Ask a Filmmaker: Michael Slovis, ASC - Answers Part 1

Published on website: July 23, 2012
Categories: 35mm , Ask a Filmmaker , Television , The StoryBoard Blog
Ask a Filmmaker - Michael Slovis, ASC
Michael Slovis, ASC

Thank you to Michael Slovis, ASC for participating in our Ask A Filmmaker series and thank you all for the amazing questions! In fact, we received so many that we're going to be releasing them in installments. Be sure to chack back often for updates.

Without further ado, here's part 1!

How did you get to work on Breaking Bad?

I was asked to work on Breaking Bad as a result of my good friend and director Adam Bernstein. He and I had worked together in New York. Adam directed the first two episodes of season one and when they were looking for a director of photography for season two, he suggested that I might be a good match. At that point there is a vetting process where the studio, network and producers of the show look at your material and speak with other directors and producers that I had worked with. Conversations with AMC executives and show runner Vince Gilligan followed, and finally a decision was made.

How do you create such a pronounced and beautiful separation of characters in the same room? For example, in episode one of this season when Walt and Skyler are in the master bedroom they seem to be in their own distant spheres while sharing the space of a master bedroom. Are the sets deceptively large? Or is it lighting, camera angles, lens choice, or film stock?

Ask a Filmmaker - Michael Slovis, ASC
Scene from season 5 of Breaking BadPhoto credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

My philosophy of shooting for television is to do everything in my power to help guide the audience to watch the actors. This is a broad statement that includes a lot of factors, but the answer to your question is, yes. I do whatever is necessary to find the truth in the shot, when I have the time. Our sets are not large, by any means, in fact that is why you can often see the ceilings. I do, however, have the advantage of “wild walls” which, when not seen, can be removed for camera placement or lighting. Lens choice is crucial. I always shoot (KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film) 5219 for night interiors. On sets, I also use 5219 for day interiors which we shoot with tungsten light. For location day interiors, I often shoot (KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film) 5213 because of the way that it holds highlights and I don’t have to work too hard to balance for bright New Mexico exteriors. The most important thing to me in lighting is to help, not over power the scene. Our actors are so strong that I will never do that.

What is the reasoning behind the Breaking Bad signature POV shots?

The signature POV shots, which were there before I got on the scene, are meant to place the camera were it can almost never go. One of the most attractive things about the way the shows are finished, to me, is that when other shows cut wide, we may cut close. When other shows cut close, we may cut wide. When I first started, Vince asked me to watch movies by Sergio Leone. He loves them, and so do I. The POV shots have grown over the years into a real signature for Breaking Bad.

In the world of television, everything must move quickly. For any given episode, what does a typical shooting schedule look like, and how do you and your crew work around that while still capturing such great images?

This is a fantastic question. With very few exceptions – I can think of only three – we shoot each show in eight days. It takes visionary directors to do this! It is not easy. For the most part, we are also limited to 12-hour work days, which translates into 12.5 or 13 hours on set. We are quite good at sticking to this. It is only accomplished because of the talent and skills of our cast and crew. Our cast is amazing and so willing to do whatever is asked of them. The AD, production, sound, camera, grip, electric, prop, art, hair, makeup and set departments all move deftly to complete each shot within each scene. It is often amazing to watch as we do upwards of 25 or 30 setups a day, even sometimes in the 40s.

Ask a Filmmaker - Michael Slovis, ASC
Scene from season 5 of Breaking BadPhoto credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

How do you and your team approach the time lapse segments that come up every few episodes?

The time lapse shots are shot with still cameras on intervalometers and then imported into the Avid by post. The decision of what to shoot is collaborative. For the most part the post department knows what they want and puts in a request for it. Vince also knows how he wants future shows structured so he compiles a list. In Albuquerque, local producers may add to it and then the team that does it goes out with the list. Some are script specific and some are shot as inventory.

Breaking Bad is well known for its innovative use of camera placement (shovel-cam, cameras in vats, trunks, etc.). How much of these visual signatures come from scripts vs. your ideas vs. directors?

These shots come from a variety of places. Many are scripted and some come from the director in his or her shot list, and if I see something that is unusual or will enhance the story, I will throw it in.

How do you balance the desire to play with visual form with the needs of dramatic storytelling?

Ask a Filmmaker - Michael Slovis, ASC
Scene from season 5 of Breaking BadPhoto credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Personally, I think that each shot should earn its place in the show and that every frame should advance the story. It should not be in there because it’s cool; it should be in there because it elicits an emotion. Many of these special shots don’t make it into the final cuts. Also, because many of our shows end up long, efficiency in cutting (I know it sounds funny with all the long takes), is important. And, as I write this, many of these longer single shots are my favorites.

Do you ever worry that such tricks take viewers out of the drama?

I think about this all the time and discuss it with Vince and each director. If you do something too much it tends to become ineffective and dilutes the power of the frame when it’s needed. That being said, these shots have become part of the language of Breaking Bad and are more comfortable in our show than many others. So, now I tend not to use them gratuitously. To me, there should be some sort of emotional reaction or it should give you a piece of information that our characters can’t or don’t know. Again, because the writing and the acting is so strong, I think we can go bolder than some other dramas.

Ask a Filmmaker: Michael Slovis, ASC - Answers Part 2

About Michael Slovis, ASC

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.

About 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.

Pallet

KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219
KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213
KODAK VISION2 50D Color Negative Film 5201

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