ONFILM Interview: Michael Slovis, ASC

Published on website: August 07, 2013
Categories: ONFILM
Michael Slovis, ASC

“I don’t believe in playing it safe. And on Breaking Bad, we were all encouraged to take chances. I was constantly stretching the limits of film with my lighting. The storytelling business is a representational art form, not a reproductive art form. Throughout the history of filmmaking, cinematographers have been there to visually represent the emotional moments of the stories that we’re telling. We’re expected to use poetic license, to create. Nobody’s house is as dark during the day as Walter White’s at the end of Breaking Bad. But that was the right look to support the story at that moment. That’s where the DP’s skills and sensibility come in. The film stocks today are tremendous–the best they’ve ever been–and the transferring technology is incredible. Right now, they’re bumping every frame of Breaking Bad up to 4K. It looks just amazing.”

Michael Slovis, ASC photographed the final five seasons of Breaking Bad, earning three Emmy nominations along the way. His previous credits include CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, for which he won an Emmy, as well as episodes of 30 Rock, Rubicon and Fringe. He also directed four episodes of Breaking Bad, and episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Chicago Fire.

A Conversation with Michael Slovis, ASC

How did you first become interested in photography?

My mom had an old Kodak foldout camera that took 120-size paper-back film. It intrigued me, so I went out and bought film. I started shooting with it, no light meter, no nothing. I became totally focused on photography. I worked all kinds of odd jobs and saved up my money. I eventually bought a Hasselblad camera when I was in high school, which, at the time, was an extraordinary sum of money. I was a photographer for my junior high school and high school yearbooks. I always pursued it, and always did everything that I could.

What was it about photography that appealed to you so strongly?

To me, what was appealing was capturing some kind of emotion. Very early on, I was consumed by the images of Alfred Eisenstaedt, the great street photographer and documentarian. I just love moments in time that capture some kind of an emotion – whether it’s fear, love, anger, it doesn’t matter – and to get that preserved in a moment of time. It’s just an extraordinary gift that we’re all able to do now so readily. It was a little more difficult then, but now it’s real easy.

Does that background and training – having to work harder for an image – inform your work now in any way?

I think it has a really huge impact. When you work on a movie and when you shoot a show on film, there’s a film budget. Film is precious. And therefore, you always have to come in with a plan. You have to know what it is you want. You can’t just keep cameras rolling. You yield what the director wants to see. If you go over budget, the producer has to find that money somewhere else. So I feel there is more intent. I prefer to cut the camera, talk about what it was that was right and wrong and then do it again, if I want another take. It’s a big difference, and I’m not the only one who has made this observation.

You studied at Rochester Institute of Technology. What valuable lessons did you learn there?

When I went to RIT, the very first thing that happened was I got a welcome box from Kodak. In that box was printing paper, film, books on densitometry and optics, and a whole welcome package. Every single student that went to RIT for photography got this package. The next thing they did was schedule a visit Kodak. You went for a tour and you saw how film and paper was made, and you saw the research labs. I learned everything. I learned view camera technique. I learned from the masters. I learned densitometry and optics. It was very technical, which I’m really grateful for. Now, is that kind of knowledge something that you bring to the forefront of your brain all the time? No, it gets stowed away. The bottom line is that it’s just part of your toolbox. But I used all of it. And if you do any color correcting, that kind of education is invaluable because color correction software shows sensitometric curves. And if you’re not sure what it does or where it comes from, you’re not making as fully informed a decision as you can.

After RIT, you went on to New York University and studied film. What was the impetus behind that decision?

I had a teacher at school who really felt my pictures told stories and he asked me if I had ever thought of trying film. I made a film that was just god-awful. But I was bitten by the bug and I loved it. I was anxious to get out of school and graduated early. I came back to New York to live at my folks’ house and worked in New York City at a film camera rental facility called Camera Mart. I worked in the sales department, but every spare minute I had I’d be in the back in the rental department bothering the guys who prepped cameras, teaching myself how to use the wheels and just getting familiar with the equipment. During that period of time, I applied to NYU and got in.

Tell us about your experience at NYU.

