April 16, 2018
How ‘Breaking Bad’ Turns the Camera into a Character
An ode to the show’s brilliant POV shots.
Breaking Bad is, rather explicitly, about change. It tracks “growth, then decay, then transformation,” in Walt’s own words. There are the obvious changes: Walt’s personal transformation, the upending of the White family, the evolution of Walt and Jesse’s relationship. But Breaking Bad also studies change by changing the way we perceive our everyday surroundings.
Realism is central to Breaking Bad‘s storytelling. The easily recognizable car washes, strip malls, living rooms, and diners that furnish the series create an understated, quotidian backdrop for Walt’s moral decay. The realism with which Breaking Bad is told makes the story feel familiar, feasible; like it could take place in our own quiet suburban neighborhood. But the show’s cinematography distorts many of the familiar elements of our day-to-day lives to challenge the passive way we see and interact with our surroundings.
Using what critic Nick Schager calls “stylized realism,” Breaking Bad presents traditional scenery — a washing machine, the trunk of a car, a frying pan — and presents them in unexpected, jarring ways. The show often employs POV shots, where the camera becomes an inanimate object or a character by capturing their point of view. POV shots that place the camera inside a fridge, at the bottom of a bathtub, or inside the wall all create tight frames around characters and convey a sense of claustrophobia. In other POV shots, the camera is placed on the end of a shovel or on top of a Roomba, disorienting the viewer with jerky motion.
All of these POV shots further immerse the viewer in the storyworld. We become acutely aware of the camera’s presence as its own character in the story, shaping the way we perceive even the most mundane occurrences, like cracking an egg or fetching milk from the fridge. Breaking Bad DP Michael Slovis described the camera’s role in an interview IndieWire, saying “I think one of the reasons the show works so well is that the visual language is inseparable from the show itself. The photography is an organic character that comes out of the story rather than being imposed on the story.”
In a mesmerizing video crafted by the talented filmmaker kogonada, we traverse the entire series through POV shots. The camera’s direct participation in the show’s action makes Breaking Bad an utterly visceral cinematographic journey— one that you can experience for yourself in the shot compilation below:
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