Middlebury Film Professor creates first audiovisual book on single television series, Breaking Bad
In 2008, when Walter White first appeared driving a junky RV in nothing but his gas mask and tighty-whities, Breaking Bad caught the attention of only around one million viewers. But now, more than a decade later, at least twenty times as many people have watched the entire series. This is one reason why Jason Mittell made Breaking Bad the centerpiece of his current project: an audiovisual book.
Jason Mittell is a Professor of Film and Culture at Middlebury College, having begun teaching here in 2002. His courses tackle topical subjects, such as the impact of television on American culture and the different components and styles within various film and television genres.
His impact at Middlebury has extended beyond the classroom, too. For example, in 2014, Mittell became the founding Faculty Director of Middlebury’s Digital Liberal Arts Initiative (DLA), a program funded by the Mellon Foundation to expand the use of digital tools and methods across the curriculum and help faculty innovate in their research and creative work. Middlebury’s DLA has been used to aid student and faculty research in several of academic departments, including Dance, Anthropology, History, Italian, Japanese, Music, and more.
In 2015, Mittell began engaging with video essays as a new medium of film and television criticism in collaboration with his Middlebury colleague Professor Christian Keathley. This medium of critique is called videographic criticism, which analyzes film and television using the same media—sounds and moving images—to analyze aspects like characterization, composition, music, storytelling, and overall themes and motifs. While some videos circulate within in academic circles, videographic criticism has increased in popularity with online platforms, such as YouTube and Vimeo.
While most video essays have focused on film, television has been emerging as a more prominent topic for videographic work. “Television in the 21st century hit a new level of narrative complexity, becoming invested in telling longform serial stories that film could not,” explained Mittell about the upsurgence of television criticism. “Video essays and television criticism have also been on a rise, with fans invested in learning more about these programs they love …Viewers are looking for ways to sustain and extend their engagement with the programs they care about. Reading (and making) criticism is a great way to do that!”
Originally, for Mittell, videographic criticism led to some video projects on films like Adaptation and Singin’ in the Rain, a prospect that Mittell says is less daunting because film contains about 2 hours of material, whereas TV can contain 60+ hours of footage. Eventually, though, Mittell set his sights on television and created a video project that explored the first season of The Wire. The Wire is an American crime drama series set in Baltimore and premiered in 2002. This research inspired his Fall 2022 first-year seminar titled “Watching the Wire,” where Mittell and his students discuss the portrayals of urban America on television and the art of storytelling.
In 2017, though, it also inspired the audiovisual book on Breaking Bad.
“I knew it [the book] had to be a TV program that I would enjoy enough to spend many, many hours watching and editing, and one whose sound and images were compelling,” Mittell said. “Since I knew that my research questions focused on characterization, I wanted a series that did interesting things with its characters. I also wanted a series that was well-known enough that there would be an audience for the project, both among scholars and fans,” added Mittell. “There is no question that Breaking Bad was the perfect series for me to explore in this vein.”
“Since I knew that my research questions focused on characterization, I wanted a series that did interesting things with its characters. I also wanted a series that was well-known enough that there would be an audience for the project, both among scholars and fans,” added Mittell. “There is no question that Breaking Bad was the perfect series for me to explore in this vein.”
Breaking Bad is a 2008 American crime-drama series created by Vince Gilligan, featuring acclaimed actors like Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, and Dean Norris. The storyline is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico and centers on high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who, upon learning that he has lung cancer, begins to cook and sell methamphetamine with his former student, Jesse Pinkman. The series is known as a critically acclaimed masterpiece in characterization and considered one of the greatest shows of all times. Since its start, among its 248 nominations, Breaking Bad has won about 92 awards, including the rare feat of receiving two Peabody Awards, generally seen as the most distinguished honor in television.
Mittell’s project was supported by an awarded grant from The National Endowmemt for the Humanities (NEH) in 2022. NEH is a federal agency that promotes excellence in the humanities in the United States. It provides grants to strengthen teaching instruction, facilitate research, or preserve educational resources. For Mittell, it supplemented his income so he could focus on his project during his Spring 2022 academic leave.
