Breaking Bad's cinematography helped define the tone and story. Now, we look back on one of the greatest televisions shows of all time and dissect the four camera angles/moves that made its story shine.
Television used to be a cinematographer's nightmare. Everything was based on fast setups and multi-camera action. But as the rise of single-camera and television dramas entered a new era, TV became more cinematic. Shows like the Sopranos and Lost elevated what was shown on television. But neither of them compared to Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad began with an incredible opening shot and only got more interesting from there. Today we're going to go over Breaking Bad's cinematography, look at four camera moves that define the show, and learn how the
Let's make some meth! Sorry, meant magic!
The Cinematography of Breaking Bad
When people talk about the legacy of Breaking Bad and cinematography, 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. Slovis was hired during the second season. In an interview with Forbes, he recalls what he said to Vince Gilligan when the assignment began:
"When I spoke to Vince Gilligan I said, “You have a spectacular show, maybe the best thing I’ve ever seen. But it deserves a graphic look that is often not allowable on television.” Vince is a student of cinema and knows movies like the back of his hand. It was always in his mind that this was a Western in the style of Sergio Leone and the Italian Neo-realists. And he loved expressive lighting like The Godfather, so this was the hybrid we’re trying to put together.
I started shooting that first episode, and two days later I got a phone call from Sony Pictures who was producing the show. They said, “What in heaven’s name is going on over there?” My reaction was “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.”
Immediately I got a call from Vince and AMC, and they said: “Don’t change a thing.” Sony just wasn’t used to seeing dailies that looked like that: dark, contrasty, really strong images. But after that, they were incredibly supportive for the entire time I was there."
This bold maneuver helped define the show moving forward and kept Slovis in the driver's seat as well. It allowed them to experiment and begin to have uniformity to the way they handled the story and stakes.
This video from ScreenPrism looks at four trademark camera moves of Breaking Bad's cinematography, dissecting how they worked with the show's existential themes to create a unified work of American art.
So just how did Slovis and company shoot all of Breaking Bad?
“[We] were allotted 11,000 feet of film a day. If you went over that, somebody came from the office and spoke to you. Which meant that you had to think through, with intent, what it was that you wanted to shoot for the day. There was nothing arbitrary about Breaking Bad. It’s formal.” – Michael Slovis, Forbes
Throughout all its seasons, four shots stood out as defining markers of Breaking Bad's cinematography. We decided to go in-depth on all of them and look at how the show became a classic by taking its camera angles seriously and pushing the boundaries of what had traditionally been on television.
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 the 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 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 activity, 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.
Summing Up Breaking Bad's Cinematography
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.
When asked about Breaking Bad and its lasting impact on him as a cinematographer, Slovis had this to say:
"...Breaking Bad has not only affected my career, it’s affected my life. I’ve worked 34 years in the film industry. The whole idea of auteurs is great, the Spike Lees and Jim Jarmusches, are wonderful. They’re wonderful filmmakers. Geniuses. But for every one of them, there are 1,000 people working to earn a living, to buy a house and send their kids to college. Every so often a job comes along--and for me, there have been two or three of them in 34 years--where everything comes together. The material, the support, the cast, the crew, the network, the production. They become those work milestones, and for me, Breaking Bad sits loftily above everything."
That's certainly powerful and informative. We often think about how we can make a career in this industry and try to model ourselves after the famous people who came before us. But there are thousands of working professionals who may not be as well known, but who are redefining and defining every medium we come into contact with as consumers.
What's next? Get advice from Breaking Bad's editors!
According to the editors behind some of the biggest shows on TV, this is indeed a golden age for television...and especially for editors. During a panel moderated by Michael Berenbaum (Sex and the City) at this year's Sight, Sound & Story Post-Production Summit in New York, editors Naomi Geraghty (Billions, Bloodline, Treme) and Lynne Willingham, ACE (Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, X-Files) talked about how they got their start in the industry, gave advice for those looking to break in, and shared clips from shows they've worked on.
Click the link to learn more!