May 14, 2014

This 'Breaking Bad' Scene Shows How Powerful a Simple Pan & Dolly Move Can Be

Breaking BadThese days, a low-budget, indie filmmaker can fly their camera in through a window, glide it around the floor and send it for a bath, all without  prohibitive expense. But, as we all know, camera moves are most effective when they work in concert with the story -- and sometimes, the simplest moves are the best for the scene. An example of this comes courtesy of Vashi Nedomansky of Vashi Visuals from the series finale of everyone's favorite crystal meth soap opera, Breaking Bad: a deceptively simple camera move that brought new dimension and depth to a pivotal scene.

Once upon a time, a shopping cart was the best indie dolly out there, but in 2014, a low-budget filmmaker has more image-making power at their disposal than Orson Welles did when he made Citizen Kane, which according to some people is a pretty good movie. That film saw Welles and DP Gregg Toland manage incredible depth of field, as well as a few very tricky shots for 1941, but today a filmmaker has the choice of, as Vashi says, getting a ridiculously smooth tracking shot via gimble stabilizers, not to mention what a quadcopter can do for you. But, he asks, will these bells and whistles detract from the job of the filmmaker, which is to tell a story in the most effective way possible?

Just because we can do things, doesn't mean we should (this is probably going to be the title of my autobiography/written on my tombstone -- but I digress). The always edifying film editor and educational Vimeo videomaker, Vashi, dissected this scene from the ultimate episode of Breaking Bad: 

In the final episode of Breaking Bad -- there are two shots in a pivotal scene that are perfect examples of how to use camera movement to amplify the narrative and surprise the audience. With one simple pan and one simple dolly…there is a set-up and shortly after, a dramatic pay-off. The scene at first appears to be just conveying information to the viewer. Then, with one pan and one dolly move -- the scene is flipped on its head and is seen in a whole new light. This could only happen through writing, direction, set design and camera movement working in unison. A Steadicam or crane shot through a window could never have achieved the emotional impact of a simple pan and dolly.

Warning: If you haven't seen the entire show, it's probably best to not watch the clip.

See for yourself what Vashi's talking about:

At the end of the day, technology is great and has allowed us to develop a richer, more sophisticated cinematic language, but keep in mind that every camera movement you use is speaking to your audience. Also, the rest of the post has a great anecdote from Vashi about superfluous use of image technology in furtherance of cinematic malfeasance. So, be sure to check out Vashi's original post for more info!

As a filmmaker, how do you approach camera movement in your films? Do you lean more toward simplicity, or incorporating new tech? There's a time and a place for everything, obviously, but what time, and what place? And can I bring friends? Let us know, in the comments!

Link: Breaking Bad: Motivated Camera Movements -- Vashi Visuals

Your Comment

39 Comments

cannot agree more. great reveal.

May 14, 2014 at 6:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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GLEB!

May 15, 2014 at 7:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Nice!!

May 14, 2014 at 6:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Howard L Hughes

I have always been a fan of handheld. I know a lot of people dont like it, but done correctly it draws me into the scene so much more. But don't get me wrong, i love a good 2:00 steadicam shot ;) Paul Thomas Anderson is the man! Haha

May 14, 2014 at 6:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jeremy D

This site should be full of articles like this.

May 14, 2014 at 7:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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VinceGortho

isn't it?

May 14, 2014 at 7:46PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Kevin

There's 20 tech stories to every one of these.

They seem to be on a roll lately though.

May 14, 2014 at 8:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ant

+1 - nofilmschool already does quite a few of them, but there should be 1 or 2 a day. You know... to replace film school.

May 14, 2014 at 7:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jonesy

+1

May 14, 2014 at 11:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Glad you guys liked it.! More on the way!

May 15, 2014 at 7:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

+ 1 - completely agree. More like this, and less about what the GH4 is capable of now.

May 15, 2014 at 11:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Adam

Oh GOD! I got a conversation with Michael Slovis about this shots at the School last Summer.

I'm changing my degree title to No Film School though.

