The Cinematography of ‘Breaking Bad’ – Part 2 – Composition

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This follows ‘Part 1′ of my ‘Breaking Bad’ analysis, which focused on the lighting. 

MASTER SHOTS

“Breaking Bad” is rich in master shots that carry the burden of storytelling weight. This seems typical of television in that the master shots are often relied on to portray the character relationships, while the “coverage” is frequently more standardized and does less in the way of storytelling. I’ve selected some of the master shots that were particularly powerful:
 
 

 
 
In the scene immediately preceding this one, The Cousins waited for Walt in his bedroom while he showered, intent on killing him when he emerged. Mike contacts Gus to call off the Cousins, leading Walt to unknowingly avoid death, left only with a small clue of their presence by the mysterious displacement of the toy eyeball.

The main compositional feature in this image is the perspective lines created by the hallway which all converge on Walt standing in the doorway. These lines pointed at Walt from all sides give the sense that he has been targeted and is vulnerable.

Simultaneously, the contrast of value, from the bright room at the end of the hall, versus the dark shapes of the hallway, give the sense that Walt is surrounded by unknown dangers. This is accentuated by the contrast of size (created by the wideness of the lens, which disproportionately accentuates the size of close objects versus far objects). Walt is dwarfed by the dark shapes that surround him, making him seem trivial compared to the danger he faces.
 
 

 
 
In this scene, Walt and Gale are bonding at the end of their first day. Walt is simultaneously concerned about Gale’s origins, concerned that he may be training Gale as his own eventual replacement.

The symmetry of the composition, accentuated by the pair of matching blue tray stacks, draws a comparison between Walt and Gale, giving a sense of similarity between them. However, the other compositional elements seek to portray comparison negatively by visualizing Walt’s fears: the geometric silhouette that surrounds them constricts them to the center of the frame, tightly boxing them in, giving a sense of claustrophobia, and introducing the idea that the lab may not be big enough for the two of them. This is reinforced by the silhouette between them, which divides their similar backgrounds, seemingly putting them at odds with each other.
 
 
  


 
 
In this scene, Skyler, who has been cheating on Walt with Ted Beneke, is beginning to feel that her affair with Ted feels cold and artificial in contrast to her relationship with her family, despite her hostility towards Walt.

The shot starts with Skyler and Walt Jr. on one side, and then dollies over to the symmetric composition seen in the second image above. Walt then stands and removes Holly from a cradle, partially obscured by the pillar. The use of large column of negative space to divide Walt and Skyler compositionally in the frame is an easily evident way to show them at odds with each other. However, the shot goes deeper: in the initial composition, the negative space pushes Walt off to the side of the frame to accommodate the the larger piece occupied by Skyler and Walt Jr, giving a sense of Walt’s growing exclusion from his family.

Once Walt Jr. has exited, the camera dollies over and settles into a symmetric composition, brutally divided by negative space from the pillar, portraying Walt and Skyler now as even forces in the callous battle over their family. Skyler then asks Walt if he would like to take Holly. He then leans into the negative space and pulls the previously obscured Holly from the cradle. As Holly emerges from the negative space into Walt’s side of the frame gives the sense of movement from Skylers side to Walt’s: an olive branch extended from Skyler to Walt.
 
 

 
 
This is a shot I looked at last time from a purely lighting perspective, but it’s also working on a compositional level. In this scene, Walt is attempting to convince Skyler that they should take the money he’s made, put his criminal past behind them, and move forward with their lives together. In this composition, a bright hallway dominates the background of the shot, the distant converging perspective lines holding the potential of a withdrawal from the conflict of the foreground. The bag of money, the literal representation of Walt’s criminal acts, sits immobile, centered between both them and the hallway. The sum of these compositional elements gives the sense that Walt’s actions are an insurmountable obstacle to the two of them escaping the present and moving forward together.

ULTRA WIDE EXTERIOR SHOTS

  
 
 
In the previous article, I mentioned my belief that the wide exterior shots in ‘Breaking Bad’ were some of the most memorable images in the series. They work to portray the characters as minuscule relative to their environments, and to reveal the desolate expanse around them. This sense of isolation is used for very basic and straightforward storytelling purposes: In the first image above, the massive barren expanse dwarfs the RV, and informs the audience as to the extremes Walt and Jesse have gone to get away from civilization in order to safely perform their cook.

In the second image, part of a scene in which the Cousins execute an entire truck full of immigrants, the empty expanse fills the entire frame, revealing their extreme isolation, which in turn gives the audience a sense of helplessness as they realize that there’s no chance of outside observation or interference with the brutal and mechanical execution.

UNREALISTIC ANGLES

   

  
 
 
Another recurring feature are unrealistic angles that place the camera inside non-existent surfaces. Materials (such as the blood and other liquids seen above) interacting with this ‘impossible camera’ draw attention to the cameras presence, accomplishing a sense of surrealism. This seems to serve the tone of the show rather than a specific story goal. The shots draw attention to themselves and give an outlandish and fantastic feel to the series, adding a sprinkle of graphic imagery reminiscent of a comic book. This helps paint a world that could be plausibly inhabited by such super-villains as Gus and the Cousins. Another great contributor to this feel is the color palette, which I will examine on the next installment.

 
 

‘Breaking Bad’ is filled with great master shots, and with five seasons, it’s impossible to find all of them… maybe not even all of the best ones. If you know of an excellent master shot that deserves attention, please post post a link! One of the disadvantages of examining an entire television series is the ability to miss great gems.
 
 

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

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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.