I liked the community, and I’m still close with many NYU alumni. To me, that was the great value in it – meeting a network of people who, in my experience, became interdependent. We supported each other when we got out and we made sure that we had jobs as we went along. We helped each other to progress through the industry.

You spent a decade mostly working as a gaffer and an electrician. What lessons do you carry with you from that time?

That was crucial. I always kept up my shooting. I was shooting smaller things and music videos very early on, but I continued working as a gaffer and as an electrician because I had access to major directors of photography. I found that when you work with selfless, generous people, you learn how to be selfless and generous yourself, and you pick up so much. As a gaffer, you are there when the decisions are made. On the set, very little is decided. It’s all decided ahead of time, especially when I was coming up through the business. To be there on scouts, to be there in prep, to be there in production meetings, to be there with the DP and go out to dinner and talk about how we’re going to light this ship, or how we’re going to do this shot out in the middle of the Hudson River at night, that’s where the real learning happens. You learn a creative process that allows you to tackle anything. For me, it’s a process of figuring out what the story is about and then working backwards from that. Emotionally, how do I want to move the people? So that process is pretty much the same whether I was lighting a tabletop, a single shot of somebody, or lighting five blocks with five days of pre-lighting and seven generators. It’s all pretty much the same.

Tell us about the genesis of Breaking Bad and the decision to shoot film.

When we started Breaking Bad, most of the digital cameras were still tethered by cables to either viewing stations or recording stations. When you’re out in the desert, you need something that’s going to work all the time. And, I needed autonomy for each of the recording instruments or tools that I had. It was decided before I even got involved. American Movie Classics (AMC) fancied themselves filmmakers, and it was a wise decision for this show. They promised me it would be a truly cinematic experience. Because of the desert, you needed really beefy cameras out in that 105-degree weather. Because of the way that Breaking Bad was shot, which was putting cameras on tops of mountains up in 150-foot condors, digital just didn’t allow us that kind of freedom. But more importantly, there was an aesthetic choice. The latitude of the film just really surpassed anything that was happening in the digital domain. If you look at the frames of Breaking Bad, almost every frame pushes the envelope in terms of dynamic range or contrast or latitude – the range of exposure from lowest to highest. A lot of my frames had very hot little spots in them, or light bulbs, or lamps, and complete blacks. I work off of the blacks. I want my blacks to be black. And in a show like Breaking Bad, the darks are super important. When I came on the show, the first call I made was to Kodak and that was probably the single wisest move that I made in terms of getting the show to be where I needed it to be.

Does the audience sense the difference?

I think the most compelling thing gets back to what we were talking about earlier. Breaking Bad is not a show that is in any way haphazard or arbitrary. Every single frame in Breaking Bad is intentional and I wanted to do everything to keep it that way. Film really helped me with that. I shot the whole show with prime lenses – most people can’t even believe that. The only time we put zooms on was when the camera couldn’t move far enough to make a frame size change. It’s old school filmmaking, the way Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder did it.

Breaking Bad seems to play a bit wider than most television shows. Faces are sometimes played in shadow.

That’s the vocabulary of the show, for sure. We almost never shot the way many TV shows are done, which is ‘wide shot, cover, cover.’ Vince Gilligan, the show runner and the genius behind it, his mantra was: I don’t care if you don’t get the close-up, but do not miss that wide shot. I was very much encouraged to light it with a chiaroscuro palette, and not worry about lighting up faces all the time. One of the great things about working in television is that you know who the characters are so you don’t have to introduce them every week. So, if you have a completely dark frame and then a little backlight, just a little bald head comes into it, and we all know that it is Walter White. I played lots of silhouette, even day interiors inside the house. Especially as the seasons went on and the story got darker and darker, the photography did along with it. I did not light up their faces all the time. I would light parts of faces with an edge light or a rim light.

Is film’s long-term archival superiority a consideration?

The film stocks right now are tremendous, the best they’ve ever been, and the transferring technology is incredible. Right now, they’re bumping all of Breaking Bad, every frame, up to 4K. And I am promised by all of the principals that I will be blown out of my socks. Vince told me that it looks just incredible, so beautiful.

Do improvement in television distribution and display factor into your choices?

