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Editor Kelley Dixon: Breaking Down ‘Breaking Bad’

“I feel like I got the Willy Wonka golden ticket being able to edit so many of the Breaking Badepisodes,” beams Kelley Dixon, ACE. “It was a really great ride and I think everyone who worked on the series feels the same way.”

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in

Breaking Bad

. Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC

So do the remarkably loyal fans of this landmark cable production from AMC, which also supports multiple podcasts about the show. These include “The Breaking Bad Insider”, which is generated by Kelley herself and always features the show’s creator, writer/producer/director Vince Gilligan, along with many of the writers and cast members discussing each week’s episode.

To enhance the second screen experience for the show’s followers, AMC even instituted “Breaking Bad Story Sync” on in which viewers can participate in snap polls, learn trivia points, and see exclusive video while watching the premiere broadcast of the latest episode on their cable TV.

All of this helped the August 11th airing of the first of the final eight episodes to garner 5.9 million viewers–a series high–accompanied by some 760,000 Tweets.

It is truly amazing what a phenomenon Breaking Bad has become, winning seven Primetime Emmy Awards and even a Peabody for Sony Pictures Television. Its lead actor, Bryan Cranston, has brought home three Emmys as “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series” and his co-star, Aaron Paul, has received two of the golden statuettes for “Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.”

So is this show a politically correct slice of middle Americana? In fact, its creator Gilligan says the term “breaking bad” is slang for “raising hell”. The show is the tale of a chemistry professor, Walter White (Cranston), at Wynne High School in Albuquerque who at age 50 learns he has lung cancer and just two years to live. With a pregnant wife, Skyler White (Anna Gunn) to provide for, Walt decides to generate a legacy of wealth by producing methamphetamine in his chemistry lab with the help of his assistant, Jesse Pinkman (Paul). Not unexpectedly, he is soon in conflict with the law, the underworld, his whole family and, it seems, the Fates themselves as Walt discovers that crystal meth can be a cruel taskmaster.

Kelley Dixon

For editor Kelley Dixon, it has been a career-building experience ever since she joined the show in 2007 as assistant to the pilot’s editor, Lynne Willingham, ACE, who herself took home the 2008 Emmy for “Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series” for her contribution to that first episode.

Kelley had worked her way from the mailroom at MGM into a production assistant on thirtysomething, where she hung around the edit bays. She received her IATSE Editors Guild union card in 1989, worked as an assistant on several shows until the chance of getting on Breaking Bad came up. Willingham did the first two episodes but then Kelley got the chance cut the third installment. Willingham left after the second season and since then Kelley has shared the editing duties with Skip MacDonald, ACE. She has been credited on 27 episodes, about 1/3 of the 62 shows in the series’ 5 year run. Kelley, who has now moved on to edit AMC’s The Walking Dead, wound up being nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards and three ACE Awards for her work on Breaking Bad.

Breaking Bad is one of the last TV shows shot on film (35 mm, 3 perf.) Cinematographer Michael Slovis, ASC has been behind the camera for 44 episodes (2009-2012). Dailies are flown from location in Albuquerque, NM to Burbank, CA to be processed at FotoKem laboratory and then digitized and color graded at sister facility Keep Me Posted.

Then Kelley’s assistants, Mel Friedman and Chris McCaleb input the material into her Avid Media Composer so she can start looking at the footage. “Each episode would shoot for eight days and we would have to deliver the editor’s cut two days after the last dailies arrived,” she explains. “So if I got the last day of dailies on a Wednesday, my cut would be due on Friday.”

Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen), Todd (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia (Laura Fraser). Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC

A finished episode of Breaking Bad was 47 minutes and seven seconds by the time it was locked, but Kelly’s editor’s cut usually ran six to 12 minutes long. Then she would sit down with the episode’s director for the DGA-stipulated four-day period to fine tune the work.

“Sometimes the director would be away on another production part of the time so I’d have to either finish their cut based on their input during the days they were available or work from their notes,” she says. “But this is one of the best written shows I’ve ever seen, and the directors shoot the script. So with experienced directors, getting the final cut right could be fairly straightforward.”

Like most editors, Kelley is modest about her contribution. But there was one key sequence on which she feels her input was especially prized. “The biggest liberty I ever took with the script,” he recalls, “was a scene in last year’s season finale, ‘Gliding Over All’. Walt has arranged for ten DEA informants to be killed in three different prisons while he remains at home with believable deniability. The slaughter was all supposed to take place in two minutes. During a conversation with our music supervisor, Thomas Golubic, he suggested the whole murderous montage should be limited to exactly those two minutes.”

Kelley even intercut shots of Walt’s own wristwatch that was counting the seconds ticking by. “I kept coming back to the watch, and wherever the second hand was hitting on the visual was where the time would have been in the real action,” she recalls. “Eventually, the sequence ran exactly 1 minute and 54 seconds. [The episode’s] director, Michelle MacLaren, really liked it. Except for reversing the order of two murders, it never got changed.”

Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC

The editorial team tried running the sequence with several pieces of music and eventually landed on Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up” that Vince Gilligan discovered on a ’40s radio station. He suggested providing the bittersweet counterpoint to the mayhem. In fact, most of the music used in Breaking Bad makes an ironic contribution. One notable exception: the use of the 1969 classic “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells was actually inspired by “The Book of Ezekiel” in the Bible referring to the blue light haloing the presence of the Almighty.

But Kelly tells us that music primarily follows the visuals. “I would say I absolutely conceived of the way a scene should look before I consider how it should sound,” the editor reveals. “That’s also the way Vince likes to work.”

At the end of this season, Breaking Bad will enter the eternal afterlife of cable re-runs and iTunes downloads. Its iconic opening billboard features a Periodic Table of the Elements on which squares 35 “Br” (Bromine) and 56 “Ba” (Barium) are highlighted. Only one of those chemicals can be used as part of the palladium catalyst involved with the creation of the deadly blue meth crystals, but I’ll leave it to you to find out which. You’ll find that Breaking Bad is not only a powerful drama series, but it’s also an effective object lesson for never touching that dangerous, illegal stuff at the heart of this now-classic series.