For all the Breaking Bad junkies who had to deal with withdrawal symptoms when the acclaimed drug drama finally ended, relief—and another fix of Walter’s shady, but witty lawyer Jimmy McGill (aka Saul Goodman)—came just in time thanks to the new AMC prequel series Better Call Saul. Also created by Bad‘s acclaimed writer/producer team of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, it stars Bob Odenkirk alongside a few other familiar faces from Bad (fixer Mike, played by Jonathan Banks), plus some new ones (Michael McKean plays Jimmy’s older brother). And it looks even grittier than Bad, though—appropriately—far less jittery.
The show, which was already picked up for Season Two before the first season began, is shot by the Venezuelan-born veteran DP Arthur Albert, whose extensive credits include such TV series as The Blacklist, Missing, ER and, of course, Breaking Bad, as well as such features as Happy Gilmore, Saving Silverman and Beverly Hills Ninja.
"Right from the start, Vince and Peter didn’t want it to look like Breaking Bad—or like anything else out there on TV now," Albert notes. "But they also wanted the Bad fans not to feel totally abandoned and to maintain some visual continuity to both shows."
Albert points out that stylistically, "a huge amount of Breaking Bad was shot handheld, which gave it all this nervous energy, and they wanted to move away from that." Instead, the DP and his team "hardly ever used handheld—instead, we were usually on dollies and sandbags," he reports. "So, right there, that approach was very different. And Vince and Peter both love very contrasty lighting, as do I, but they were really pushing for more and more contrast and darkness, which is unusual for a comedy. Vince loved saying, ‘We know who they are, so we don’t need to see them all the time.’ So I was given free rein and encouraged to go quite dark and contrasty."
The shows’ different milieus also factored into the visuals. While Bad‘s focus was on making meth in the desert, Saul’s drama often takes place in courtrooms and offices. Other visual cues came from such iconic movies as The Conformist and Kubrick’s use of one-point perspective.
"At my first meeting with Peter, he showed me a bunch of stills from the former, and what he and Vince really loved about it was all the unconventional framing—where you’d have a close-up with the head at the bottom of the frame," he reports. "So those films were held up as compositionally interesting and influenced the look of the show."
Breaking Bad was one of the last TV shows to be shot on film, and the producers were keen to also shoot Saul on film. "But they were told it would cost an extra $1 million, compared with digital and then all the post costs, so that became a big issue," he adds. Before committing either way, the producers asked Albert to shoot a blind test. "We tested all the major digital systems—Sony, ARRI and RED, and film, side by side, and for exterior, interior, high contrast, candlelit and so on—everything I could think of that would push the limits of the various formats," he reports. "We then did a 4K screening, first at Sony and then at FotoKem, and not even the FotoKem colorist, who did all of Breaking Bad and who obviously has a very finely tuned eye, could guess correctly which was film and which was digital. And Vince and Peter have very finely tuned eyes, too, and they guessed wrong, too."
Ultimately, the team went with the RED EPIC DRAGON. "I pushed it, partly as I find it such a versatile system," says the DP, "and we shot in some very cramped locations, such as Saul’s office, which was this tiny space—maybe six feet square. And they also chose the smallest car they could find for Saul, so the big advantage for the RED is that it can be built very small. The tremendous latitude of the new DRAGON sensor and the ability to shoot 300 fps also helped my case."
The DP shot almost every scene using two cameras, and he kept a third body ready in Steadicam mode, "so that the director had the option to quickly move into that if he wanted," he adds. "We tended to do a lot of shots from the ground, and the cameras spent a lot of time on a sandbag with a very wide lens, which made for some very interesting lighting challenges." Albert admits that after the "constant camera movement" of most TV shows, he found it "very unsettling to just have the camera sit there for a wide master, and then do a close-up without dollying back and forth on a 60-foot track or circling them with a Steadicam. It was a hard adjustment for me, but it was a stylistic choice Vince and Peter made, and it has paid off, given the great reception the show has had. And it’s part of what makes this show unique. They love extremely wide masters, and they use them for whole scenes."