NEH has a long-established faculty fellowship program. Many of its recipients have stemmed from museums, libraries, colleges, universities, or public television. Mittell’s project is one of only two awarded NEH grants that Middlebury has received since 2015. Christian Keathley and Mittell previously received two NEH grants in their Institutes for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities program to fund Middlebury’s summer workshop, Scholarship in Sound & Image. During this workshop, 15 faculty from other institutions learn how to produce videographic criticism and explore how such creative digital scholarship fits into the norms of contemporary academia. The workshop is taught by Mittell and Catherine Grant, an independent film scholar and video maker from the UK.
What’s unique about Mittell’s audiovisual book project, though, is that its grant falls under the NEH-Mellon Fellowship for Digital Publication. This fellowship supports a nontraditional scholarship that requires digital forms for dissemination. It marks the first time that this fellowship has supported videographic scholarship.
Mittell’s audiovisual book project contains13 chapters, each analyzing a different theme, motif, question, character, or formal element. For instance, one chapter focuses on how silence is used to characterize Mike Ehrmantraut. Another tracks what camera focus says about Marie and Hank’s relationship. A third centers on how color portrays Walter White’s toxic masculinity. Another chapter features several videos on Skyler, Walter’s wife, and her character development in relation to her husband throughout the series.
“I think there’s a difference between the character I’m most invested in,” said Mittell when asked about his favorite character. “As in rooting for and sympathizing with—that would certainly be Jesse—versus the character I find most fascinating and compelling. For that, I would say Skyler, largely because my perception of her as both incredibly competent and horribly mistreated goes against the large segment of fans who treated her like the villain.”
While Mittell’s videos vary in length (anywhere between 4 to 60 minutes), each one involves identifying scenes, juxtaposing, and editing clips or sounds using Adobe Premiere. Occasionally, Mittell adds voiceover as well, highlighting his personal analysis on dialogue, audio, metaphors, color, camera angles or focus, characterization, storytelling, or more.
In his initial grant proposal, Mittell planned for 12 potential chapters that explored both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, the spin-off of Breaking Bad. However, due to both the sheer number of new ideas that emerged while studying Breaking Bad, and the fact COVID-19 delayed filming Better Call Saul, Mittell eventually focused his entire project solely on Breaking Bad.
“Nine chapters emerged out of my process of working with the footage rather than as part of my plan before diving into my video editing platform,” shared Mittell. “For an example, as I was working through season 2, I was struck by the power of the relationship between Jesse and Jane despite the relative lack of screen time that she has – only around 50 minutes in total. It made me ask: how does an ongoing series establish a relationship between two characters? That topic had not been explored by other scholars, so I tried to analyze this aspect of the series and the broader mode of television storytelling.”
“How does an ongoing series establish a relationship between two characters? That topic had not been explored by other scholars, so I tried to analyze this aspect of the series and the broader mode of television storytelling.”
Currently, Mittell is working on his finishing this audiobook project, which he hopes to publish with the online open-access publisher Lever Press by the end of the year. Mittell says the book will mark the first audiovisual book focused on a single television series, serving as a landmark in both media studies and the realm of videographic criticism. Individual examples of Mittell’s work can be seen online at the following website: go.middlebury.edu/videographicBB
In the meantime, Mittell says that the lessons learned during his project have already added more to his teaching both with Middlebury undergraduates and the summer workshop program, Scholarship in Sound & Image, that runs at Middlebury for two-weeks each June.
“I’ve definitely been able to teach using specific facets of making video essays that I learned through this process,” said Mittell. “For instance, I use one of my Breaking Bad videos in the classroom to discuss the different norms for academic videos versus more popular and casual tones seen on YouTube—my video tries to straddle those two realms, and it launched a great conversation last Fall about what makes a video scholarly versus popular.”
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