The Cinematography and Color Grading of ‘El Camino’: A Creative and Technical Achievement

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Aaron Paul reprises his role as Jesse Pinkman in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

Six years after Walter White (Bryan Cranston) met his demise in the series finale of Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan explores the fate of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) following the death of his former teacher and business partner in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Fans were excited for this feature follow-up to the popular episodic, as more than 25 million households watched the film in the first week of its debut according to Netflix.

El Camino did more than hit the right chord with audiences, it was also a creative and technical achievement, earning Gilligan DGA and WGA nominations.

Directed by Gilligan, key creatives involved with the production were cinematographer Marshall Adams, ASC, who has worked on Breaking Bad as well as the spinoff series Better Call Saul, and FotoKem senior colorist Dave Cole (Vice, Kong: Skull Island).

Director Vince Gilligan on set with cinematographer Marshall Adams, ASC
Photo by Michele K Short

FotoKem and Keep Me Posted (a FotoKem company) have been working with Gilligan, producer Diane Mercer, and Adams for many years, providing dailies and final color since the first episode of Breaking Bad, and through the current season of Better Call Saul. The creative team turned to the facility once again for El Camino to guide them through their first feature-length project with an HDR pass.

The production also utilized HDE (High Density Encoding) compression for the ALEXA workflow. According to FotoKem, this new technology enabled the ARRIRAW footage captured by the ARRI ALEXA 65 to be reduced by 40% without causing image integrity loss. When an HDE file is decoded, it is a bit-for-bit perfect match to the original file. FotoKem was one of the first facilities to utilize this new technology for a feature film workflow from dailies through DI.

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

Getting the look

Adams explains that Gilligan wanted a natural look for El Camino. To help control color contrast and balance along with flares, the filmmakers relied on ARRI Prime DNA lenses. “We had lots of indoor and outdoor shots where the exposure ranged severely, including extensive greenscreen,” notes Adams. “It was a battle to keep enough balance so that Dave [Cole] had plenty to work with. Having shot in Albuquerque, I knew what most of the locations were going to be and the colors, limitations, and exposure levels. I built the LUT to manage that and match Vince’s vision. This way, Vince had a decent image to view daily footage, and a reasonable idea of how things were going to look.”

Cole met Adams when tests were being conducted for Better Call Saul, involving footage from El Camino. “Marshall paid a lot of attention to exposure and made sure he contained as much in the highlights as possible,” Cole recalls. “It was a conscious effort to give us the most usable dynamic range that he could.”

DP Marshall Adams, ASC

Another major contributor to the workflow was FotoKem’s nextLab platform, which includes media management, color control and look management. “We had FotoKem onsite at the stages in Albuquerque,” states Adams. “The turnaround was quick because we could deliver footage and almost immediately get feedback. I would look at the FotoKem FRAMES app in the morning. If there was any kind of color change I wanted to make, I could do it right there on the iPad and send it back to the dailies team at FotoKem. They could apply the new look and get dailies out right away. It was valuable in making sure that we were all on the same page.”

According to Adams, the television series did not dictate the color palette for El Camino, which was graded with DaVinci Resolve. “The only way that the series was revisited in terms of color was what Vince or Marshall would tell me,” remarks Cole. “We treated it as its own piece even though the movie begins at the end of the final season of Breaking Bad.”

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) looks up at his captor, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons)

Going dark and handheld

Contributing to El Camino’s look are a lot of dark and nighttime scenes that were enhanced by HDR. “In the flashback where we first meet Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons), it’s all dark and you see this shadow in the corner. There are these piercing light rays coming through the holes of the tarp at the top. When the tarp is ripped off by Todd, Jessie really squints at the light because he has been down in that hole for days. We embraced that in SDR. But in HDR, we helped to burn the eyes of the audience so that they squint with Jessie, then dynamically cool the exposure back in. We’re helping the audience to visually adjust at the same time as Jesse and using that to emphasize the experience of the character. That’s where HDR can be very effective.”

Cinematographer Marshall Adams sets up a shot with the ALEXA 65
Photo by Ben Rothstein

Flashback scenes had a handheld aesthetic. “That included anything we did on cranes or dollies,” Adams explains. “Because the ALEXA 65 is such a big, heavy camera, it doesn’t make sense to carry it handheld. To add a bit of wiggle, the crew used a truck airbag between two plastic plates that could be inflated or deflated easily, with the camera mounted on top and the entire ‘rig’ attached to a dolly on the bottom.”

Adams notes that he and the crew also shot a number of plates with all the lenses for post, so any elements needed later were available. These plates were shot on framing charts to illustrate what the handheld aesthetic looked like on a 50mm or 28mm, etc. “We used that tracking data to apply movement to the flashback shots in the DI,” remarks Cole.

Jesse (Aaron Paul) searches for a hidden stash of money

Challenging scenes

When Jesse searches for the stash of money hidden in Todd’s apartment, the nighttime portion of the scene was difficult. “Vince wanted to make sure that every window blind was closed so that in theory none of the neighbors would see in as Jesse walks around first with the cigarette lighter and then with a single flashlight,” Adams relates. “It was a real exposure challenge. Eventually the sun comes up and we get back to natural daylight; that pushed the camera to the limits. I can’t say enough about Dave Cole. He did such a great job of bringing it alive and giving it enough to see what we wanted to see.”

The moment when Jesse pushes the carpet over the balcony as Todd waits below was another hard shot. “The exposure difference between the sky and Todd was massive,” Cole notes. “I did complex rotoscoping and tried wrapping light around Todd to balance the relevant difference – to rim light him but still expose him. Normally, that would have been a sky replacement in visual effects, but we managed to do that within the film.”

Director Vince Gilligan on location for a daylight desert scene

Another tricky part to the grade was the daylight desert scene that has Jesse digging a grave as Todd watches him. “It was shot at different times of day with various cloud cover,” Cole recalls. “It’s out in the middle of the desert so we accentuated the ‘painted desert’ look because you have all of those different sedimentary layers along with the color of the sand. It looks like a beautiful simple scene but complex in execution.”

“Dave and I were lucky to have Vince with us in the DI,” notes Adams. “He is super collaborative, but also has a strong vision, occasionally taking things in a different direction. Even when we started to do the HDR pass in Dolby Vision, Vince wanted to use that to his advantage. It was fun to play with that and try new stuff. The three of us really enjoyed collaborating.”

Jesse (Aaron Paul) searches every corner of Todd’s apartment

The biggest challenge for El Camino may have been living up to the heritage of Breaking Bad. “There’s such a fanbase for that show and deservedly so,” remarks Cole. “I wanted to make sure that Vince and his creative partners achieved the cinematic style of a feature. We were all focused on telling the best story, and supporting the emotional arc to draw the audience in. That’s what I’m always striving to do.”

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Marshall Adams & Netflix

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