When it comes to use of colour in a TV show, Breaking Bad is a unique example that will hold a special place in our hall of fame. The colour plays an integral part in story telling of the show and is deeply integrated from the production side, wardrobe and all the way to the final colour grade.
In an interview for GQ magazine Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show reveals: “We did this in microcosm in the pilot episode: for instance in the pilot, it was intentional that Walt start off very beige and khaki-ish, very milquetoast, and he would progress through that one hour of television to green and thus show his process of evolution as a character. We started to do that in macrocosm throughout particular series: we’d start Walt for example one year in red and take him to black. The one character we did not do that with was Marie, who stayed very consistent in her colour palette: she would always wear purple, to the extent of being quite monomaniacal about it. But there’s quite a number of man hours spent discussing colour usage, and assigning colours to different characters and thinking in those terms.”
Fotokem’s Tom Sartori graded the entire series of ‘Breaking Bad’ from its pilot to its finale.
What is interesting about the show is that it was shot entirely on 35mm, despite tight television turnaround times.
The color negative would come to FotoKem from the set in New Mexico for processing and transferring in telecine. Dailies colorist Greg Curry would be the first step in the pipeline, and after transfer, footage would be sent out to the production, creative team, and editorial. When the show is assembled and ready for final color, Sartori collaborates with cinematographer Michael Slovis, ASC, creator Vince Gilligan, producer Diane Mercer and sometimes others, such as the writer or director of a particular episode, when designing the perfect hue for the show.
In an interview for post magazine Tom Sartori reveals:
“Breaking Bad usually has around 500 shots per episode, and after the initial timing, Slovis looks over the work that’s been done from his home in New Jersey and sends comments to Sartori in Los Angeles. Finally, Sartori –— along with Gilligan, Mercer, and any other key creatives involved — makes final adjustments to the look of the show.”
The veteran colourist is quick to point out that the work of Slovis and the crew captures the story and characters so well, he simply has to fine-tune what’s already been created. This sometimes means pushing the look of the terrain of Albuquerque, or other story backdrops, like a high-tech meth lab, so that it becomes more stylised, surreal or even abstract. The idea is to get the audience deeper into Walter White’s dark journey as a meth manufacturer.
“So much of the environment has always played into the look of the show,” Sartori explains. “New Mexico is really the ultimate character and the bright light of this Southwestern city is a big part of the feeling of it.”
Some of the biggest impact of colour can be observed in the show’s night scenes. Sartori alters the footage occasionally so that it takes on what he calls a “sodium vapor” look for the audience. This slightly yellow tint was designed to further strengthen the statement made by the cinematography, and more deeply accentuate some of the stark angles and high-contrast look of the show. It lends an unearthly feeling to the show as well.
A colourist for three decades, Sartori began his career working with film-originated projects. Though his career has included highlights like Pulp Fiction, Sartori is the first to tell you he’s never worked on a show that’s inspired this kind of reaction in its viewers.
“You get maybe one project like this in a 30- or 40-year career, if you’re very, very fortunate,” says Sartori.
To find out more about symbolic use of colour in Breaking Bad see this infogarphic: