Warning: This story contains mild spoilers for Breaking Bad and S3 of Better Call Saul.
Whether on Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad, Mike Ehrmantraut has proven himself handy within all sorts of situations. So when faced with quite the pickle on this recent season of Saul—the character discovers some shady organization has planted a GPS tracker of sorts within his car’s gas cap—he doesn’t panic. Of course, Mike Ehrmantraut has a plan. He even knows a guy who can get him a MILSPEC-like tracker of his own.
No spoilers, but neither Joseph Ulibarri nor Jason Delap turn out to be Ehrmantraut’s guy. Still, this duo is absolutely essential to putting the gear in Mike’s hands. That’s because this particular GPS tracker didn’t exist before S3 of Better Call Saul, and Ulibarri (special effects) and Delap (props) help lead the behind-the-scenes effort needed to change that. “We try to MacGyver stuff up when things that don’t exist need to,” Delap tells Ars.
From hobby to Ehrmantraut handiwork
Part of the off-camera crews that have long kept the Vince Gilligan/Peter Gould universe humming, Delap and Ulibarri are industry veterans who worked on Breaking Bad and continued on to Saul. They’ve been there for various superlab components and explosive devices, but this particular GPS tracker showcases just how their jobs have evolved in the last decade.
Ulibarri always had an interest in 3D modeling and motion graphics as a hobby, but it wasn’t until 3D printing became more accessible that he found himself incorporating such skills into his SFX day job. Delap has long been a tinkerer as well, but for him coding sparked his interests. He started back when CPS first gained popularity and spent many hours with a TRS-80 back in the ‘80s. He’s tried to stay up to date with new programs that pop up every few years, and recently that led him to the Arduino.
So in the past, an on-camera device might require Delap to hide in the background in order to operate a lighting board off a laptop and get a specific look perfectly on cue. “But today [with the Arduino], I can just program that I want an LED to go half as bright as it was before,” he says. “It’s been a real game changer for what we do—writing apps and Bluetooth’ing stuff to happen on cue rather than using playback.”
(That background lurking was the literal setup used in Breaking Bad when one of The Cousins ended up in the hospital, and Delap fondly recalls outtakes from that very scene: “He’s hooked up to all the wires, rolls over to see Walt, and pulls the curtain open. It’s just me there—literally the man behind the curtain,” he says. “The camera is pointing right at me, so it’s hard to play that off like I’m a doctor.”)
Breaking Bad ran from early 2008 through fall 2013, so the mainstreaming of Ulibarri and Delap’s tech hobbies came well after Walter White’s first forays in Albuquerque. But with Ehrmantraut’s GPS tracker, Ulibarri’s 3D printing/modeling abilities could operate in tandem with Delap’s Arduino know-how. Together, they made the entire process of a prop going from idea to tangible item much, much faster and more effective.
With any item that may end up on screen—from the little (3D-modeled and printed) Greek-yogurt mascot given to Hector Salamanca to Mike’s tracker—Ulibarri says Gilligan and the writing staff typically have a specific design in mind. “That’s what I love about working with Vince Gilligan—he’s such an inspired individual, and he always has a vision,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s difficult to give him what he wants, but that’s what I love about working with him. He knows what he wants, and that makes it easy to work towards.”
With the GPS tracker, Ulibarri and Delap’s team was initially able to whip something up that was similar, but it wasn’t quite what the showrunners envisioned. “So we used that as a base,” Ulibarri says. “We figured out what components we needed—using the Arduino, deciding what kind of battery and screen we needed—then we put together a couple prototypes. That’s what’s so great about 3D printing: the next day I can have a prototype to show [Gilligan].”
“You can go from an idea to holding it in your hands, and to be able to fabricate that quickly these days is amazing,” Delap adds.
The end result speaks for itself. Mike’s tracker looks and feels like real military gear, appropriate for the on-the-downlow, world-class spy Ehrmantraut reveals himself as within the series. On episode 301 of the show’s insider podcast, Gilligan and Gould were so happy with the results they spent nearly 15 minutes discussing Ulibarri and Delap’s efforts. Gilligan, who admits he has an Arduino but hasn’t taken it out of the case, says it’s so realistic that “it’s the kind of thing, back when RadioShack was still a business, that they would sell.” And Gould heaps praise on the team because a simple Garmin couldn’t stand in for this creation.
“We originally looked at old Garmins, but by looking at military equipment, it has a different feel, like an old fashioned walkie-talkie,” he said. “It just looks like it fits in Mike’s hand—I always think of Mike in the jungle in Vietnam, and it feels right that he’s holding this and knows how to use it.”
Gags that are too good
The GPS tracker didn’t mark the first time hobbyist technologies played a pivotal role for Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad, and both Delap and Ulibarri can point to more than a few favorite memories. For Ulibarri, he was responsible for perhaps Breaking Bad’s most infamous prop—the M60 machine gun that Walt uses in the series finale.
“By the end, I had that all controlled wirelessly so I could start the gun rotating back and forth, pop the trunk, and pull the trigger on the machine gun so it could fire,” he recalls. “It was a little less Arduino, more remote-frequency controllers like you’d use for a radio car. That was one of my favorite tech moments so far.”
Delap’s mind goes toward a bit of Roomba-hacking also on Breaking Bad. “There was a party scene at [Jesse] Pinkman’s house with the Roomba, and originally I was steering that with my phone—we Bluetooth’ed that with an interface,” he says. “But it was a little iffy; it’d go out at times and I almost vacuumed up a girl’s hair who was passed out on the floor. So it ends up that was actually me pushing the Roomba—I’d go forward, back up. I had to mentally prepare for the role of Roomba, and it looks great. So sometimes the fanciest tech work is analog, and you still have to get creative. No matter how many things are out there to make our lives easier, sometimes they don’t work.”
Listing image by Joseph Ulibarri
And both of them contributed to arguably the Gilligan/Gould’s universe’s lasting image—that superlab lurking underneath an industrial laundry facility. In fact, the lab proved to be a case where the SFX and props teams (along with the art department and set dressers) initially did their job a little too well.
Delap: “With most of the gags [a term they use to refer to scripted actions], we want it to look as real as possible. Sometimes we even have to dumb things down when the writers don’t want something to work so well. A good example is the meth lab; there were components that had to be removed because we couldn’t allow a complete operating lab to be created.”
Ulibarri: “That was pretty close.”
Delap: “I do my research, and I’m sure I look like a terrorist on the Internet with all the stuff I have to Google. But I want the stuff to look real. When I’ve done a gag, I want to walk away and know that would absolutely have worked.”
Talking with Ars, Ulibarri and Delap hesitate to touch on the big tech mystery from this latest Emmy-nominated season of Better Call Saul (“What, if anything, maintained an electrical current in Chuck’s house?”). But the duo notes even the simplest-looking gags have a ton of thought and attention behind them. So when Saul runs what looks like an elementary scam on an elderly home Bingo machine, know that Ulibarri, Delap, and company put lots of effort into creating the most granular ping-pong ball selector you may ever see on television.
Ulibarri: “We couldn’t find an actual bingo machine that fit [Vince’s] criteria, so we ended up making it from scratch out of acrylic and other stuff. That thing is so rigged,” Ulibarri notes. “If you want to make a certain number of balls come out—we can do six or seven and put them in any order, whatever number you want comes out. Or, we can also switch it back to normal. It’s a very involved bingo machine”
Delap: “It always is.”
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