May 14, 2014 at 8:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Edgar

I am not a fan of these "hiding shots", although if one is observant here, he can see the shadow standing in front of the window. But even then, one has to ask why a particular camera position was taken and why the shot began with the back wall pan. Something had to have led to it prior. Laforet's teaser video is actually very clever in noticing how Spielberg moves seemingly unimportant to the scene actors to give a "motivation" to his shot.
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What I did like here was the lens choice. It made you feel claustrophobic, as it was supposed to. A 12mm fisheye?

May 14, 2014 at 11:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

"But even then, one has to ask why a particular camera position was taken and why the shot began with the back wall pan."

Because it gave you the illusion of seeing the whole room, of seeing everything there was to see.

May 19, 2014 at 3:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I love this when I first saw it. Also the wide angle and her placement in frame makes her feel so isolated, which seems to be enough motivation for the set up to begin with better selling the reveal.

My favorite shot in this scene is later though. Camera is placed to the right of its position in this shot and the each character is framed by their own 'doorway' into the kitchen. that divider in the door way separating them, placing them in what feels like entirely different worlds, mirroring the current state of their relationship. Brilliant.

May 14, 2014 at 11:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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And its been a little while but I think I remember that shot dolly-ing in slowly throughout the scene. But I could be mis-remembering.

May 14, 2014 at 11:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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That's the first thing that struck me is how that divider was set for for symbolism you don't see often in tv shows. If I remember right they never cross that divider and not only is it a thin divider but a thick divider between them. Likely to be one of my favorite scenes. I've also always liked the opening shot of "Flatliners" and "Sleepless in Seattle" father son talk in the cemetery.

May 16, 2014 at 12:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jer

Logically this is a really compelling shot, but I can't say I'm a huge fan of this type of reveal. Yes, this definitely coincides with the narration of the storyline, but I think it takes you OUT of the story. As I'm watching, it makes me subconsciously wonder, why couldn't I see him before? Oh, because they simply blocked him. Very creative and effective, yes. But maybe I just didn't think it was badass enough. Nevertheless, I saw what they did. I picked up what they put down.

If you'd like to see another great example, watch It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, season 2 ep 1. The scene starts at about 1:40.

May 14, 2014 at 11:42PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Sean

This type of movement/scene surprise its very used in films. For a few dollars more has one in the beginner (Mortimer character), HER (Spike Jonze) also and PRISONERS (with Hugh Jackman). Its very important and only people who know cinematography and screenwriting go out of the story in thoose kind os scenes.

Hitchcock loves that also.

May 15, 2014 at 9:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Roberto França

Sean to your credit your 2nd sentence says it all. It does coincide with the storyline, and the answer to why you couldn't see him before is just that. Out of context this scene may make you wonder why he was hid in the first place. The story/episode as a whole, this is a deep reveal not just visually, but in the context of the story as well. There is no asking of why he was hid in the first place, to pose that question would mean you haven't paid attention to the story at all.

May 15, 2014 at 10:26AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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seth

For those who didn't pick up from the cut short phone conversation - the character being reveald is "back in town." The viewer doesn't really know that - but fuck - he's actually in his wifes house. It raises stakes, and creates interesting viewing.

I don't think it motivates the story, but creates an compelling piece.

May 15, 2014 at 11:20AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tyler

Personally - and I have not seen the full episode - I would have had the wife pick up the phone off its cradle, with the cradle placed by the same back wall, and then walk back to her chair. That would have given the shot a reason to begin at the back wall and hide Walter for the duration of this conversation. The sequence would be something like this :
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1) Establishing shot with the blazing light coming through the window and an underexposed back wall.
2) The close-up on the phone, as it rings.
3) She picks it up. Extreme close up on her face. Shows her emotions and keeps Walter out of the shot at the same time. (I would have also had her drag the long coiled phone cord over, just to show her shaking hands)

Now, we're onto the same the back wall and can follow her to the same chair and here the camera can be set up to show these collapsing walls - to symbolize the collapsing world around her - from her POV.

Last shot, she raises her head and looks at Walter without an ounce of surprise on her face.

