Dailies: Michael Slovis’s “Painterly” Film Photography in Breaking Bad

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Good morning. This will be the first in a series I’m calling “Dailies.” This is a reference to the procedure in which a director and crew view the footage completed after a day of shooting film. My own “Dailies” will do one or more (or all!) of the following:

  • cover some aspect of film art;

  • coincide with other posts I’m writing at the time;

  • say a little bit about upcoming topics or posts.

Does the name Michael Slovis ring a bell? It should. As cinematographer, he was responsible for the look of Breaking Bad in 50 of the 62 episodes. In the article “Behind the Lens: Michael Slovis, ASC & Breaking Bad,” posted on CreativeCOW.net, Slovis had this to say using film rather than digital:

We shoot film, and that’s AMC’s decision. When I started on the show, AMC’s philosophy was, we are American Movie Classics and even our original programing is going to feel like film, cinema, movies, and we want it to look that way. It’s not cheaper—there’s a premium—but I’m grateful they made this decision. There are very few shows shooting on film any more, and it’s a shame.

Slovis went on to say that, while he had nothing against digital from the “technical” side of things, the so-called freedom to keep shooting with digital technology affects the “behavior” of the actors on set. As he explained it, because with digital, you can simply let the camera run, and because directors are not limited by so many “feet” of film per day, actors might not feel forced to do their best during each take.

And I imagine that actors must appreciate the little breaks required with film to set up each shot and establish the right tone. David Fincher offers a funny anecdote in the documentary Side by Side (2012, dir. Christopher Kenneally) about just this scenario: apparently, as a form of protest over very long shooting days (presumably with a director using digital technology), Robert Downey Jr. set mason jars full of his urine around the set. Yikes.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the things that digital camera work can accomplish—how about the stunningly sinuous shots of the children running through Mumbai in Slumdog Millionnaire? Director Danny Boyle (known also for Trainspotting, of course) is a big fan of digital, and I’m a big fan of Danny Boyle.

All the same, I can’t deny the superb cinematic quality of Michael Slovis’s film photography in Breaking Bad. Think of all those remarkable yellows and oranges and browns, especially in the Mexico sequences of the series. (See Jakub Schiller’s Wired piece, “Breaking Bad’s Camera Work Perfects the Visual Recipe, Yo,” which mentions Slovis’s use of “saturated color palettes.”) Add to this, the show’s signature wide shots, which exploit the austere environment of the Mexico or New Mexico desert, and it’s easy to agree with Slovis that the show has a “painterly” quality to it.

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