AMC’s ‘Mad Men’: Period Perfection and Invisible Effects

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on 2/9/2010.

madmen_004_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

Mad Men, AMC’s award-winning drama, finished its third season in November, and has been renewed for a fourth. Set in the 1960s at the fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York City, Mad Men centers on creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm, The Day the Earth Stood Still), and those in his life in and out of the office; and depicts the changing social mores of 1960s America.

Mad Men has garnered critical acclaim, particularly for its historical authenticity and visual style, and has won nine Emmys and three Golden Globes. It is the first basic cable series to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series.

Zoic Studios provided visual effects for a number of shots in the third season, including a memorable dream sequence; plus a variety of so-called “invisible” effects, VFX which the audience is usually (and ideally) unaware are VFX.

Zoic visual effects supervisor Curt Miller says most of Zoic’s work on Mad Men enhanced or augmented the efforts of production designer Dan Bishop (Big Love). Executive producer Scott Hornbacher (The Sopranos) and creator Matt Weiner (The Sopranos, Andy Richter Controls the Universe) are committed to staying true to the 1960s period, right down to minor background details. The level of detail is “amazing,” Miller says, and Zoic is “honored and flattered that they trust us to be a part of their team.”

Visual effects producer Christopher M. Wright agrees that authenticity and detail are vital to Weiner and Hornbacher’s vision. “It is nice to work with a client that’s very particular about their level of detail and their level of quality,” Wright says. “It certainly pushes us to make sure things are right. I have never worked with anyone quite as committed to staying true to the art direction of the time as they are.”

madmen_002_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

For the third season premiere, Zoic performed a set extension for a scene in which Don Draper (Hamm) and Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt, Funny People) take a business trip on a Boeing 707 jetliner to Baltimore. The production built a portion of the airplane interior, which had to be duplicated and extended to recreate the complete interior of the passenger cabin.

Zoic artists visited the only vintage Boeing 707 within driving range – the former Air Force One on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, California. The Library does not normally allow photographs to be taken inside the plane, but the production obtained special permission to take reference photos one morning before the public was admitted.

A set piece making up the left half (facing the cockpit) of the plane interior, four rows deep, was built – this was shot from a variety of angles, with extras in period costume filling the seats. Then the set piece was flipped around and shot from the other direction, to become the right side of the plane. These elements were stacked one behind the other to create the complete jetliner interior. The main action between the two leads took place on the practical set, while the rest was assembled, composited and rendered digitally.

After the footage was shot, the production discovered that the carpeting on the set was inaccurate for the period, and Zoic fixed the problem digitally. The upholstery, wallpaper, and every other interior feature had to be recreated and rendered faithfully. Mad Men art director Chris Brown and producer Blake McCormick conducted research to guarantee authenticity. Zoic’s Renaud Talon did much of the work on the sequence.

madmen_003_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

In another scene with effects produced by Zoic, a train ride through New York in the fall was created. The attention to detail was meticulous, with digital recreations of passing scenery true to the location, the period, and the season. Like all other work done for the show, the scene had to match Mad Men’s justifiably famous visual style. Zoic’s Suzette Barnett worked on the composites.

In a well-known scene, Zoic’s work was not at all invisible. When Don’s wife Betty Draper (January Jones, Pirate Radio) is knocked out with anesthetic during childbirth, she experiences a surreal hallucination.

madmen_001_630x354Still taken from Mad Men provided through the courtesy of Lionsgate.

Jones was shot against a bluescreen, rather than a greenscreen, because it was easier to pull key off of her blonde hair against blue. She walked on a treadmill on the stage, with the intention that she would be composited against a moving background. The background plates were shot at high speed so they could be slowed down to match the actor’s walking pattern, but matching her pace to the background proved difficult. It was decided to keep her movement slightly off-pace from the background, as this contributed nicely to the dreamlike quality of the scene.

“The only tricky part,” Wright says,” was that when she stopped walking, the treadmill still drifted a little. So we had to sort of match up our background to that movement, because in the camera it still looked like she was moving even though the background didn’t move. It looked like she just floated towards us, which was a little over-the-top for what they were going for.”

After Jones stops, a caterpillar enters the frame from above, moving down on a thread of silk. She catches the caterpillar and watches it wriggle on her hand. The caterpillar was created entirely in CG by Zoic as an original creation. Zoic’s Dayna Mauer and Rodrigo Dorsch contributed to the scene.

“It’s a great show to be working on,” Wright says. “It’s high-end stuff, it’s award-winning. Clearly, they are very particular and know exactly what they want. It can be challenging, because with television, there’s a lot of ‘it’s good enough,’ when we get through shots — but with Mad Men it needs to be right.”

More info: Mad Men on AMC, Amazon; AMC’s Mad Men blog.