AUDIOVISUALCY - MAD MEN Redefined by Online Video: a Roundtable Chat

Television
by Jim Emerson, Deborah Lipp, Serena Bramble and Kevin B. Lee
June 7, 2012 9:36 AM
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Part of Audiovisualcy, a column exploring the art and technique of the online video essay.

KEVIN B. LEE: Jim, your latest Mad Men video "The Other Woman & the Long Walk" (watch it above) really got my attention. On a design level, it seems pretty straightforward. Watching it, at first it seems like I'm just watching clips from the show, one after another. But very soon I realize that the video - and you, as its editor - are doing much more than this.

As one clip cuts to another, I feel a conversation beginning to emerge between them, which you are orchestrating. I start to feel like I am watching the show through another set of eyes. To do this without any explicit commentary, text, elaborate editing or effects, is remarkable.

In fact, I think it's because of this non-invasive approach that the viewer can have a special experience. It gives the viewer room to piece together the connections you are making without being told what they are. It's like playing a puzzle with one's eyes - a quality that distinguishes Mad Men from most other shows in that it leaves a lot of subtexts for the viewer to piece together on their own. Your video compresses and intensifies that experience.

Among the things I got from watching your video:

- I LOVE how it reorients the show around the women. One of my gripes with Mad Men for a while has been how it seemed at times to talk from both corners of its mouth, poking holes at the patriarchy while retaining its male-centric hold on the narrative (for all its rich female characters, it still often amounted to The Don Draper Show). Season Five has been a satisfying redress of this imbalance, with Don seeming to slip into the sidelines of a world spinning beyond his control, especially in regards to women - but watching your video is in some ways even better.

- How far the show has come from its first episode. That dialogue with Joan walking Peggy through the office from the series pilot is so expository; I don't think the writers would be caught dead being that on the nose today. Nor do they have to be - after five seasons so many layers of narrative and character subtext have accumulated, that even a simple moment like watching Don Draper teach a boy how to drive resonates on multiple levels and past episodes.

- I noticed how Joan addresses "Mr. Draper" in the pilot and realized how much her relationship with him and the other men in the office has evolved, just as much as Peggy's has. Their parallel trajectories are something you bring out vividly.

Anyway, your video got me thinking about the other videos you've made, as well as the series of videos Press Play produced at the start of the season by myself and Deborah Lipp, with a team of contributors - most notably Serena Bramble, who created "It's a Mad World," a dazzling tribute montage that understandably went viral. I thought the four of us could have a conversation about our experience making these videos and what they taught us about the show and about video essays. For now, over to you Deborah.

DEBORAH LIPP: Mad Men Moments (MMM) were the first video essays I worked on, and it was, for me, an exercise in using images to express verbal ideas, and using words to describe visual ideas. I'm a word person: My life has been spent as a writer. Working with Kevin I got to see how a visual person, someone who expresses himself through visual media, works. The thing I love about our MMM is that each approaches the subject matter very differently. "Season 1: The Carousel" was almost non-verbal, using only words from the episode. "Season 2: The Sad Clown Dress" was about images, but essentially used images to talk about something that could easily have been written. "Season 3: The Lawnmower" illustrated a remarkable written essay, and "Season 4: The Fight" was essentially a dialogue between subtext and image.

So the thing that leaps out at me in your essays, Jim, is the lack of words. You're communicating entirely through visuals. In fact, the essay titles tend to be the only thing that tells, in words, what your essays are about. Yet they're still easy to "read" and they say a lot about the topic.

I almost wish "The Long Walk" had been more strictly chronological, because I cannot get enough of the narrative arc of Peggy's remarkable changes from pony-tail wearing Brooklyn secretary all the way to copy chief at Cutler, Gleason & Chaough. I disagree with Kevin that the series gives lip service to the women. I think Season 4, if anything, was the most powerful in regard to women's issues, and I think "The Beautiful Girls" is one of the standout episodes of five seasons of Mad Men.

So, my question is about how you approach the material visually. How you select images and decide on a topic inside a non-verbal framework. I'd like to ask that same question to you, Serena. How pre-designed and how intuitive was your process in assembling clips from all the seasons? Whatever the case, it worked!

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