By James Mackney
There is a snobbery surrounding television but I am going to categorically state that it is not the unwanted sibling or the distant relative of cinema; it is its own progressive and challenging medium.
As Mad Men’s first half of its final season draws to a close it finally reaches the moon. Not in a sense of narrative achievement or character progression but one where the centerpiece of episode 7, season 7 is the US Moon Landing. The public’s desire for the space race and extraterrestrial life has been used as a narrative device for decades, an example being the character of Dan Dare being depicted in all various mediums in the 1950’s and 60’s. A character that perhaps the Draper children or a young Walter White would have enjoyed and dreamt about.
Both shows focus on dreamers and the harsh realities of those dreams not being fulfilled and in truth Mad Men has always had a filmic quality in both direction and storytelling. Breaking Bad has also if you consider the now repeated ad infinitum “Mr Chips to Scarface” summarisation of the show.
Breaking Bad and Mad Men are lauded now but when they were in creation, AMC’s original programming in truth was embryonic. Before Mad Men, AMC had only had a handful of original programmes on its books. The most successful being a 2005 western mini-series called Broken Trail starring Robert Duvall. Following on from the generally favourable reviews of Broken Trail, Mad Men premiered in 2006 and Breaking Bad followed suit two years later.
AMC openly looked to challenge HBO and the pedestal the channel was on. HBO itself however used to be a sports and movie channel before it took it’s own embryonic steps into making ad free, pay-per-view, high-end drama in 1993. AMC took just over a decade to follow suit and has recently premiered both The Walking Dead and the US version of The Killing following on from the breakout successes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
Breaking Bad’s cinematographer Michael Slovis was given the freedom by Vince Gilligan to guide the look of a show more than your standard television cinematographer. Take another high-end show such as Homeland as an example and cinematographers Nelson Cragg, David Klein and Chris Manley have managed to create a show that looks good and consistent but in truth Homeland looks like 24, Spooks and in some cases CSI just with different government buildings.
In traditional filmmaking the technique of using a camera on a dolly is classic just as using handheld cameras to change the perspective of a scene are. Slovis took both these elements, adding in steady cam and created a palette and blend of techniques that gave Breaking Bad a voice. The show was known for slow panning shots, for long held medium shots that felt like they were never going to break. The use of both of high and low angle camera positions forever altering the power of a scene. This technique was used perhaps most effectively when Walt is faced with a life and death situation of a character and he has a decision to make: to help or not? The camera is placed at a medium low angle before switching to a close up of the character meeting their untimely demise. Walt is still framed highly in this scene. Slovis understood the power of these choices for the audience who would for the first time see the realisation on Walt’s face as to what he was becoming but the camera at no point told us to feel pity, it always showed Walt as having power.
Slovis in using such techniques wonderfully captured the shows battle with power and the desired retention of it. Everything the camera did in Breaking Bad was simple; it was placed in the right position and told the story in every single frame. Slovis and Vince Gilligan are making a filmic statement with their work. Breaking Bad is and possibly always will be their calling card.
Mark Freeborn and Dan Bishop are the production designers on Breaking Bad and Mad Men respectively. They deserve just as much credit as John Hamm, Bryan Cranston, Vince Gilligan or Mathew Weiner. They and their teams produce something so authentic for every single episode that the storytelling has to be just as good as the sets it is taking place on. Be it the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the inside of a Los Pollos restaurant, the methamphetamine ‘Super Lab’ or Peggy’s run down apartment, every single set is nailed.
In closing, art and filmmaking is a collaborative process. Neither Mad Men or Breaking Bad would be a success without the work of its lead actors and actresses however every person in the cast and crew is working at the top of their game every time they step on to the set, every day to get the set ready and in every script meeting to hone and craft a story that will do the show justice.
Ultimately both shows have this: A group of people working together on something that just may be the finest thing they ever create.
So what is the only similarity between television and cinema that matters? That occasionally a group of talented, hard working and creative people come together to create something that raises the bar and lays down the gauntlet for the next set of people who want to make their idea a reality.