More About Film Art

So I’ve been reading up a little on media aesthetics and trying to apply it to my favourite films of all time as I go along, and here’s the warm-up.

BREAKING BAD (2008) – Cinematographer: Michael Slovis

I’d heard a lot about this series, now on the verge of its final season, but only started watching it earlier this month. I’ve watched the first two seasons in as many weeks. It’s one of the last few television series to be shot on film at the moment, and it shows. I’m blatantly repeating a lot that’s already been said before out there  but it would be wrong not to.

The story is about the almost sudden moral decline of an intelligent, mild-mannered secondary school teacher, Walt,who decides to start cooking crystal meth for money after he is diagnosed with cancer. The explosions of drama, suspense and action surrounding his attempts to deceitfully preserve his outwardly upright and mundane existence are really well written and acted. The soundtrack is pretty awesome too. But it’s all the experimental film play that’s really addictive.  The first thing I noticed in season one was the luxurious 35-mm wide-angle shots and blowouts of the breath-taking New Mexico vast lands:

Then there are the potentially haunting but oh-so-engaging 10-60 second close-ups with no people, no voices, just sounds and images:

random snail on the wall

slugs in the sand

random eyeball floating in the swimming pool

And sometimes there are worm’s-eye-views of dead people

this 15 second shot slowly fades to black, overlapping with a sudden, sharp “PING” sound that sends shivers down my spine every time. it’s like a reminder that the battle against drugs in Albuquerque might have been won, but the real war is just beginning.

The extreme long shots (XLSs)of the landscapes somehow articulate the desolation, isolation and sheer desperation of the protagonists during their wild episodes in the desert.

Walt and Jesse’s RV in the desert

snapshot of the original Western-style XLS from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ (1996), which also featured the “original” bad-guy-named-Tuco.

Also, the colour pallet and lighting really push the envelope. There are a million examples in every single scene so I can’t even begin to talk about that. But there are two main effects in general:

1) Mise En Scene (“Arranging the scene”): The colours encapsulate the mood in every scene, from the simple charred pink teddy bear in a monochromatic background (Danger? Crime? The innocence of a little girl? I don’t know yet) to Jesse’s bed and those yellow sheets (yellow=happy), to the graffiti on the wall that Jesse leans on during his internal psychological turmoil about whether he can really turn his back on his life of dealing drugs, to the unusually saturated hues and unashamedly dark scenes with ambiguous light sources in the indoor/night scenes.

2) Emotional Provocation: There’s this sense of intimate proximity to the characters, for example from the directional forces, camera placements and points of view. Sometimes it actually feels like you’re watching everything through the crystal meth tainted lenses of a tiny winged, breathing, living thing  a la Peep Show, assuming crystal meth generally makes the colours bolder and the music more poignant. (Did I SERIOUSLY just imply that Peep Show and Breaking bad had anything in common?) There is simply no illusion that anything the camera shows you was down to chance, but it FEELS as surreal as it looks, so that you don’t even mind enduring the longer, slower, everyday-life scenes and Walt’s chemistry class.

in this asymmetric frame, Jesse stands with his head down and bright yellow tie in his hand, but the camera places him towards the left so we can see the graffiti behind him (the right side of the frame commands more attention). there are bars on the grill he’s leaning on and parallel lines in the painting, which along with the dangling tie give the sympathy-inducing impression of “feeling caged”.

Back to colour filters, I realized a main feature in almost all the movies I love for their “great cinematography” is yellow:

GATTACA (1997)- Cinematographer: Sławomir Idziak


SEVEN POUNDS (2008) - Cinematographer: Philippe Le Sourd

The unreal depth of field (and all the pretty yellow flowers) in the scene below made remember the movie long after I forgot the storyline…

EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (2005) - Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique

… and says a lot about the recent leaps and bounds in advancement of DSLR cinematography.

Digital cameras have evolved tremendously from “humble beginnings and [being] originally labelled a scam” to shooting epic films and HD live action on location in 3D.
Credit: Red Digital Cinema Camera Company

According to Herbert Zettl’s Media Literacy Model, “… we need to know how the basic aesthetic building blocks are used to create and shape our cognitive and affective mental maps”. I’m feeling so literate right now.

– – –

The Grammar of Television and Film

More than 3,500 illustrations, photos, posters, paintings and other fan art inspired by AMC’s Breaking Bad


One thought on “More About Film Art

  1. Pingback: A Blind Date With Film Art « aesthetic asymmetry

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