A vision had been laid out: provide a character driven tale of an everyman who falls into hard times. Employ the desert of New Mexico to elevate his feelings of desperation as he battles cancer and tries to provide for his family. Vince Gilligan and his crew laid this foundation during the first season of “Breaking Bad” earning a Peabody Award, two Emmy Awards, and resounding critical praise.
Two men found themselves stepping into this established framework tasked with the challenge of remodeling it: director of photography Michael Slovis and production designer Mark S. Freeborn. Both men had a wealth of TV and movie credits and several award nominations each. Both men embraced the show’s concept and worked with show creator Vince Gilligan to continue developing it.
“I worked with Vince on ‘The Lone Gunmen.’ He's extremely demanding visually,” said Freeborn. “You don't try to put anything over on him. I think I'm fortunate because we see things through the same eyes. It's actually an extremely enjoyable, productive relationship because he cares so much, and that revs everyone up."
Slovis, who resides in New York, was looking for work closer to home and initially passed on the offer to join the show. His wife encouraged him to call back and accept the offer, telling him that he needed to be involved.
“They sent me the first season, and I was completely blown away,” said Slovis. “Vince had hit a very human trait. Walt, the main character of the show, convinces himself that his decisions are always the best decisions. It’s an everyman epic.”
Both men began finding the elements that would lend themselves to providing a rich, cinematic quality to the stories within “Breaking Bad.” Shooting on location became an inspiration for the look they brought to season two and continue in season three.
"It's not a particularly optimistic show. It's about human beings, and the reality of their lives,” said Freeborn. “There’s a connection with the sun burnt natural look of Albuquerque and New Mexico that lends itself to that."
“The locations are equal characters to the performers. So much happens because of New Mexico,” said Slovis. “I was inspired by the tobacco-y color of the desert. I was struck by its browns and warm tones: burnt umber and golds.”
Working from script outlines, the creative heads collaboratively discuss every detail of the episode, from building types to the costumes. When approaching an existing location, Freeman and his crew attempt to minimize alterations to retain its regional authenticity. With the locations that were previously established in the storyline, such as the White’s house, the production design challenge lies in upgrading the interior slightly to highlight character arcs.
"With the fact that Walt and Skyler bounce between separation and living together and his lack of concern about his self appearance and environment, we try to reflect these things in the set decoration and in the space," said Freeborn. "We've kept the palette dark so Mr. Slovis can play the light to his, and our, advantage."
Texture and lighting are very important to the production design. Freeborn creates moody atmospheres by utilizing darker, warmer palettes, allowing room for color moderation as the episode progresses. Walls in every location will be painted and adjusted throughout the episode. To alter the mood, Freeborn will introduce strong, bright primary colors through set dressing and elements such as automobiles, specifically when dealing with the emotional arcs of characters, or when working on very disturbing circumstances.
“For Skyler’s workplace we used more optimistic colors. For a certain period of time that was Skyler’s safety, it needed to be a little brighter; we needed to make it positive. If we want to portray a specific mood, we’ll add a touch of red, just enough to tie a ribbon on that scene. Jesse had a bright red low rider in season one, which was the apex of his life originally. As the story progresses, he sticks with the red, but downgrades because things have fallen apart for him,” said Freeborn.
Working closely with Slovis, he’ll adjust interior lighting through window dressing, practicles, and wall fixtures. "If I can't give him a source, I don't feel that I've done my job."
Slovis determines much of his visual style and equipment needs based on the arc of the script. The episodes are shot on Kodak 35 using an Ariflex Aricam and Cooke prime lenses. Although there is some stationary work, the majority of the camera work is handheld. Slovis likes working with a variety of filters to enhance the colors of the locations or to darken the sky. After processing, the film is transferred to hard drives. Working with Tom Surtry at FotoKem and post supervisor Diane Mercer, Slovis makes several color correction passes of each episode on a shot by shot basis. Each pass is made on high quality digital tape to ensure the quality of the image and color alteration is accurate.
“The three of us work closely together on daily color and final color,” said Slovis.
In addition to the colors, Slovis was also inspired by the vast landscapes of New Mexico . He liked the idea of characters being able to move in a big, open space. In season three, he’s utilizing the expanse of the desert and intertwining its golden hues in the story line. “I feel this adds a dramatic look, a look worthy of the story quality,” said Slovis.
"I really can't think of a lot of scenes that don’t open with a great big booming master,” said Freeborn. “The topography and the locations and the art direction have a great deal of control in establishing the feeling of the show."
In addition to defining the look of the show through their vision, both Freeman and Slovis have a strong work ethic that allows them to remain focused on their roles as production designer and director of photography.
"I've always been a firm believer in the production designer of a project being in the background. The look of a production sets the stage, if you will, of a character's actions,” said Freeman. “I try first to make the environment real for the actors and secondly to make the environment real for telling the story."
“My first responsibility is to get the episode done quickly and on time,” said Slovis. “There are real economics involved. No one wants the show to go away, so I want to be fiscally responsible when dealing with set-ups and achieving the look. I won’t paint with light at a loss of time. That just leads to each day allocating more and more time for each set up.”
With the production of season three wrapped, both men reflected on the joy of working with the local crews in New Mexico. Slovis requested some specific camera operators he’s previously worked with to join the crew, indicating it’s easier to communicate with an operator you’ve worked with numerous times before. A few minor changes were made to the production design staff as well. However, the bulk of the crew remained consistent and comprised of New Mexico locals. The crew was hard working and took great pride in representing their community in each episode of “Breaking Bad.”
For Slovis, the highlight of working on “Breaking Bad” has been working with the cast.
“My favorite thing about this show is working with the actors,” said Slovis. “They are all so smart and talented, and perceptive and nice. Bryan Cranston really sets the tone on the set. He has such amazing generosity and is such an outstanding person. It’s an honor to have met him and been on this earth at the same time.”