By Randi Altman
Marshall Adams, ASC, has been working on episodic projects for years, but his road to cinematographer wasn’t a straight one. Adams started as a production assistant on small commercials and docs, but quickly discovered that lighting was his passion.
Adams’ first break was on second unit for Felicity with Michael Bonvillian, ASC. He eventually took on cinematography duties for the series’ final season. Some of Adams’ credits include Monk, CSI: NY and Better Call Saul. His most recent work can be seen in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie for Netflix.
We reached out to talk to him about his work in El Camino and his transition from gaffer to cinematographer.
Tell us about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. How early did you get involved in planning for it?
I got a call from director Vince Gilligan in the fall of 2018, and he talked to me about the project and asked me to come on board.
Prior to that, I had gotten the chance to shoot pick-up shots for the end of Breaking Bad Season 4, which led to shooting the Season 5 opener for cinematographer and director extraordinaire Michael Slovis, ASC. I was on another show, so I wasn’t available to come back, but when Better Call Saul DP Arthur Albert (Seasons 1 and 2) had another project, I got the wonderful opportunity and ended up shooting Seasons 3 through Season 5 of Saul.
I had never gotten a call from Vince directly before, but I knew to answer it!
How would you describe the look of El Camino?
On Saul, I wanted to create realistic, practical-driven looks for night exteriors and low-light interiors that embraced all the colors and looks of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The high ISO on the Panasonic VariCam made that possible. Vince said he wanted to expand upon that look for El Camino, but also stay within the naturalistic look created on the series.
We were very cognizant of tipping the hat to Michael Slovis’ work on Breaking Bad, which was shot on 35mm film, and the overall feel of the series. In our original conversations, we both assumed El Camino would be shot on film. We wanted the flashbacks to have a different feel and style than the “present day” but without using some of the usual visual cues like desaturation or exaggerated color, etc. What we decided that made the most sense was for all the flashbacks to be handheld like most of the series was and the present time would be more anchored. But again, Michael’s work was so good on the series it made it easy to follow his lead on sets like the compound interior or the vacuum shop.
So you shot in New Mexico?
We shot mainly at Albuquerque Studios with a few locations around the city. First week of principal photography probably started in mid-November 2018 and we finished around mid-February of this year.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project? Why was this the right combination of gear?
Vince really wanted to shoot widescreen 2.39:1, so we tested all the cameras we could get, both digital and film and spherical and anamorphic. We viewed the footage in a double-blind test, meaning there was no way to tell from shot to shot which camera was used. We both fell in love with the ARRI Alexa 65 for lots of reasons but mostly for its low-light quality, which we knew we’d be doing shooting quite a bit of.
I knew lenses would be key to making the large-format camera work — because Vince likes lots of different lenses: long lens macros, zooms and everything in between. So, we needed a lens package compatible with the camera that would pair well and offer color and contrast consistency. We ended up getting as many of the ARRI DNA lenses as we could get our hands on, with the 45mm and 80mm becoming our go-to glass, along with a few Prime 65s to fill in, 100mm and 180mm Raptor macros, and a couple of zooms adapted for the large format. This combo allowed us to shoot low light efficiently but mostly control depth of field.
Who was the colorist and how did you work together to achieve the vision for the film?
Dave Cole at FotoKem was my partner in crime. He was phenomenal. Vince hired me knowing I hadn’t shot a feature, and Dave and FotoKem were amazing at guiding us through that experience. With their suggestions, and the help of both my DITs, I was able to capture everything within range exposure wise, so we were able to spend more time on the artistry of the images in the DI versus repairing things. Dave was full of ideas and is very talented. I spent one weekend with Vince and Dave early on in color timing, went off to shoot Saul and then took an episode off to finish up with Vince, Dave and the team.
Dave and I started with the SDR theatrical version first and set the look. Then we were really able to do interesting things with the other versions — which were finished for 1,000-nit 4K HDR and 4,000 nit, as well as a Dolby Vision theatrical pass. We hopped over to Keep Me Posted (a FotoKem company), where we finish Saul, as they had the right monitor for the Dolby Vision pass. The process was very smooth.
Can you describe the lighting?
The gaffer Andrew Smith is an old friend, so we already had a type of shorthand with each other. We spent a lot of time during prep at the night locations and talked about what practicals we wanted to keep, get rid of, change, etc. The great thing about a feature film (versus an episodic series) is you get more time to work on all this.
Now more general questions….
How did you become interested in filmmaking?
My dad had a Super 8 camera and flatbed and I made skateboard movies as a young teen. I also was always volunteering at a theater, where some friends hung out. The creative bug was around me but it wasn’t until David Chase bought a house my dad designed (an architect) that I started to envision a career in filmmaking. David found out I made films and, at the time, he was staff writer on The Rockford Files. He asked me to come watch an episode with him – from writing to shoot. It was coolest thing ever.
I tried film school but I was getting jobs that eventually got me into the union. I’ve even tried my hand at directing, and I appreciated the opportunity, but lighting and cinematography are my passion.
How do you stay on top of advancing technology?
Since there’s a new camera at every turn, sometimes my rental house tells me about new cameras, and I also have someone on my crew who keeps up on everything. I don’t know how he does it, but he shares a lot of great info with me.
What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years)?
The speed of cameras. These days they have 3,200 to 5,000 ISO, or faster, versus film, which when pushed can get to 800 or 1,000 ISO. The faster speed allows me to incorporate more practicals and use smaller lights, which fits my style lately.
I was a film guy, coming up using 35mm and 16mm film. CSI: NY was shot on film until we changed to digital after the sixth season. I love the look of film and was resistant to the change, but I have to use the right tool for a particular project. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very important that we do what we can to keep film alive, and I’ll happily shoot film anytime, but as much as I love it, it can be more labor intensive for big night exteriors. But there’s nothing like the magic that happens in a 35mm camera.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
In general, the camera operator and I talk about every shot early on and then I leave things with the operator so I can spend more time on lighting with the gaffer and key grip.
What’s your go-to gear?
The Litepanels 1×1 with a 30-degree grid. It’s a 12-inch LED panel light that I use near the camera usually with a ring inside so the source is round and not square. I use it for all my eyelights. I believe you have more freedom lighting-wise in cinematography if you can see a character’s eyes. For me this is the best tool to control eye reflections without feeling like it’s adding any light.