Primetime: AMC's 'Mad Men'
Issue: May 1, 2015

Primetime: AMC's 'Mad Men'

For the past eight seasons, AMC’s Mad Men has been bringing viewers back to the 1960’s, maintaining the period’s authentic look with, according to Blake McCormick, producer in charge of post production, an almost “obsessive-compulsive” approach.

“I think that whatever you put in front of the camera, whether it’s production design, wardrobe, hair, makeup, props, anything that you see, just gets beaten up to a degree that’s unimaginable,” he explains. “The overarching goal is, if we don’t do everything we can to make it as accurate as possible, there’s going to be that time when a viewer is going to see something and know that that’s not right. And I think the minute that starts to happen, it’s like Jenga — it’ll fall apart in the viewer’s mind. From the ground up, everything is just so carefully vetted.”

It’s this type of dedication to accuracy that has earned the series a regular spot at the Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe tables (among others) for “Outstanding Drama Series,” “Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series,” “Sound Mixing,” “Writing,” “Acting” and more. With a mix of wins and nominations behind it, Mad Men, along with its cast and crew, led by main character Donald Draper (Jon Hamm), just wrapped up its final season and is moving on from 1960’s New York. Here, just prior to the show's final episodes, McCormick talked to Post about some of the elements that went into making Mad Men such a huge success.

POST: Is it hard saying goodbye to such a successful show?

MCCORMICK: “It’s funny, I don’t know if it’s because I work in post production and I must be an eternal optimist, but I rarely look at something and go, ‘I can’t believe this is going away.’ I look at it and go, ‘Isn’t it amazing that we got to do this for so long?’ I always say you’re lucky if you have one of three things: if you like the show you work on, if you like the people you work with, and if the viewers like the show you work on. But to get all three of those things, in one process, and have it go on for so long is very unique. It was an incredible experience and [I'm] happy to have lucked into it. It’s pretty amazing to get to work in this arena.”

(McCormick, left)

POST: How much goes into creating an accurate representation of the 1960’s and getting the show’s look and feel?

MCCORMICK: “I think that one of the most enjoyable moments in one of our [episode planning] meetings, is when people are arguing about their recollections or about what their grandparents said. Someone will speak up and say, ‘I have an idea, why don’t we actually check and see what it really was?’ (laughs).

"So there’s a woman here, head of research, Allison Mann, you would just hear her name shouted out and ask her to check something. But before a word is even written, that goes into it.

"And then, that translates into the post production process, that obsessiveness I spoke about earlier never ends. In the premier episode [of this final season], we had a scene that takes place where Don Drapper walks out and he’s in front of the Algonquin Hotel, yet we weren’t shooting in New York in front of the hotel. Everyone had done an amazing job of making an Algonquin Hotel, but the street address, the big bronze letters on the building downtown, they were not accurate. And so, obviously, as a visual effect, we changed it to the street number of the hotel. Again, why give the audience something to say, ‘Oh, that’s not right?’ 

"There was also one shot where there was a tire that was visible in the scene, and we had seen this shot 500 times, and the 501st time we noticed that the tire manufacturer is this Korean manufacturer called Hankook Tires, which, in 1968, was not selling tires in the United States, so we had to black out those letters.

“So, it goes right from the very beginning, before it’s even written, focusing on what needs to be right, and then at the very opposite end of the spectrum, in post, when we’re removing things like smoke detectors, fire alarms, video cameras, alarm panels, and more. The number of things that get removed from scenes from when we’re working on a practical location, the lengths we go to are pretty extreme.”

POST: For post — editing, VFX, color, finishing, audio — how much is internal and how much goes to outside vendors?

MCCORMICK: “Up until the middle of Season 7, we were working with the venerable Todd-AO for our sound. That was a very sad thing; so many people lost their jobs and we all lost a cherished institution. So, for the last few episodes [of that season], we used all the same people, but we had to do it under different auspices.

“In terms of VFX, for larger things, set extensions, compositing of a trickier nature, that was done by FuseFX in LA. Then, our in-house folks at Technicolor handle — and quite wonderfully — all the cleanup work, the corrections, the almighty fluid morph split screen, and all those fun little tricks that make editing as seamless as possible. It’s funny, I just don’t think there’s a show anymore that isn’t a visual effects show.” 

POST: Is there anything about the post process here that you think is unique?

MCCORMICK: “Certainly the editing style of the show. It’s something that I don’t think you necessarily notice, but about 90 percent of the time, the person who’s talking is the person who you see on-camera. And over the years, people have built up a very strong emotional connection with the show. Usually, they’ll pick a character, you’ll hear from someone and they’ll always want to talk about such and such a character and on some level, I think that’s the editing style where you’re always seeing the person whose talking. It mirrors your own experience at life. If I sit down with someone to have a conversation, I would be watching them speak. And then I would talk. 

"I think it provides an intimate, first-person experience. And It’s amazing, the discipline that that calls for and the skill that is required of the editors. It makes their job much more challenging.” 

POST: What is the acquisition format; are you shooting on film?

MCCORMICK: “No, we actually switched in the middle of the show to the Arri Alexa. And, what’s kind of remarkable about that is that that was something our DP Chris Manley was interested in and everyone else was very skeptical about. All of the people involved in [the production], I think, [felt that] there was something very nostalgic [about film] and wanted to continue that tradition. But we finally broke down and did some extensive testing on our sets, where we shot things, simultaneously, and it was a huge turnabout. We shoot ProRes 4:4:4:4. We weren’t shooting in Arri Raw. The majority of our shooting takes place in a controlled environment. So, some of the possible shortcomings of the Alexa, which are only few, though there are some, weren’t as much of a problem. But when we were looking at the test footage, all these people who were very skeptical, came to embrace it. And that was just very interesting because there couldn’t have been a bigger group of skeptics on that issue.”

POST: What are some of the key tools you’re using on the show?

MCCORMICK: “We edit on Avid Media Composer, moved to Avid ISIS in Season 7, use Lustre for color correction and on the visual effects side, the usual — Smoke and Flame.”

POST: Anything you want to add about the post process of the show?

MCCORMICK: “Yes, another thing our editors do, in terms of wanting to hold on people and not doing cut aways, are tricks we would use and one of them is the legendary fluid morph, which allows you to edit within the frame. And another fantastic tool is the split screen. You have two actors in a scene and if you want to change the timing a little bit, the split screen is your friend. Another thing on Mad Men I think is important, is that the camera doesn’t move very much, so these tools, the split screen and fluid morph, are very usable as long as the cameras isn’t moving around. One of our editors coined the term, ‘splorphs,’ which is a split screen and a fluid morph.

“I think it’s kind of ironic that to have such an old fashioned style of editing, we have to use the latest technology (laughs).”