'Better Call Saul': The Formats, Framing and Film Noir Influences of the Series - Creative Planet Network

'Better Call Saul': The Formats, Framing and Film Noir Influences of the Series

The behind-the-scenes talent for 'Better Call Saul' is a 'Breaking Bad' redux.
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If you were a big fan of Breaking Bad—wasn’t everyone?—you’ll remember Walter White’s lawyer, Saul Goodman, whose mixture of sleaze, smarts and bravado made him one of that series’ unforgettable characters. When the idea of a prequel to Breaking Bad was conceived, the show’s creators settled on Saul (played by Bob Odenkirk) as the focus. Now, in Better Call Saul, we see the lawyer’s evolution from downtrodden public defender to advocate for Walter White and a motley crew of gangsters and lowlifes.

The behind-the-scenes talent for Better Call Saul is a Breaking Bad redux. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad writer Peter Gould—both known for their loyalty—brought over much of the crew. Better Call Saul is executive produced by Gilligan, Gould, Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, with Breaking Bad veterans Thomas Schnauz and Stewart A. Lyons as co-executive producers for Sony Pictures Television.

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Michael McKean as Chuck Thurber (in foreground) and Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman. Photo by Ben Leuner/AMC.

One relative newcomer to the Breaking Bad family is cinematographer Arthur Albert. Breaking Bad was photographed by Mike Slovis, ASC, who, when he got the chance to direct the last episode, brought in his friend Albert to shoot the last two episodes. After Breaking Bad, Gilligan tapped Albert to shoot the entire first season of Better Call Saul.

Albert was born in Venezuela and started his career there, winning the National Cinematography Award for La Casa de Agua (1983), which was selected for the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. Once he moved to the United States, he began racking up feature film credits, including Night of the Comet, Streets of Gold, The Squeeze, Miss Firecracker, Heart Condition, Beverly Hills Ninja and Happy Gilmore. He has also done a lot of TV work, as cinematographer and occasional director on The Wonder Years and ER. Most recently, in addition to Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, he was a cinematographer on the first season of The Blacklist.

Having experience on Breaking Bad was a good foundation to Better Call Saul. Gilligan and Gould wanted Better Call Saul to “honor the look of Breaking Bad” without having it feel like the same show. Breaking Bad was noted for its distinctive look, and Better Call Saul has taken that a step further. “Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] both said repeatedly, ‘We don’t want this to look like anything else on TV,’” says Albert. Both Gilligan and Gould believe that most TV shows within a genre look similar; they wanted Better Call Saul to stand out.

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Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) in a shot that shows the film noir influences of 'Better Call Saul'. Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Albert notes that Breaking Bad was shot entirely handheld to give the show a constant nervous energy. Albert made the argument that the handheld style necessitated reloads every four minutes, which “really breaks the rhythm of the actors and the crew in general.” His point of view resonated. “For Better Call Saul, they wanted a much more locked off feel,” he says. “The camera moved when it needed to, but usually it was on a sandbag on the floor.”

Among the influences for the show were film noir (look for the strong diagonal shadows in a scene set in a parking garage) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC). “What they liked particularly was the non-standard framing, such as putting the actor’s head on the bottom of the frame or way off to the side,” he explains. The other big influence, he says, was Stanley Kubrick’s wide framing and signature vanishing-point perspective.

The first decision was whether to shoot film or digital. Breaking Bad was one of the last TV shows to be shot on film. For Better Call Saul, Albert conducted a blind test with film and a number of digital cameras to better make an objective decision. “We shot every possible situation—dark interior, bright interior, high contrast, interior-to-exterior with dark inside and bright exterior—everything I could think of that would stretch the capabilities of the cameras to the maximum,” he says. When the team looked at the final footage, it was a guessing game. “What was interesting was everyone guessed wrong about which was film and what was digital. It was really hard to tell.”

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Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Each of the tested digital cameras had its supporters and its strengths. What made the difference was form factor. “Saul’s office is smaller than a closet at about 4 feet square,” Albert says. “Saul’s car is the smallest one you can find. We were constantly being jammed into tiny spaces.” The RED Dragon’s smaller size made it the right choice, Albert says.

