Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2013

The cinematography of “Breaking Bad”

Filed under: technology,television — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

After having made 28 videos, most of which were made with a prosumer JVC camera that cost me $3000, I have a pretty good idea of the capabilities of digital video and its limitations.

What you can’t get in the run-of-the-mill videocam is the ability to control depth of field as you would with a SLR camera. In other words if you were recording a baseball game, the catcher and the pitcher would get the same degree of focus. If you are using a film camera or the newer and rather expensive videocams that incorporate Digital SLR, you can manipulate the depth of focus for dramatic effect, such as zeroing in on a character. This image from an article titled “Using Depth of Field For Storytelling” should illustrate the effect:

Last night when I was watching the final episode of “Breaking Bad”, it hit me what made the cinematography of “Breaking Bad” so riveting. It eschewed the narrow depth of focus illustrated in the image above even though it was using film. Instead, this was the typical image:

You’ll notice that everything has the same focus. The effect is usually unsettling since it is basically the perspective of the human eye rather than the camera. Neither the objects in the foreground nor background are emphasized. It gives you the feeling of being a fly on the wall. It also lends itself to the non-judgmental POV that made the show so interesting.

An interview with the cinematographer for “Breaking Bad” makes a series of interesting points. The show avoided the use of hand-held cameras, especially in action scenes. By now, the shaky images meant to convey an excited state are a cliché that every smart cinematographer should avoid. The one who worked on “Breaking Bad” was exceedingly smart.

The other thing noted in the article is the use of natural light. The scenes of the New Mexico desert and the streets of Albuquerque are as important to the show as Bryan Cranston’s facial tics and stammer. If you want to see where he picked up these tricks, just watch Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man”.


  1. Louis, this is a good point. And don’t forget lighting, or lack there of, which in Breaking Bad was particularly well deployed.

    But on the point you make above. I agree. I haven’t read the article you linked too, yet, but will. To comment on the point, at least about Breaking Bad. I think the directors used both narrow focus and depth of field. Lots of scenes started up close, then drew back to a static depth of field which made it quite riveting, at least to my untrained, but experienced, eye.

    Secondly, the very cool thing about depth of field is it’s ability to totally contextualize the character and *thus* giving a kind of emphasis on the character in the center precisely because it’s not using a kind obvious focused pointer as in narrow focus cinematography with the rest of the set out of focus. Instead the director is “asking the viewer” the look carefully. One’s eyes dart back and forth from the character in the center to the surroundings, trying to figure out what is being show and the what the relationship to the back or foreground is to that character. It’s very clever form of narrowing one’s focus on the main character be simply presenting the set as a ‘story’..not unlike a painter.


    Comment by David Walters — October 1, 2013 @ 12:17 am

  2. Good point. Consumer digital cameras have very small sensors which make depth of field shots difficult. Breaking Bad was shot on 35mm film, unusual these days. Evidently the cinematographer must have used very small apertures to achieve the “everything in focus” effect.
    Of course this would not be so difficult in the outdoor scenes in the bright light of New Mexico. Not so easy inside though.

    This choice of focus also had the effect of making New Mexico a player in the drama, an interesting choice by the film-makers.

    Comment by Jon Flanders — October 1, 2013 @ 12:17 am

  3. Wasn’t shot on film, and now Sony will is releasing the 4K version of BB

    A good take on shooting BB can be found at:

    Comment by Horacio Olieira — October 1, 2013 @ 12:32 am

  4. Your link is to an article about a photographer who shoots people on the set. He was not the cinematographer.

    Comment by Jon Flanders — October 1, 2013 @ 1:16 am

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