Watch: 4 Iconic Camera Moves that Define 'Breaking Bad'
This video looks at four trademarks that gave the series a uniquely hypnotic aesthetic.
When people talk about the legacy of Breaking Bad, one name usually comes up: Vince Gilligan, the series' creator, writer, director, and showrunner. But the series, as famous for its cinematic aesthetic as its Shakespearean storyline, had another titanic creative force: DP, Michael Slovis.
Slovis arguably played an equal role in shaping Bad, which was one of the most stylized TV series ever to hit airwaves. This video from ScreenPrism looks at four trademark camera moves from the series, dissecting how they worked with the show's existential themes to create a unified work of American art.
1. Wide Angle Shots
As the video notes, "the show's wide shots were partly circumstantial," since the New Mexico skyline is so broad and open. That said, they also served a larger purpose tied into the show's themes of fate and contingency, the randomness of life, and Walter White's increasing need to control it (remember, the show kicked off with a diagnosis of cancer, which knocked the wind out of Walt's life and made him question everything.)
The wide shots placed the viewer at a distance and served to contrast the vastness of the landscape with moment-to-moment, life-or-death struggles. Sometimes appearing at odd moments (and often aerial), it's both beautiful and disorienting, adding an air of "impartiality and distance." It provides desert's eternal, disinterested perspective on the unfolding mayhem.
Like its wide shots, Breaking Bad's use of time-lapse photography served to provide a sense of cosmic perspective. As the characters live their lives, "the universe rolls on" with a sense of impartiality, highlighting that in the cosmic scheme of things, all of Walt's actions—the scheming and double-crossing and spilled blood—add up to an insignificance. "None of what we do matters the way we think it does, and there's a much bigger world going on around us than we can ever really grasp."
3. Object POV Shots
A POV shot typically shows us the point-of-view of a person. In the case of Breaking Bad, it's often used from the perspective of inanimate objects. The reason for this? "Because we're watching from a fixed object's perspective, we have no agency."
Like so much of the camera work on the show, these shots provided a sense of cosmic distance, and according to ScreenPrism, were a visual way of subtly telling the viewer that they have no power over the outcome of what happens. "You might stop trying as hard to will the outcome you want, and instead take in the chaos...in a dispassionate, objective manner."
4. Wide and Closed
These shots, so named by the crew, made use of depth-of-field that contrast a foreground object with a wide view beyond; they combined the "distanced, epic feel of the wide shots, with the impartial, witness feeling of an object POV."
Often occurring right before a frenzy of action, the wide and closed shots served as a "calm before the storm moment," providing a sense of foreboding and another example of a world that watches, still and impartial, as mayhem explodes all around.
These four shots give Breaking Bad's action a sense of inevitability. Moreover, they "allow us, even force us, into a degree of impartiality," providing a unique break from the intense, close-up emotional drama of the story's main action. The cinematography of Breaking Bad was a key reason for the show's success, bringing a cinematic flair as well as a philosophical outlook to the show's action.
The camera work of Michael Slovis found a visual objective correlative to the show's themes. It provided a visual counterpoint that ultimately served to highlight the folly of the character's scheming in the face of a disinterested universe.