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November 2014
Issue: August 1, 2013

'Breaking Bad': FotoKem colorist Tom Sartori reflects on the series

BURBANK — When FotoKem (www.fotokem.com) colorist Tom Sartori started working on the pilot for an AMC’s Breaking Bad six years ago, he was immediately struck by the quality of the writing, acting and cinematography. It seemed like what he calls “a perfect storm” of talents, all working together to tell an incredible story.
 
Now, with the show’s series finale nearing, Sartori is thankful to have been the colorist for the entire run of Breaking Bad, after cinematographer John Toll, ASC, first recommended him for the job. 

“John (Toll) shot the pilot and he had seen my resume,” recalls Sartori, who is known for his color work on TV shows like Seinfeld and Murphy Brown. 
 
Breaking Bad – which has won numerous awards, critical acclaim and a cult following – needs to meet tight TV deadlines while still preserving the high quality of the show. And the FotoKem team has perfected that process since day one.

For Breaking Bad, the color negative comes to FotoKem from the set in New Mexico for processing and transferring in telecine. Dailies colorist Greg Curry is the first step in the pipeline, and after transfer, footage is sent out to the production, creative team, and editorial. When the show is assembled and ready for final color, Sartori collaborates with cinematographer Michael Slovis, ASC, creator Vince Gilligan, producer Diane Mercer and sometimes others, such as the writer or director of a particular episode, when designing the perfect hue for the show.



Breaking Bad usually has around 500 shots per episode, and after the initial timing, Slovis looks over the work that’s been done from his home in New Jersey and sends comments to Sartori in Los Angeles. Finally, Sartori –— along with Gilligan, Mercer, and any other key creatives involved — makes final adjustments to the look of the show.
 
The veteran colorist is quick to point out that the work of Slovis and the crew captures the story and characters so well, he simply has to fine-tune what’s already been created. This sometimes means pushing the look of the terrain of Albuquerque, or other story backdrops, like a high-tech meth lab, so that it becomes more stylized, surreal or even abstract. The idea is to get the audience deeper into Walter White’s dark journey as a meth manufacturer.
 
“So much of the environment has always played into the look of the show,” Sartori explains. “New Mexico is really the ultimate character and the bright light of this Southwestern city is a big part of the feeling of it.”
 
Some of the biggest impact of color can be observed in the show’s night scenes. Sartori alters the footage occasionally so that it takes on what he calls a “sodium vapor” look for the audience. This slightly yellow tint was designed to further strengthen the statement made by the cinematography, and more deeply accentuate some of the stark angles and high-contrast look of the show. It lends an unearthly feeling to the show as well.
 
A colorist for three decades, Sartori began his career working with film-originated projects, and he’s happy to have had the chance to work with it again as part of this show. Sartori believes Breaking Bad gets a large part of its signature look from the “old school” qualities film provides. On top of the wide range of color and texture, the colorist feels it’s more “painterly” to work this way on this show.
 


Though his career has included highlights like Pulp Fiction, Sartori is the first to tell you he’s never worked on a show that’s inspired this kind of reaction in its viewers. After watching every episode of this show, Sartori isn’t only the colorist anymore — he’s also a Breaking Bad devotee, and visits the Heisenberg Chronicles fan site to check in on what’s being said about the show. 

“You get maybe one project like this in a 30- or 40-year career, if you’re very, very fortunate,” says Sartori. “The entire FotoKem team is grateful for the chance to contribute our talent and expertise to such an iconic series, and to work with such extremely creative people like Michael (Slovis), Diane (Mercer) and Vince (Gilligan).”