Behind the Lens: Michael Slovis, ASC & Breaking Bad
COW Library : Cinematography : Michael Slovis, ASC : Behind the Lens: Michael Slovis, ASC & Breaking Bad
Returning from Europe, following the traumatic events of 2001, Michael wanted to stay closer to family and was fortunate to transition to episodic television with the series, "ED" for Paramount/NBC. In 2007 Michael completed two and a half years as director of photography on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for which he won the 2006 Emmy award for outstanding cinematography and was nominated again in 2007. Since 2008, Michael has made AMC his part-time home shooting four seasons of the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad, for which he has earned three Emmy nominations.
In recent years Michael has photographed the pilot for ABC's Castle, the episodic shows Fringe (Fox), Royal Pains (USA), Rubicon (AMC), Running Wilde (Fox) and 30 Rock (NBC). In 2010 Michael was honored to join the American Society of Cinematographers.
Slovis is also a fan of Creative COW. "When I first started learning Final Cut, I used Creative COW in my research. It was the only place I went to; COW approaches it all from a practical artist POV. If you look at the discussions that happen there, it's about how do I do this -- and you get responses. It's a sense of community of people who are working graphically."
I became the cinematographer for Breaking Bad when Adam Bernstein, who directed two episodes, threw my name in the hat and Christina Wayne from AMC called me to offer me the job. She said, "You've come highly recommended, we think you're the guy for the job, come to New Mexico." I'd been travelling a lot and I was looking not to travel anymore, so I said, "I'm not interested" and hung up the phone. My wife was walking by and I told her it was Breaking Bad and she said immediately, "Call them back and tell them to hold off on calling anyone else." I asked them to send me the first season, sat down with my wife and from the first shot of the pilot -- a pair of pants falling through the air and landing on the road -- my jaw dropped. I said, "Oh my god, this is filmmaking." I also told my wife, who was trying to get me to stay in New York, that she'd done a bad thing, because I was going to do the show and go to New Mexico. She told me she knew what she was doing.
In my initial discussions with AMC, we talked about the quality of the show and how the look should support it. I told them that what I would do would be something dark and evocative. They put me on the phone with Vince, told him my plan and he said, Absolutely. He said he trusted me and I told him, You don't know me well enough to trust me. He vehemently contradicted me.
The first episode I shot was directed by Bryan Cranston and opened with a shot of a B&W teddy bear eye floating in a swimming pool. When the first set of dailies went out, I got a call from the studio asking me what the hell was going on. I started thinking about packing my bags because I didn't want to be in New Mexico doing pedestrian work, but then AMC and Vince called and told me not to change a thing.
I shot every episode in Seasons 2, 3 and 4, each of which were 13 episodes, except for those I prepped and directed, for which I hired a DP. Season 5A was eight episodes, and Season 5B, I'll shoot the season opener for Bryan and direct Episode 3 and then finish out the season and the show.
In many ways, Breaking Bad is a very complete piece. One of the great joys I have in working on the show, with the many hats I wear, is that, like an arch, there are no weak pieces, no malformed stones. Everything supports it. This will probably never be repeated in my life, unless I work with Vince again. The material allows me to do great looking photography. Every cinematographer is capable of doing this spectacular, gut-wrenching photography but if material can't support it, then it becomes pretentious. As a director of photography, you can't impose a look that doesn't belong on the material. It has to be organic. Breaking Bad has acting and writing and art direction that can take a very, very strong hand in the lighting. It can withstand that, and that's the only reason that I can do the kind of lighting and shot structure that we do. If it were any less of a written show, any less of an art-directed show -- production designer Mark Freeborn doesn't get mentioned enough -- then none of it could allow me to do what I do.
One trademark in the show that's terrific and that Vince and I talk about and exploit is that we often don't see the faces of the main characters. Vince says that everyone knows who these people are so we really don't need to see their faces. Other networks or studios would be upset if you put your main character in a silhouette or put a little bit of light on his head; they want you to see him. We always head towards the emotion of the scene and not necessarily towards seeing the faces. If I can tell the story in a pitch-black room with the face totally in silhouette, that's what we do. It's expressionistic. We represent reality, we don't reproduce it.