Almost the entire show was photographed with three short Angenieux lenses: the 15-40mm, 28-76mm and 45-120mm. “They’re compact, you can put them on a Steadicam, and they’re incredibly sharp,” he says. “They’re also very consistent and you can make an adjustment while you’re shooting without stopping. There is just no time for primes in TV.”

The choice of lenses adds to the show’s distinctive look. In one courtroom scene, it looks like Albert used a fisheye lens. “The super-wide shot was a 10mm, which isn’t quite a fisheye but it’s close,” he says. “Where we’re moving through the courtroom, it’s a 15mm. We shot a lot of the show on the Angenieux 15-40mm, which is a very wide lens and makes it a real challenge to get lights anywhere close to the actor. But it gives the look a lot of depth. You really see the actors inhabit the world they’re in.”

Better Call Saul uses two cameras; Albert relied on A-camera operator Harry Garvin and B-camera operator Philip Holahan. “They both did wonderful work,” says Albert. “I give my operators a lot of freedom to set up shots and contribute. I don’t micromanage setups. I like them to work directly with the director instead of having a go-between.”

One of the Breaking Bad trademarks that Gilligan wanted to maintain for Better Call Saul is placing the camera in unusual spots. For many of those shots, Albert used a very compact Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4. “We put it on the ground shooting straight up, inside a coffee cup, on a threshold. Anywhere you could stick a camera, we put a camera,” he says. “When we were shooting a driving shot, I put it on the ground and Bob Odenkirk, who is a brilliant driver, very precisely drove over it without touching it. We were always looking for unusual shots.”

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Bob Odenkirk with Better Call Saul creators and executive producers Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan. Photo by Jacob Lewis/AMC.

With regard to lighting, Albert says he’s become a big proponent of LEDs. “The Cineo [TruColor] HS is my great discovery,” he says. “It only intrudes about 6 inches into the set and puts out a lot of light. I could dial it from zero to 100 in a split second. It also emits no heat and can run off batteries when you’re in a car. Once you work that way, going back to climbing ladders and changing bulbs is like watching paint dry.”

These thin lighting fixtures came in handy. “When you shoot wide and low, you can’t hang lights,” says Albert, who credits gaffer Steve Litecky as “a brilliant collaborator.” He continues, “Because the panel lights are an inch deep, you can get them to the edge of the frame without them intruding into the shot.” Occasionally he’d hide a light behind something, even asking production designer Tony Fanning to create a hiding spot.

One set that was difficult to light was the house Saul shares with his former mentor. Because they haven’t paid the electric bill, the only light at night comes from lanterns. “That was tough,” says Albert. “Normally I light through the windows, but there’s a sloping roof over the exterior, and I couldn’t get lights effectively through the French doors from up high.”

The solution was to hide lights on the ground, as well as to use lanterns as practical lights.

The practical lanterns didn’t give off enough light so Albert turned to LiteGear’s LiteCards, which are flexible, very thin, adhesive-backed LED arrays. “They’re amazing when you need to hide a light,” he says. “We wrapped them up and put them inside the lantern, and that really solved the problem.”

Keep Me Posted colorist Ted Brady is the DI artist for Better Call Saul. “He’s doing a wonderful job,” says Albert. “Colorists are the DP’s silent partners, playing a huge part in the overall look of a show.”

What makes photographing Better Call Saul such a delight is “working with writers this good,” says Albert. “Vince is a really great person to collaborate with. He and Peter are so incredibly respectful and open to ideas, which is rare. When I did the Breaking Bad finale, every time Vince wanted to modify a shot, he’d be apologetic, and I kept wanting to say, ‘You’re the best writer working in TV. You don’t have to apologize, just tell me what you want!’ They’re also incredibly loyal to their people.”

That collaborative spirit goes from production through to the final DI. Albert notes how motivating it is to work with a showrunner who’s open to ideas. “When I did the pilot for Better Call Saul, they were in L.A. and we were in Albuquerque, so I got e-mails about specific things,” he says. “Now we’re color correcting together, and he has the same respectful, collaborative attitude. When he wants to make a change, I end up thinking, ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ He’s right—it makes it better. He’s a real photography geek in the best sense of the word. He really cares and knows a lot. Working for someone like that pushes me to pay more attention and take more chances.”

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