Breaking Bad is an AMC Original television series created by writer Vince Gilligan. We are currently filming Season Two, and are very excited about our debut season being recognized with four Emmy nominations.
Vince has given us all of this incredible narrative so intriguing and demanding a visually grounded reality. As a Production Designer, it is an immense joy to be a part of this wonderful translation process. Due to our limited budget and my strong desire for a feature film quality, a great deal of attention was given to the challenge of set design and the use of wonderful untapped locations to bolster our scope and scale. To achieve this look, our producers have been extremely supportive and generous.
The series is currently being filmed in New Mexico at Albuquerque Studios and the wonderful locations surrounding the territory. I have tried to capture as much as I can of this amazing landscape and unusual locations so that the camera would always be treated to new delights. My mantra is – be foreign, have visual surprise, and celebrate the ever evolving landscape. It was also, a wish of mine to acknowledge all things that are indigenous. This attention to the organic quality of the place allowed me and my Art Department great privilege in layering detail. We made new discoveries daily and all of them made their way into our visual narrative. The extraordinary New Mexico skies serves as the final touch, always blanketing us in a rich anamorphic feature film way. The episodes have allowed me to create uniquely varied homes, workplaces, and hangouts that dot this New Mexico landscape and probably are as stimulating to our audience as they have been to me.
With the Pilot for Breaking Bad, I had the opportunity to setup the color ark of the season. This served to chart the emotional trajectory of each character. The color ark also was paramount in the selection of locations that had both architectural integrity and would allow me to maintain our colors. By painting, we were able to bring a new visualization to the process that enables our series to unfold in a rare celebration of art and color.
Infusing a very dense, sculpted color palette has been one of my goals on Breaking Bad. Every set has a varied rich patina that surrounds our characters. The color does shift as our season progresses along the emotional life of the White Family and the parade of unusual characters. It is essential to diagram all of our locations and sets in color terms so that as our story unfolds Production Design can accent the emotional trail.
Graphic Design also plays a very important role in Breaking Bad. Due to our subject matter, one of our major challenges is the lack of product placement. I have an amazing Art Department team that has risen to the challenge. My Art Director Marisa Frantz and Graphics Designer Steve Maes have created graphic imagery that represents the episodes, characters, scenes and inspired narrative of the writers. We spend a great deal of time walking the fine line between real and the tweaked universe of our characters.
Walter White Family House Set
The work began with the grounding of the Walter White Family House. It was vital that this set worked on multiple fronts. The set needed to speak of the White household economics, and the house’s faded glory from the time it was purchased some 20 years earlier.
The idea of the White Family Set was to offer abundant shooting opportunities – rooms opening up to each other – kitchen to dining room – living room views. We have yet to wild a wall because this layout allows the feeling of the interior to be smaller, intimate, and casual.
The house floor plan allows for camera ports, wild closet units, and secret passages that have been designed for quick camera setups. All effort went into designing this set to allow it a feature film quality that we hoped would distinguish our show along with the wonderful writing. I wanted the whole philosophy of this set to be rich with detailed observations, layered with patina color that is both warm and haunting at the same time. The difference between real and what I call “heighten reality” is the challenge here where something at first can be warm and cuddly then turns cold and unwelcoming. These parallel universes do exist on this set with a certain degree of truth.
Jesse’s Basement and the Winnebago Sets
Two of the more iconic sets that we have created were the basement in Jesse’s Aunt’s house and the interior of the Winnebago. The design demands of both sets were to recreate the detailed reality first and then through texture, color and a certain architectural awkwardness. The soul of the set can be realized. It is important not to broadcast the intent of each set. These sets have begun to enjoy their own life. The design allows the audience and camera a comfort zone. After that has been achieved, the many strange foul things become available and are believed. It is also important for our Art Department to love each set in order to dig deeper into its internal mystic and magic comes from that.
In Jesse’s Aunt’s basement, you have to instantly believe that this place had the very real sense of being part of the larger practical house. So many scenes that launched our series were shot here. If you sensed this was a set piece – all would be lost – to achieve this was largely in the hands of the Set Decorator, Marcia Calosio and my wonderful Scenic Artist, Michael Diagle. Michael and I have been breathing life into sets for so many years. I owe him a great deal for the arch realism of the work on Breaking Bad.
The Winnebago that is now iconic in our film narrative had to serve us with the same compelling realism as the basement. To achieve this set, I had the wonderful help of our lead SPX Designer, Dennis Peterson. Dennis was able to achieve the moment on $1.98 as well as the wonderful visceral effects with smoke, steam, and rain. This set has really done some traveling on our show culminating in its purpose as a functioning mobile meth lab. Great care has been placed in the research and sensibilities of our chief protagonist, the drug meth. Without this darkly humorous reality, you could not travel the road of our characters into their brand of chaos with such painful attention.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Building Set
In Season Two, my next great pleasure was using the exterior and interior of the first high-rise in Downtown Albuquerque, circa 1954. Being able to lease the 9th floor for the next two years and gut it, I was then able to create a regional Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Headquarters overlooking Downtown Albuquerque. It was vital to the realism of our story to have a strong set and amazing cityscape views. Time and money was not our friend here, but all the hard work paid off. The DEA set now enjoys 85 running feet of pure downtown views with a strong regional sensibility.
This new set has continued our ability to capture this region so fluently which has been the joy of Breaking Bad. Because of the practical locations’ limited space, every detail of this design had to offer up wild wall unites with felt plates for ease of moving walls and pivotal glass windows that helped to control the desert light and various camera ports. This allows us to preserve those important wide and long shots that would eventually distinguish the set.
This set was designed by my Lead Set Designer Derrick Ballard using Autodesk Revit Architecture which has served us repeatedly in our understanding of each set and its inherent complications. Our actors and directors have enjoyed this little gem and are delighted with the way the set anchors itself while affording the company full operative advantages.
Another exciting element of the show is to be able to interpret and advance the narrative with imaginative moments of what I call “Camera Obsura.” It is a combination of SPX rigging, oversized props, and various angled platforms that aid in the suspension of exaggerated belief using micro closes up and effects work.
In this scene, Walter White is drying his first bit of money, dampened in a horrific culmination of tragic events. Little moments like this handpicked for their tweaked emotional life, dot our episodes. They are fun to achieve with the multiple talents of all factions of our crew. My Construction Coordinator of many years, William “W” Gilpin has built platforms, tubs that break through floors with human remains, and toilets that we look through. The list goes on and on. We have a fascination with moments of the absurd that allows us this rare opportunity to actually visualize them. What fun we are all having.
The Winnebago was built on a rocker to get the maximum traveling sensibility. These sets were at the first simple, but as I explored how to break them apart, it was clear that we had achieved a level of shooting ability that made these sets very fun to use and manipulate. All of these nuances are very important in a rigorous shooting schedule.
Production Design on Breaking Bad is a method experience. One has to live with this narrative and constantly be searching for interesting ways to convey it. It is a growing life form that has to be captured first in spirit then with locations and finally appropriate set work. These built realities have to breathe life. In this project, there are no such things as a throw away. Everything has meaning – a subtext – a life beyond its service to our inspired scripts.
Now we are on to creating Jesse’s new duplex apartment. It is full of charm, circa 1920’s and remodeled by its owners – with a dose of Home Depot – What Fun!