Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

'Breaking Bad' Director of Photography Michael Slovis Talks About Shaping the Look of the Most Cinematic Show on Television

By Peter Labuza | Indiewire September 5, 2012 at 12:58PM

When it comes to ambitious television, we tend to talk about the showrunner as the equivalent of the auteur in a film. But the original meaning of that term was more about director imparting his or her visual imprint on a work. And on a show as visually perceptive and imaginative as "Breaking Bad," there's a second creative force shaping what's on screen in just as influential a way as showrunner Vince Gilligan: director of photography Michael Slovis.
4
'Salud'
AMC 'Salud'

Well, what’s unique about "Breaking Bad," which is now rare in both film and television, is that you are still shooting on 35mm. I find this essential to the series because you get those sharp yellows and blue filters. Were there ever any talks that you’d have to switch to digital at all in the show?

There are digital shots in the show. You don’t know them, but they are in there. Little things that help facilitate our day are shot on Canon 7D and Canon 5D. An example would be when there’s a shot from the bottom of a pool in season four when Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) gets killed. We’re looking up from the bottom of the pool and he gets shot and falls right onto this -- that was a Canon 7D in underwater housing. We have them intersprersed throughout the show.

The original reason we shoot film is that AMC, when they started production, shot everything on film, because they saw themselves as film producers and storytellers and not just television producers. The world has changed since then, but to stay consistent, we stay with film. Nobody wants to mess with the look on "Breaking Bad," because it’s such an integral part of the show. I think it would be a shame to at this point, and we’re not going to. We’re going to finish the show on film.

Well, when you are working in television, there’s so much you have to get done in a day and so little time to cover. Do you feel that fuels your creative instincts in some ways because you have to constantly be thinking on your feet? Or do you do a lot of storyboarding and planning ahead of time to make sure everything is going to get done smoothly?

"The world has changed since then, but to stay consistent, we stay with film."

Well, you’ve mentioned storyboards twice now, and I don’t use them. The only time we use storyboards is for complicated effect sequences. I don’t believe in storyboards. Storyboards can cost you a lot of time and a lot of money. Directors come in with them and they show you a picture of a frame and they don’t realize it, but it’s 17 different angles on things that cannot happen in the real world.

I believe in shot lists. I believe if you can’t put it into words, you haven’t thought it out well enough to be on the set. You have to understand, there’s no way to save money, which everybody on the set is charged with. We do this for a price, and that’s extremely important. This show is made for so much less than most shows, most dramas, I cannot tell you. It’s made for a very small amount of money compared to most dramas out there.

So you really must know what you are doing when you come in. You must have a very clear idea of what you want. I think the best way to do that is to have fully thought out a shot list and have it in words of what it is that you are going to do. When I direct, I publish a shot list, and everybody on the crew gets it, so they all know where we are going. I learned that from the great TV directors I respect the most.

We’re talking about this “Golden Age of Television” right now, but as someone who watches a lot of cinema, it’s great to see shows -- foremost "Breaking Bad," and a little "Mad Men" and "Louie" -- that are really trying to tell these stories visually, as opposed to shows that are driven by writing. As you finish up "Breaking Bad," how to do you want to continue to challenge the way audiences are watching TV and shows instead of listening to them?

'Face Off'
AMC 'Face Off'

It’s a problem! It’s a real problem for me. I don’t know what I’m going to do! I don’t think I can go and do, so soon after "Breaking Bad," pedestrian stuff. This has ruined me. I love doing this show. I would not leave New Jersey to go to New Mexico if I didn’t love the show. We’re flattered by how many people are emulating what we’ve started. We get shout-outs all the time from people who are using the visual language now that we’ve introduced. I don’t know what we’re going to do.

One of the reasons "Breaking Bad" looks the way that it does is that I’ve been given an inordinate amount of control. I conceive the way the show is going to look and shoot it to be finished in a certain way, then I work with the people who finish it [in post-production], so it’s finished in the way it was intended to be finished. Most shows, that does not happen. You shoot, you send stuff out, and that’s the last you hear about it. But I get approval or at least consulting all the way to the very end of the process, which is right before it goes out to the network.

This is why, good or bad, the show looks consistent. It may not be a great-looking show and a lot of people may not like it. There’s a lot of people who criticize the way it looks. But it’s of a piece. It feels, when I watch it at least... I don’t feel the photography independently of the story or the way it’s being told. I feel, 80% of the time, the right visual words are being used to tell the story.

That’s because Vince does an amazing job, an enviable job, of corralling everybody. That’s what a showrunner does. A showrunner makes sure, in addition to the writing being great, the makeup, the wardrobe, the effects are appropriate. He’s a conductor at the head of a big orchestra. His job is to make sure is synchronized and appropriate to the story that is being told at that moment, and that’s what he does better than almost anyone that I know.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Breaking Bad, AMC, Michael Slovis, Vince Gilligan