day.)  Most importantly, they must fit in socially on the set.

"This is a congenial, happy work place and we are all very supportive of each other," said Slovis.  "We’ve grown really close in the last four years and it’s very import to me to maintain that positive social fit."

Slovis is also very specific about the shot list, which he prepares and gives to the DP.  While he is open to suggestions that are improvements on what he devised, he feels it is important to provide the preconceived shots as to maintain the sensibility of the series’ look and development.

Just as the series has stretched Slovis’ photographic skills, he’s also embraced the complex execution of each episode he’s directed.  Season five’s premiere, "Live Free or Die," balanced elements of a screwball comedy, emotionally wrenching character work and technical challenges such as making a police evidence room appear to be up-ended by a giant magnet.  Working with a budget that didn’t allow for a complete visual effect, the crew affixed a series of wires that pulled the objects through the air.  VFX producer William Powloski then removed the wires, leaving a very realistic looking physical effect.

"I introduced an idea inspired by Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ where one bird appears, then a few more and a lot more show up," said Slovis.  "It starts small, with the movement of a paper clip, and builds from there."

While Gilligan enthusiastically reviews every detail of the show from props and wardrobe to sound mixing and color timing, he doesn’t watch dailies, entrusting Slovis and the team of producers and directors to capture the intent of the storyline.

"One of the things I am very proud of and feel confident about is that I have put together an excellent team, who really are enthusiastic about this show, who understand what it is and what it should be and we are all very much in sync," said Gilligan.

While Slovis was excited to share in the company of this year’s crop of Emmy nominated cinematographers who he feels have been "dedicated to enhancing film language," Gilligan is thrilled that Slovis has received his third nomination for his work on the show.  However, it’s Slovis’ dedication to the cast and crew that delights him the most.

"He is emotionally a rock at the center of this production," said Gilligan.  "He and Bryan Cranston are like the twin dads of the ‘Breaking Bad’ set.  When I’m directing, Michael is someone I can turn to and ask ‘Is this going to work?’  Michael smiles gently and nods, and you know everything is going to be alright."  


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