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Stylized Realism: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 1

[Editor's note: Last year, RogerEbert.com contributor Dave Bunting began editing a series of video essays that arrange images from seasons of "Breaking Bad" in ways that highlight the show's motifs, colors and textures. His latest piece, about the cinematography of Season 1, is embedded below. You can also view the video and an accompanying essay by Max Winter at Press Play. Bunting previously published videos about Season 3, Season 4, and the first half of Season 5 at Press Play, and is finishing the series as a coproduction between that site and RogerEbert.com. You can find his video essay and the transcript of an interview with series cinematographer Michael Slovis about Season 2 here or at Press Play, with an accompanying essay by Arielle Bernstein. Bunting's concluding video, about the second half of Season 5, will run after the series finale.]

Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 1 from Press Play Video Blog on Vimeo.

While cinematographer Michael Slovis has, since he came aboard in season two, helped define the visual signatures of "Breaking Bad," the show's aesthetics were firmly established from the beginning. Over the course of its maiden seven episodes, AMC's hit series set itself apart from much of its small-screen competition via a distinctive and daring look, one whose bracing realism evolved to include ever-more-inventive stylization.

That development grew out of its narrative, which details high-school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) entering the criminal world of meth production and sales alongside former student-turned-dealer Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Like its protagonist, "Breaking Bad"'s style is one that regularly segues between the mundane and the outrageous, charting its various characters' emotional, psychological and logistical circumstances through an exciting blend of anxious handheld camerawork, tense spatial compositions, evocative visual angles, and vibrant use of shadow and light.

Those hallmarks are present from the pilot, in which Walt, shortly after his 50th birthday, learns that he has lung cancer and strikes up a meth-cooking partnership with Jesse. Directed by creator Vince Gilligan and shot—on film, per the show's custom—by John Toll ("Braveheart," "The Thin Red Line"), this first episode sets up much of the show's formal template, including a palette of burned-in colors, textured chiaroscuro, frequent use of natural (or natural-looking) light, and cinematography that's alternately tranquil and edgy.

It's an aesthetic founded on contrasts, and mirrors both Walt's own state of mind and his literal caught-between-different-worlds situation. When Walt and Jesse first meet in the pilot, their faces are half masked in shadow—an expression of their good/bad duality, as well as their two-sides-of-the-same-coin kinship. And when Walt confronts bullies mocking his cerebral palsy-afflicted son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), Gilligan and Toll utilize a series of straightforward camera set-ups to highlight the humdrum ordinariness of the locale as a means of making Walt's ensuing violent outburst all the more shocking.

Season one's first episodes are typified by the deft interplay between visual stasis and bumpiness. While there's a constant restlessness to "Breaking Bad"'s handheld cinematography, more static compositions often reflect a given on-screen character's confidence, power or suppressed rage. There's virtually no movement when Walt—newly empowered by getting away with murder—potently pounces on Skylar (Anna Gunn) in bed at the close of episode one, or when an angry Walt patiently sits through his relatives' pleas and outbursts, and then asserts his own agency, during episode five's intervention. The stationary camera is one of control.

Conversely, greater visual shakiness emerges whenever a character is wracked by stress, fear or some sudden shock to their system. "Breaking Bad"'s cinematography oozes furious frustration when, for example, a fed-up Walt approaches a fast food counter after suffering the company of a cell phone-blathering sexist in episode four. And it erupts with exhilaration when drug distributor Tuco (Raymond Cruz) first snorts Walt's pure crystal meth in episode 6. In those moments, the jittery camera is an outgrowth of internal agitation or stimulation.

"Breaking Bad"'s more traditionalist elements—like domestic and workplace scenes marked by a combination of standard close-ups, American two-shots, and master shots—were, from the outset, invigorated by moments of conspicuous flair, as in the pilot's depiction of Walt standing in the middle of a desert road, his gun raised at approaching vehicles. It's an arresting image whose diagonal-line arrangement is repeated throughout the first season (see, also: Walt showing a coin to Jesse in episode two, and the lines of chairs in a doctor's waiting room in episode five). Other similar gestures also reappear, such as jazzy music montages of Walt and Jesse cooking, and creative POV shots from the bottom of a bathtub and the inside of a refrigerator or clothes dryer—all unique, tightly framed perspectives that reflect the characters' claustrophobic positions.

Further action movie-ish embellishments become prevalent as the season advances. Those include the monster-movie silhouette of Walt at the top of a staircase in episode three, the whiplash editing used for Walt's homicide in that same episode, and the clichéd sight of Walt not turning around or flinching as he walks away from a car explosion in episode four. That stylization reaches an apex in episode six, whose first fifteen minutes boast almost as many flamboyant strokes as the previous five episodes combined: an opening view of sparkling columns of light shining through a door's bullet holes; cross-cutting between Walt laying down the law to Jesse and forthcoming curbside chaos, highlighted by a dramatic zoom out from bald Walt's bloody face; a series of hallucinatory time-lapse views of the city, highway and desert; and a schizoid montage of Jesse slinging dope to a variety of colorful customers.

"Breaking Bad"'s aesthetic progression toward more overt dynamism is to some extent a reflection of the show's increasing confidence in itself, likely aided by the fact that cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos ("A Bronx Tale") helms six of the initial run's seven episodes. However, it's also a fundamental articulation of Walt's own transformation from someone straddling a line between the everyday and the extreme, to a man more fully aware of, and comfortable embracing, his darker, radical impulses.

That shift is felt most forcefully in the season's canniest recurring image: Walt seen from a low, upturned camera angle. It's a vantage point that casts the character in an imposing, larger-than-life light. Yet when first employed—in the pilot's shot of Walt speaking to a classroom full of kids ignoring his every word, and again in episode two's closing sight of Walt and Jesse staring at a hallway covered in human remains—it carries with it a strong sense of sarcasm, as if the show is subtly mocking Walt for his nascent Big Man pretenses.

Just as Walt himself goes from pretender to real deal, though, so too does this particular shot undergo a tonal swing, so that when Walt introduces himself to Tuco as Heisenberg in episode six, and is spied behind a table full of bubbling beakers in Jesse's basement in episode seven, he no longer comes across as a wannabe hood, but instead as an honest-to-goodness badass. He's a sick shlub reborn as a sinister stud—a makeover that, like the show's visuals, continues in even more elaborately ingenious ways in the seasons to come.

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