October 2012

The Cinematography of ‘Breaking Bad’ – Part 1 – Lighting


A treatise on television cinematography

I decided to take a critical look at the cinematography of “Breaking Bad,” a show often lauded as one of the most “cinematic” on television.  The analysis has been arduous, as before I could even begin to look at the cinematography of the show, I was compelled to evaluate what “cinematic” really means.  This discovery process, as I will outline below, brought me to some conclusions about the differences in the approach to the photography of feature films and television.


It seems that the core difference between feature film photography and television cinematography is that an episode of television is influenced by the photography of the episodes that have come before it.  A single episode is just a small link in a vast photographic chain that could stretch out over the course of countless seasons. By contrast, in a feature film, the visual choices can progress wildly over the course of the film, as there is no prior episode that informs the photography, and no responsibility to return the following week with another installment.  (Even in the case of sequels, regard for a consistent continuum of photographic choices seems to be frequently disregarded by directors who are eager to put their personal stamp on the franchise… take the “Harry Potter” and “Alien” franchises, for example).


This leads to what I believe is the core difference between the cinematography in feature films and that of television: the single iconic image versus the memorable photographic concept.


Take, for example, the images below. These specific images are burned into the collective consciousness of billions of people:




The iconic visuals from the films mentioned above are single moments. By contrast, the memorable images from “Breaking Bad” are photographic decisions that keep recurring.


For example, take arguably one of the most memorable photographic concepts from the show: the wide shots:




It’s the idea of the wide shots that’s memorable, not a specific wide shot.  (This isn’t to say that there aren’t iconic moments in the show.  There are scenes such as the murder of Gale, or the “I’m the one who knocks” moment that are some of the most memorable moments in recent television.  However, I would argue that they aren’t associated with a specific iconic image like the moments from cinema mentioned earlier.)


That seems to be the core essence of television photography:  something that the audience experiences in a much greater volume over a greater period of time. In each episode, we return to familiar characters in familiar places.  Even though the photography has to work to tell the specific story encapsulated in a single episode, it has to adhere to a previously established visual grammar to ground the episode.


With this theory of the differences between feature and television cinematography stated, what exactly makes “Breaking Bad” “cinematic”?  My personal conclusion is that the word “cinematic” has been inaccurately used to indicate simply that the show has much better and diverse visual storytelling than most shows.  However, the cinematography of the show is a conventional television approach in the sense that it fits within the paradigm outlined above: overall photographic decisions which are consistent episode-to-episode, and hammer home consistent visual grammar week after week.  However, what’s unconventional are the types of photographic decisions that are made (despite the fact that they are made consistently).


With that in mind, I discovered that analyzing television is incompatible with my method to approaching feature films.  I can’t simply take a handful of key scenes and look at them in depth, because any individual scene doesn’t have an extreme density of visual meaning.  It’s diffused throughout episodes and seasons through consistent choices.  So, that’s what I decided to look at primarily: consistent photographic choices that create the framework for the visual storytelling of the show, rather than specific moments in specific scenes.

The Lighting of ‘Breaking Bad’

In ‘Breaking Bad’, harsh sunlight is used a metaphor for danger and the harsh brutalities of life, both literal and figurative.  The light in the world of the story is callous and unmerciful.  Every single character in the story is visually characterized on some level by their relationship with the light.

A direct use of this is through lens flares, which are used in a specific way to personify the power and threat of The Cousins:




The context of the first image is that a security guard has gone to investigate a residence.  The audience doesn’t yet know what the scene is about until the pair of shirts hanging on the clothesline signals the audience the presence of The Cousins. The sunlight barely peaks out from between the two shirts, fighting its way to pierce the lens. We get the same sense from The Cousins: that they are a relentless force that will fight through seemingly impossible obstructions to achieve their vengeance. The second image is similar:  the light barely peeks out from behind one of The Cousins, giving the sense of his brutal perseverance in the face of obstacles.

A more figurative use of light is apparent in the White household:




In the scene pictured above, Walt is attempting to convince Skyler that all the awful things he has done were for the family, and that they should take the money he’s made and move forward with their lives together. A bright slash of light penetrates the room and immerses Walt.

The severity of the light singles out Walt like a spotlight, seemingly magnetized to him. It visualizes the sense that he is singularly guilty of bringing this conflict into their household. In this sense, the light is being used as a visual metaphor for strife. In the case of The Cousins, it was literal, physical danger, in this case it’s marital conflict. However, this sets the foundation for how the presence of hard slashes or hits of light are used in the show as one of the primary visual storytelling devices.




I’ve been making the case for light being a metaphor for danger: from the flares that characterize the violence of the Cousins to the slashes of light that penetrate the White household with the promise of broken relationships and mortal threats. However, the absence of this austere lighting is equally important in the show.  The laboratory, sold to Walter on the promise of being a safe and secure way to cook, is characterized by the lack of the hard slashes of light that signal danger.  The light, although low-key, lacks the previously described violent connotations and therefore works to characterize the lab as a secure and unvarying place.

Ultimately, though, Walt rejects Gus and the subordination that comes from from working for someone else. This hints at the core of Walt’s character: whereas the old Walter White craved the harmonious consistency of the lab, Heisenberg won’t stand for it. Heisenberg craves ultimate control over his own life, which invariably comes with risk and danger.




Another interesting example of this can be found in Saul’s office.  Saul has made a career off profiting from criminals like Walt and Jesse, while managing to avoid the type of danger that Walt seems to attract. The lighting in his office is a perfect characterization of this.  The high windows and lack of the show’s characteristic light slashes create the sense that it’s a space that the light tries to penetrate, but can’t.  It portrays Saul’s office as a small den of safety, and serves to characterize Saul as someone who has an aversion to danger, and has a real ability to protect Walt and Jesse.




Finally, at the far end of the spectrum of lighting in the show is the Pollos Hermanos restaurant, the realm of Gus, the powerful drug kingpin with the invariably modest lifestyle.  The flat lighting of the restaurant runs counter to the threatening slashes of light seen in the White household.  Within the context of danger established by the aforementioned hard hits of light and flares, Gus’ restaurant (and by extension, Gus) is the safest environment in the show.  In that sense, the lighting is ironic in that one of the most dangerous characters in the show is featured in an environment coded as ‘safe’ by the shows visual grammar.  However, this serves as deep characterization: despite being incalculably criminal, Gus feels safe in plain sight. Unlike Saul, who retreats to his cavernous office where the light can’t penetrate, or Walt who has the safety of the similarly lit lab, Gus exists in this flatly lit void where danger seems to not even be a consideration.

More on “Breaking Bad”

Next time I will be investigating the compositional choices of “Breaking Bad.” If you enjoyed this article or want to add to the commentary, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it!


© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.