Do you notice cinematography on TV? Perhaps if you’re a cinematographer. And yet you can’t not talk about it when you watch Breaking Bad—and particularly in its third season. The creative team behind AMC’s grim (a)morality tale squeezes as much emotional juice from the production’s often breathtaking camerawork and location as they do from their justifiably lauded actors and writers. “The big skies and stark beauty of New Mexico have become characters all their own,” says Bad creator Vince Gilligan.
The story follows chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who, after a financially ruinous cancer diagnosis, “breaks bad” to save his family, cooking up and selling pure crystal meth. It’s the American dream squashed to a cow patty, and the shots are appropriately wide and flat. “One of the first things we did before doing the pilot was look at what everyone else was doing,” says Gilligan. “We shoot the show a little wider than most.” And in the service of the show’s oppressive sense of free-floating anxiety is the production’s location, a choice originally driven by a tax break. Gilligan has made copious use of New Mexico’s desert environs to put a Sergio Leone spin on Walt’s Job-like struggle. “I love these images that you find in old Westerns of a solitary man against the sky, against this wide empty backdrop,” he says. “It’s wonderful to pull our cameras back and have our actors be tiny little dark figures against this endless landscape.” Michael Slovis, the show’s director of photography, says, “We are not only encouraged, we are mandated to give imagery evocative of what the characters are going through at that moment.” The result is a powerful “sense of removal.”
Slovis has fallen in love with the desert palette. “You get drawn into the browns and the golds,” he says—and especially the yellows. A color often associated with optimism and happiness, on Bad it’s deployed with relentless cheek, from the hazmat suits donned by Walt during the “cooking” process, to the pastel buttoned-down shirt worn by Giancarlo Esposito’s drug kingpin, Gus, to, most ubiquitous, the deadly sun. “I’ll often counterpoint what’s going on narratively,” says Slovis. “It’s ironically pretty.”
See Our TV Recap Pages for the Latest News, Recaps, and More:
• Breaking Bad