Says Michael, "We always head towards the emotion of the scene and not necessarily towards seeing the faces." Lighting, camera angle, shadows on the main character's face all lead the viewer to a powerful emotion. Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. (Courtesy of AMC)
Another example of that are those colors in New Mexico. Those golden, orangey, yellowy colors don't exist in real life. Never once had anyone at the studio or network said, Those colors don't exist, don't do it because it disturbs me. Those colors let me know where we are and are supported by the story, although they don't exist in nature or reality. We take a very, very representational, emotionally based, expressionistic approach. The same thing goes with those wacky POV shots we do... nobody sees things from those angles but they serve the story.
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad. (Courtesy of AMC)
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. I'm not against digital; I've shot it, I like it and I think it's great. What I don't care for shooting digitally has nothing to do with the technical side. It's the behavior change on the set that I have some trouble with. When you shoot digital directors tend to let the cameras run. There is the feeling that it is "free". But, when you shoot film, you have a budget, (we get 11,000 feet of film a day). A director has to think about how he wants to allocate that film for that day. If the director goes over that, someone gets upset and you might lose film for the next day. You must think consciously about your film budget and plan it.
There is a feeling of intentionality when you shoot film, at least for TV, that this is what the director wants you to see. In video or digital, you can turn your camera operators loose to shoot the scene and evaluate it later, which is more of a docu-style kind of thing. For Breaking Bad, it's all about that methodical, intentional feel, and that texture is very important. A filmmaker wanted you to see what we're showing you now, right or wrong. It shows respect for the director and what he or she brings to the table. This is something I feel strongly about, that the trust that you give us on the set and especially to Vince will not be betrayed. How often have you seen a show that is so totally unsatisfying at the end that audience members feel that there has been a break in the relationship? Neither Vince nor I will do that.
The film stocks are better than ever, at the top of their game. Kodak has done an extraordinary job. (I'm not that familiar with Fujifilm.) When I first got this job, the first season was shot with Fujifilm, and there's nothing wrong with it, but the orange and yellows and browns of the desert screamed Kodak to me as well as the blacks. I wanted the Kodak blacks because I knew it was a show about darkness.
Breaking Bad is also the most fun set, the nicest place in the world I've ever worked, with the nicest, smartest people. Bryan is a warm, loving funny person -- they all are -- even Giancarlo, even the two damn cousins -- funny up until right when it's camera rolling, and he clicks into being Walt.
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. (Courtesy of AMC)
We use lightweight handheld ARRICAMs with Cooke S4 prime lenses. Not only do we shoot on film, but we use prime lenses which have also gone the way of the dinosaur. I do carry zooms and longer lenses for specialty shots but the truth of the matter is I have a beautiful director's finder, I put on the lens I want, select the angle and say to my Camera Operator A Andy Voegeli and Camera Operator B Lynn Lockwood, This is where I want the shot from. It's all very planned out and deliberate.
Integrating other tools in the storytelling. Here, with a lightweight ARRICAM and the Canon EOS 5D.
We also integrate other tools in the storytelling. We're not afraid to use Canon 5Ds and 7Ds or the Panasonic HVX-200a, which I own. We'll stick these small cameras where we need them. We use Technocranes, Condors and scissor lifts to get the camera up high and snorkel lenses to get the camera low. Our rule is to tell the story organically, to be filmmakers and make it cinematic.
With regard to lighting, I don't use anything that's not available from any professional lighting resource. I like big large Fresnel lights. A lot of people opt to use baby 10Ks that are smaller and lighter but my unfortunate electrician has to use the old studio 10Ks, which are very heavy. We also use 20Ks and Maxi Brutes. We don't have a lot of money so my lighting package is much smaller than most. I integrate a lot of lighting into the set with Mark Freeborn's production design. For example, when we did Jesse's living room, the lighting was integrated into the set, so we can shoot in any direction.
We have a lot of sets. Every time we go in and out of the closet and under the house -- that was all a set we built in the studio. All the scenes in the desert are right across the street from Albuquerque stages, so we don't go that far. It's like a backlot for us; we can come back for lunch.
With regard to shot construction, here's what I tell directors. I'm not the biggest fan of too many of those "Breaking Bad" shots -- the POVs, sometimes very wide shots -- or anything that takes me out of the story. I like things in moderation. Vince's analogy is that if you order a sundae and it comes with all the syrups and the marshmallows and the pineapple, you lose track that it's a sundae. Vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and nuts are perfect. If you put in too many specialty POV shots, I think the impact of each one of these shots, including the wide ones, becomes distracting. If you use just the right amount, the impact of each one becomes greater, especially if you use them when you don't expect them.
