Creative collaborations, working in small spaces, workflow, directing, inspiration, and advice for aspiring cinematographers are just a few of the topics Michael Slovis, ASC covers in his wrapup post for Kodak's Ask A Filmmaker series.
Thank you again to Michael for his time and for sharing insights into his work on the hit television show Breaking Bad.
How did you get that final shot in Season 4’s "crawl space"? Did you take the ceiling out or build a replica on set without one?
The final shot in crawl space has an interesting story. All of the "under the house stuff" was shot on a set built by our production designer and his team. It sits about four feet off the ground which allows us to dolly the camera and light the scene in a comfortable manner. About three or four hours before shooting it, the director asked about the possibility of booming up through the closet. The closet set, which sits above the crawl space, is about 5 foot square and 9 feet high. If we were to use a crane, the typical way to make a move like that, we would have had to remove a wall of the closet. In the end position, we would have seen the missing wall. So what my amazing grip department came up with was a 20 foot piece of aluminum truss that was hung from winch motors from grid at the studio ceiling. This grid was made out of wood are called "perms." We put the camera at the bottom of the truss and pulled it up through the closet. This is why it is not a perfectly smooth move. But, it does help convey his emotional state at the time.
Scene from season 5 of Breaking BadPhoto credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
Is there a prescribed method to the ebb or "shake" of the handheld camera, particularly with scenes inside the White household? It seems deliberate/consistent, and I love how it adds to the tension.
The handheld look was on the show before I arrived. Vince Gilligan and John Toll, ASC started it on the pilot. My operators are remarkable in that they hand hold these old cameras all day. They are free to express the scene as it evolves and if I see something I like or don't, that gets adjusted in the next take.
In the scene where Walter goes into his stash of money to pay for new identities for himself and his family, and then breaks down because there's not enough money to escape because Skylar gave it to her boss, it looks as though Walter is "buried" or like he's lying in his own grave, especially as the camera pulls further away from him. What creative conversations led to how this scene was shot to depict Walter’s emotional state?
The way we arrive at any shot is through a creative collaboration between the director and myself. Directors come in with story boards or shot lists and we work from there. Sometimes interesting shots are already pre-visualized in the script and it is our jobs to execute them. Sometimes we just scramble on set to put it together.
How does the darkness inside of a character determine the lighting of scenes?
Vince and I have an overall plan for progressive darkness as the seasons progress. But that being said, I usually try to evoke the moment. When you plan lighting on a show like this you have to consider story, the situation in the scene and the facial characteristics of the actors.
I've noticed multiple times that there are plenty of unmotivated sources in the lighting of your interiors (hard front light, strong backlight). I feel it does a great deal to set the mood, but do you ever question yourself that you might be going overboard? Or where do you draw the line between what's natural and motivated and what tells the story?
On this show, I don't pay very much attention to motivated light sources. My self-imposed mission is to aid the story emotionally. Anything that I can do to interpret the scene and not to reproduce a "real" situation, as in motivated light sources and justified relative exposures, becomes a tool to tell the character's interior stories and not merely expose the film. Almost none of the recording of Breaking Bad is in any way "natural." But then, not much about the story is natural. It is a novelistic journey, and in my opinion should be told as such. Do I think I sometimes go too far? I'm not sure I go far enough; Vince Gilligan is always encouraging me to take more and more chances.
How do you control the images you create from on set through post to broadcast?
Breaking Bad gives me a lot of control of the image. When a show is edited, I am sent a DVD or a link to a secure web address to view the cut. At that point I make notes to the colorist on how I see the scene and what my intent was. I go shot by shot or scene by scene as to levels, contrast and feel. Then they do a pass and I get a DVCAM of that pass. I make notes on the DVCAM and then they make corrections on the show.
Tell us a little about the telecine process.
There is always color correction on every shot of every show, but I do commit to specific colors, like the desert and many fluorescent greens with lighting and filters. I do not impose overall color onto scenes without filters unless I was unable to filter the camera due to lack of light, or in the occasional case of using a digital camera for a specific shot. If for any reason I can't filter the camera, I add the color later. Our color correction team at FotoKem is the best. They are often asked to bail us out of difficult situations like when clouds block the sun or if we go from interiors to exteriors.
Any tools in your bag of tricks that you can’t live without?
I have a fairly extensive filter collection. My filters are fairly standard: colors, grads and NDs, some diffussions. The only special colors are tobacco filters I use in the desert and Straw that I use when we are in Mexico. I always shoot an 18% reference gray card in neutral light for each scene. I don't own a film camera and I order lens packages designed for each job I do. Breaking Bad is shot with ARRICAM LT cameras, Cooke prime lenses and Angenieux zooms.
On set of Breaking BadPhoto credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
You have directed some episodes, including the Season 5 opener. What motivates you to step away from the camera and direct?
I love working with the actors. Directing helps me understand the problems that a director has and creates a shortcut of communications that only people who have been in at situation truly understand. It really makes me a better cameraman.
Do you have a favorite episode or scene that you are most proud of? If so, why?
That is like asking who your favorite child is! I love them all. There are shots that posed real problems and were very satisfying to solve, like the POV shot of the teddy bear falling from the airplane in Season 2. This was the result of many discussions and proposed approaches. The shot of Gus Fring when he emerges from the bombed room. The shot of Aaron rising above the bedroom set in Season 2, which was done practically, no visual effects. I could go on …
Have any cinematographers influenced you throughout your career?
Yes, many; I love the work of Caleb Deschanel, Gordon Willis, Robert Richardson, Owen Roizman, Gregg Toland, Janusz Kaminski, Allen Daviau, Vilmos Zsigmond, Peter Bizou, James Wong Howe, to name a few.
What advice do you have for aspiring cinematographers?
Young cinematographers have so many advantages over years past in that they are able to start shooting much quicker. This is a mixed blessing. I truly value the time I spent as an electrician and then gaffer. Working with selfless generous talents that passed on their experience to date. I am a big believer in apprenticing for more experienced DPs. Watching skilled artists work is the single best way that I know to learn. So I say shoot as much as you can and work as an assistant, 2nd AC, loader, operator, grip or electrician while you do.
Slovis, a New Jersey native, has earned some 30 cinematography credits for television and features since 1995. His credits include episodes of the TV series Ed, Royal Pains, Castle, 30 Rock and Fringe. He won an Emmy® for his cinematography of an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2006 and has earned two nominations for his work on Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad has earned critical acclaim, a massive following of fans, and begins its fifth and final season on July 15, solidifying its status as a cultural phenomenon. Created by acclaimed writer, producer and director Vince Gilligan, the show follows a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) who turns to a life of crime to secure his family’s financial security.