Just an opinion, mind you,

May 15, 2014 at 9:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

What does that mean ,wasn't "Bad Ass enough" ?

May 19, 2014 at 6:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Dheep

Cannot agree more. Perfect! Simple and Clean.

May 15, 2014 at 5:15AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Movies and series, lets remember that, manipulate the audience ALL THE TIME to make surprises.

May 15, 2014 at 9:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Roberto França

Nice, but that's a lens and half - so wide - and I wouldn't say that move was 'motivated'. Nice twist though in the plot though.

May 15, 2014 at 12:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jim

My friend and I have been making a few short films lately and he just purchased a DJ Phantom, and I confess that I was thinking of all the ways we could use it to film some sweet shots. This article makes me appreciate the simple shots again... and made me re-think how to use our new toy.

May 15, 2014 at 12:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Franklin Carpio

Agreed. Amazing. Would love to know how it was created, from the first iteration to the final product.

May 15, 2014 at 1:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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kal

Wow!!! great post and agree powerful but minimal simplistic movements. One of the best posts that i have seen on here in a whlie.

They should have a series of these, keep them coming

May 16, 2014 at 6:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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JAYEE

I am still using my $15.00 black pipe steady cam and a wheelchair.

May 16, 2014 at 4:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Scvlptr

Walter seems like a ghost in this scene. Wonderful direction and cinematography.

May 16, 2014 at 10:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Glasty

That's what i like - KISS Keep It Simple & Sexy (the shot) if you can master this then you have the basis for any short simple film with impact.

May 17, 2014 at 1:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Bryce

Camera moves like this that make the viewer an active participant in the scene can be effective when used with restraint. Reminds me of the scene in the original Rosemary's Baby where Polanski purposefully stopped a camera move in a suspenseful scene to leave Mia Farrow only partially revealed in a doorway, and had audience members leaning sideways to try and get a better view around the corner. It can be a clever way to hold the tension and keep the audience off-balance (literally!)

May 20, 2014 at 12:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Markus

What makes the initial pan work is that is has two purposes; one apparent and one deceptive.

After watching the scene everyone gets the deceptive purpose -- "establishing" that Skyler is completely alone but the viewer might guess that sooner if the movement had no apparent purpose. What the pan initially seems to be doing is giving us a window into the reduced circumstances of Walter's family since his disappearance. In fact, it does that really well!

John Cleese had a rule for writing comedy that said every setup for a joke should be funny or interesting in it's own right so as not to telegraph the punch. This example shows that we should make that a general rule about surprise information: hide the clues in plain sight by making them stand alone as story or visual elements.

May 21, 2014 at 11:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Keith

I'm always impressed with a dolly in that actually reveals something. I'm usually left cold with most dolly in shots of actors...b/c it always feels like emotionally manipulative. "Look at this...it's important!" ...because most of the time, you can't see anything more that you didn't see from the medium shot. As much as I love a lot of Spielberg dollies and compositions, the punch ins from medium to close while the character has this stupid look of wonder are totally annoying. A dolly in like this reveals so much.

May 23, 2014 at 6:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Daniel Mimura

Stupid question, but how can this shot be achieved on a dslr? I hate my slider, anyone know a good low budget dolly technique?

May 24, 2014 at 11:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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fred

A skateboard?

A wheel chair?

PVC pipes running in parallel with wooden spacers, and a platform with roller blade wheels?

May 26, 2014 at 1:30AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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u even see a lil of his movement in the light on the floor. wonder if they meant that for our subconscience??

May 25, 2014 at 12:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Great reveal! There were so many great reveal's on this show. Although I must admit when they panned across that room I found myself distracted by the strange layout of the home and the very strange looking flat pillars that separate the kitchen and the living room. Maybe as a former production designer I am the only one that would notice this. But when they revealed Mr. White I understood that they were there specifically for the reveal and I was reminded once again that this is just a story... something that is a filmmakers' worst nightmare.

May 28, 2014 at 4:58AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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G.D.

Thank you for this.

June 9, 2018 at 2:57AM, Edited June 9, 2:57AM

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