Click images for larger view.
A couple of shots are signature for the show, however, particularly the wide shots. But it's not just a wide shot; very often we'll use a wide shot where everyone else in the world would have used a close-up. For example, in Season 3's opening episode, the cousins are going across the border and the driver is shot on the ground. Everyone else would have done a close-up, but we go 300 yards away and you hear a little pop-pop. We all know what's happening and it makes us want to see more. That's the beauty of these wide shots, which we also sometimes use if we want to keep something hidden or hold something until later. All this is thought-out and intentional and some of it is even scripted.
After a day of shooting, the footage goes to my dailies transfer artist, Greg Curry at FotoKem. Right now when people do dailies, very often they'll do a broad spectrum, log s or log c low contrast transfer so they can decide what they want later on and finesse the coloring. We don't do it that way on Breaking Bad. Greg burns in the color when he transfers it, so there is no changing it. He knows what I want. If you look at a frame on our dailies -- I get screen captures every day from Greg -- the show, 90 percent of the time looks exactly like them.
My final colorist Tom Sartori, also at FotoKem, is a genius. His job is to power window, finesse and find the exact right levels of black on each show. Greg and Tom are equally important. I've freed Tom up to do the real work of a final colorist, which is final color balance, color finessing, power windows and keeping the actors looking good. If you're going to do a trompe l'oeil, Greg establishes the palette and Tom comes in with the fine brush and makes it stunningly beautiful.
A stunningly beautiful final color. Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. (Courtesy of AMC/Lewis Jacobs)
One of the reasons the show looks as consistent as it is is because Vince has empowered me so much. When a show is finished, I look at a DVCAM tape on an Eizo monitor at my house. I make corrections. Those corrections are then incorporated the following week into the show. Tom has been working on the show since the pilot, which was shot by John Toll, ASC, an American treasure and one of the best cinematographers in the industry. I'm so grateful for the work that FotoKem has done. This show is painterly without pretense and it's tremendous. One of the things I love about working with Tom and Greg is that we speak poetically not technically.
Their job is to know what buttons to push and my job is to convince them which way to go and talk about the poetry. For guys whose job it is to do technical stuff, they never stop talking about story. Vince and [co-Executive Producers] Melissa [Bernstein] and Michelle [MacLaren] and AMC and Sony infuse the story into the DNA of this entire production. Everybody is empowered with how we tell the story better. There's a sense of ownership that they have ceded to the crew. Every time I refer Breaking Bad as "your show" to Vince, he corrects me and says "our show." It's a running joke.
If I were Vince, I'd feel like Johnny Appleseed. He's turning all these amazing writers and actors into the world, and they're already all doing incredible stuff. I've been doing a lot of directing. I've had to turn down projects; one of the directors of Breaking Bad Terry McDonough asked me if I wanted to go to London and shoot the film version of Doctor Who but I wouldn't even throw my name in for consideration because of my commitment to Breaking Bad. But I've been working for the Dick Wolf organization and directed the season opener of Law & Order: SVU, which I had a great time doing.
I've been directing hour dramas, and I'm looking forward to directing more but also looking for pilots and features to shoot. I'm going to probably pull back a little bit on episodic, unless something comes along like Breaking Bad that intrigues me. I've already heard about two or three things that would tempt me for the spring, all in the cable world. The cable world is emanating out of HBO and AMC as well as Starz, BBC America, FX and USA. I love great writing and performances: I watch and love Homeland and Boss. On my list to watch are Game of Thrones, Justified and Luther.
Michael Slovis and Bryan Cranston.
Cable is a great place for all of us to work. In the last five years, the economy in our country has been abysmal but the film industry has been doing well. We make a labor-intensive product that is valued and respected in the international market. I'm the most fortunate guy in the world. My name is closely associated with this show, and there aren't a lot of shows that let the cinematography be such a big character. We don't have a huge audience although the show has been nominated for umpteen Emmys. I think it's very interesting how people talk so much about this show but the truth of the matter is that it's really creative people that are the big audience for this show. I don't know any filmmakers, writers or actors who don't watch this show.
The Emmy name and the Emmy statuette are the trademarked property of The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences ("Television Academy") and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences ("National Academy")
Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece.