Breaking Bad: Never afraid of the dark

By Frazier Moore of AP

The supply is running low and you know there won't be more. Breaking Bad stands to leave its fans reeling.

For five seasons of wickedness, this drama has set viewers face-to-face with the repellent but irresistible Walter White and the dark world he embraced as he spiraled into evil. The end is imminent with the final episode screening on Sky's Soho channel tonight, but who can say what fate awaits this teacher-turned-drug-lord for the havoc he has wreaked on everyone around him.

This is more than the end of a TV series. It's a cultural moment, arriving as the show has logged record ratings, bagged a best-drama Emmy and even scored this week's cover of The New Yorker magazine.

Up through the penultimate episode, Breaking Bad has been as potent and pure as the "blue sky" crystal meth Walter cooked with such skill. Judging from that consistency in storytelling and in performances by such stars as Bryan Cranston (Walter White), Aaron Paul (his sidekick Jesse Pinkman), Anna Gunn (who just won an Emmy as Walt's wife) and Betsy Brandt, the end will likely pack unforgiving potency.

But one thing is dead sure: It will be beautiful.

Breaking Bad has often been described as addictive, and if that's so, the look of the show is its own habit-forming drug. Michael Slovis, the series' four-times-Emmy-nominated director of photography, has been cooking up that look since the series' sophomore season.

"I go for the emotion in the scene, not to overtake it, but to help it along," said Slovis over a recent lunch in Manhattan. "With Breaking Bad, I recognized very early that I had a story and performances that could stand up to a bold look."

The action is centered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which invites sprawling desert shots and tidy manicured neighborhoods, washes of light and jagged sun-drenched expanses.

The look of the show makes the most of its setting and the technology by which viewers see it: In an age of digital video, with the smallest detail and the sharpest resolution visible to the audience, Walter's battered mobile meth lab could be clearly discerned as a speck against a vista of deserts and mountains. A doll's disembodied eyeball bobbing in a swimming pool had chilling vividness.

And don't forget the show's visual signature: Breaking Bad was never afraid of the dark.

Slovis recalls how, his first week as DP, he was shooting in Jesse's basement.

"Jesse and Walter are down there cooking meth, and I turn off all the lights and turn the back lights on. There's smoke and shafts of light coming through the basement door and I go, 'This is what I came to do!'"

"We have some interesting extremes in lighting, thanks to Michael and his fearlessness," said Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan from Los Angeles. He invoked the fancy artistic term for this, "chiaroscuro," which means the use of strong contrasts between light and dark.

"Breaking Bad has become known for beautiful bold lighting," he said, "and Michael became an indispensable part of the Breaking Bad equation."

The imagery of Breaking Bad is second-nature to its viewers, regardless of whether they are conscious of Slovis' work. So when they swoon at the beauty of the desert outside Albuquerque, they may not know the complexion of this badlands was created in his camera.

"The desert on the show has a tonality that doesn't exist in real life," he said with a laugh. This color is achieved with a so-called tobacco filter clamped on the lens. "I don't pay much attention to reality when I light or even when I shoot exteriors. But nobody questions the color because it becomes part of the storytelling."

You would have a hard time finding many stylistic links between Breaking Bad and some of Slovis' other credits, which include CSI (for which he won an Emmy), Fringe, the short-lived noir thriller Rubicon and lighter fare including Running Wilde and Royal Pains. (Nor his additional credits as a director, which range from four episodes of Breaking Bad to Chicago Fire and 30 Rock.)

Instead, he said he strives to let each project suggest its own look.

Now 58, Slovis is soft-voiced and lanky, with a head whose baldness rivals Walt White's in Heisenberg mode.

He got the photography bug while growing up in Plainview, New Jersey, where he became the school photographer and won a state photography contest. He was invited to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

He imagined himself a fine-arts photographer, but he loved movies and storytelling, and, after graduate school at New York University, he landed jobs shooting music videos and commercials, then got nibbles from feature films.

But in 2001, he found movie offers drying up, and, though he had never seen TV in his future, he gratefully accepted a call from the NBC series Ed.

The timing was terrific. For decades, TV's hasty, assembly-line production schedule proved an obstacle to giving a series its own visual style.

"Film had been just a way to record the TV picture," Slovis said. A further barrier to getting too creative was the low resolution and squarish shape of the old TV receivers, which conversely had a negative impact on theatrical films, whose wide-screen format was forced to conform (with lots of medium and close-up shots) to movies' eventual small-screen telecast.

Slovis hails pioneering exceptions such as Twin Peaks, Law & Order and The X-Files and credits CSI as "one of the first times that cinematography became a real character on a show. TV began changing around us."

Gilligan agreed that "the advent of flat-screen TV really allowed Michael's work to shine in a way it wouldn't have 20 years ago."

Now the end of Breaking Bad is nigh. But through tonight's final fade-out, Slovis' influence will remain, capturing the "Bad" times you can't turn your eyes from. He's a series star who's out of sight, yet controlling what you see.

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