In terms of the overall lighting approach, the producers wanted to maintain a high-contrast look, notes Albert. "And I had become a big fan of LED lights—especially panel lights and Cineo lights, which are very bright. When I took over shooting The Blacklist in New York, their standard key light was the 5K with a Chimera on it, which meant it was almost six feet deep, so I switched it to a Cineo, which is just six inches deep and gives you about the same amount of light. And one person can move it and hang it anywhere, and so on—and to me, all that time-saving and speed is so important, not just in TV, but in features, as well. The more time you can give a director and his actors to work, the better they can tell the story."
For Albert, panel lights that run off batteries are "ideal, as the problem with hanging backlights is always ‘Where do I hide the cable in the shot?’ But they solve that." In terms of HMIs, the DP also believes in a "simpler is better" approach. "I try to reduce the number of variables, and I really love the ARRI open-face HMIs, and I’ve replaced Pars with them. They’re lightweight, and you don’t have to fumble with hot lenses like you do with the Pars, and they’re great for lighting through windows or lighting the inside of a parked car."
The show marks the first time Albert had used the new RED DRAGON sensor, "which has an additional three stops of latitude over the Mysterium sensor, and it was amazing, as we were able to shoot moving car interiors with no light," he reports. "You just put an operator in the passenger seat, off they go, and you see every detail—both in the car and outside in bright sunlight. I was really impressed, and it meant we didn’t have to tow the car and use generators and mount lights on the hood as usual, which takes up a lot of time. So, for me, it’s pretty revolutionary in terms of speed and ease of use. And the DRAGONs were flawless. We had zero issues with data loss or glitches, so I was very happy with them."
The Albuquerque-based production also benefited from a below-the-line continuity. "Almost the whole crew from Breaking Bad came back for this, except for camera operators and some assistants, which was a big advantage," says the DP. "They had a shorthand; they were all local and very familiar with how to work there, and with the extreme heat we had to deal with. So you get this level of trust and ease of working together that you just don’t usually get on a new show. I would particularly like to thank local gaffer Steve Litecky, and my operators, Harry Garvin and Philip Holahan, for their major creative contributions to the look of the show."
The show shot on an eight-day schedule, "average for TV," notes Albert, "with 12- to 14-hour days generally. We had a few night shoots, but overall, it was a pretty humane schedule." The team used Technocranes "several times," as well as standard cranes, "but it was a pretty ‘toy-free’ shoot," he states.
In terms of workflow, the show didn’t use a DIT. "We had a digital downloader, as most of the studios push back hard about having a DIT and the expense," says the DP. "I try and get around that by finding someone who has at least some DIT experience on set, and as this show was so high profile going in, that made it easier. And I think it’s a bit shortsighted of the studios, as the digital downloader tends to be less experienced than a DIT, and they’re essentially replacing Technicolor or LUTs. They’re handling the negative and also solving all the computer problems that arise—and they do come up, and if you’re not well versed in the technology, mistakes can be made."
The team downloaded files in the camera truck, and all the hard drives then were shipped back to Keep Me Posted and FotoKem in L.A. "We held onto the cards until they OK’d erasing them after they had been fully backed up," he adds. "One of the reasons I like to work with RED is that you’re shooting compressed RAW files, which keeps the maximum amount of data and latitude and color balance, so if you need to, you can always go back to that. It’s not a compressed Log format the way the other cameras record, and uncompressed RAW is just too much data—even for features."
Unlike most TV shows, which post as they shoot, Saul largely posted after wrapping the season’s final tenth episode, "so I was there for all the color correction," notes Albert. "I would have a day with colorist Ted Brady at Keep Me Posted, and then Vince and Peter would come in and give their notes to us, and then we would go through it and fix every shot, so I was very involved—and I’ve shot entire series where I never even met the colorist, so that was a gift. And you can do so much now in post that I feel it’s essential to have the DP very involved in all the color correction."
Summing up, Albert, who starts shooting Season Two this summer, calls the show "a wonderfully creative experience, and Vince and Peter are not only universally acclaimed as brilliant writers, but are the nicest, most loyal and generous producers I’ve ever worked with. I know it sounds a bit ‘PR’-ish, but it’s true."
Visit the show’s website at www.amctv.com/shows/better-call-saul.