Absolutely. I think that’s why Breaking Bad was able to do what we did. We just were in the right place at the right time. We started to tell a story that was a large scope story, even though we didn’t have a lot of people. I didn’t have a thousand horsemen riding through snow-covered terrain. I had two guys usually talking in a car or something like that. But we had a story with huge scope told in an environment that was a microcosm. It’s what Vince always imagined. It just so happens that big TVs started coming around just as this show was getting off the ground in a big way. Everybody was switching over to HD. That meant you could hold shots like we have. We have big shots in the desert with teeny little cars and they look totally wonderful on television. So, I think it was just a question of fortunate timing in multiple aspects of American storytelling. We also had the unflinching, unwavering support of AMC and Sony. It’s not something to ever be belittled. Those people believed in this show and they didn’t take no for an answer. They stuck with it, and it grew and grew.

What part does risk taking play in your work on Breaking Bad?

I never played it safe. I don’t believe in playing it safe. And this was a show where I was encouraged to take chances. Not only in terms of the technical aspects, but also in terms of the aesthetic, in terms of how a scene recorded. When I was doing CSI, we did a lot of flashback technology things. We ran film through the camera backwards, exposing it through the emulsion, through the base. We were hand‑cranking. We didn’t do any of that stuff on Breaking Bad. It was more me with my lighting, really stretching the limits of the film. I had a little more leeway because we were not doing a film finish. So I could push it a little further, which I did. But I used my light meter less and less over the course of the five years that I was there. I pretty much told the story emotionally by the placement of lights. No matter what my meter said, if I thought something looked too bright or too dark, I would just change it. I got very accustomed to seeing the light the way that the film saw it and the way that we finished it on that particular project.

What about the aesthetic aspects of the film image?

These are just brushes and colors on your palette. Hopefully, money will not be the only deciding factor in what brush the storytellers are going to use. It’s about the story that you’re telling. I am fortunate that the last few jobs I have done for television – Rubicon, 30 Rock, Breaking Bad – were all film. I’m lucky to have shot probably in excess of one-and-a-half million feet of film a year. It certainly is a comfort zone for me. Digital is good, but I really like the painterly quality of film and the way that it handles highlights. It does something really nice to those extremely hot spots that I have in those frames. It just feels organic to me. Film emulsion halates, even though there is an anti-halation backing. With those highlights, something is happening that is optical, and then it becomes photochemical. It looks very pleasing. A lot of the compression they’re doing in digital these days is to emulate that.

Do you feel there is too much emphasis on the technology today?

People want to know which light to use and where you put it. That’s not what is as important, as the decision or the creative process that got you to that point. That is really interesting and what fascinates me. You can copy Roger Deakins (ASC, BSC) or Bob Richardson (ASC) but those truly great DPs never stop changing. They’re already moving on. Look at Janusz Kaminski with War Horse and Lincoln. They look as if they were painted by a different master painter – and in a way, they were.

Are there misconceptions about what a director of photography brings to a project?

As digital cameras have gotten faster, a lot of people think you don’t need lighting and you can just run out and shoot. And some people do. You always have to remember that the storytelling business, which is what we’re all in, is a representational art form, not a reproductive art form. Reproductive is documenting something. But we represent stuff. No drugstore is as green as the one in Natural Born Killers. Nobody questioned it. It was the right way to tell that story at that time. It is evident throughout the history of filmmaking that we are there to represent the emotional moments of the stories that we’re telling. We’re not there to necessarily reproduce reality. And in that representation we have a whole lot of poetic license that I believe we’re expected to use and to create. Nobody’s house is as dark as Walter White’s house at the end of Breaking Bad during the day. Nobody stands there in silhouette. It is unreal. I go through a lot of work to make it look that dark. The real question should be – is it the right look to support the story at that moment? And that’s where the skill set comes in for the DP, I think.

Any other thoughts as you look back on Breaking Bad?

I’ve never stayed with any show as long as I stayed on that show. It was very hard when we finished up. It was a deeply emotional experience making that show. We’re all very close and we’re all friends and I expect those friendships to be very long-lasting. I’m hoping that film is here to stay. I feel very good about that.