Mad Men

the 5 partners at sterling cooper draper pryce look out from their new upstairs office

There’s almost too much to say about Mad Men.  It was my April to August, 2015.  I started out thinking I could casually watch through it but by the time I started season two I was a month in.  I realized that if I was going to finish in any kind of impressive time, I was going to have to devote more exclusive attention.  So I decided to knuckle down and power through.

Now it’s almost Fall, I’ve finished, and all I want to do is watch it again.  So I am – and I’ll probably update this post more than a couple of times.  Probably as many times as Don Draper’s had extramarital lovers… ohhh!


sally and betty draper stand with don megan fay peggy and joan in the office entryway
Halfway through the series is this snapshot of all the women in Don’s life. Immediately after this there’s a cool dolly push of Fay, Peggy and Joan – three career women in an elevator that closes as the camera pushes forward.

Women play central roles on Mad Men.  They influence outcomes and play into a rich tapestry of story and time.

mad men s4e8 jj
The ever talented and beautiful January Jones and her second husband on Mad Men, who had just said the words, “Shut up Betty, you’re drunk.”
Peggy sits alone on a bed wearing a pink robe, lit most strongly by the lampshades to her left and right.
Peggy sits alone on a bed wearing a pink robe, the lampshades on her left and right providing beautiful scalloped shapes on the walls.


As I watched Mad Men for the first time I was learning how to work in the grip and electric department on independent and short films.  When I started watching Mad Men I was an intern, trying to learn the jargon and enjoying being counted as last man.  Four months later I finished watching season 7 and I was working as a best boy grip.  Consequently, as soon as I performed my very first dolly move, I realized that Mad Men had more of these than I could count. Then I started reading required text “The Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook” by Harry Box (edition 4, with LEDs) and began to observe the art of shaping light.  Creating darkness and furthering story with only selective light.  And I saw that this show uses practicles and fluorescents like no other.  (At least, I think… it’s kind of all I’ve watched since I started.)

light pours through a window in front of camera right as peggy peeks into dons office from above with fluorescents behind and above her
Light pours through a window camera right. Peggy peeks into Don’s office from above the partition. Fluorescents overhead and a desk lamp appear in scene.
A centered third of the picture gives light. The rest is ambient quickly fading to dark. Don is in the foreground and Megan in the deep lighted background getting attended to on set. Don might be lit only from the back and maybe a small bounce board from his left side, off camera right. The floor reflects light in a diamond between Megan and him.
A centered third of the picture gives light. The rest is ambient quickly fading to dark. Don is in the foreground and Megan in the deep lighted background getting attended to on set. Don might be lit only from the back and maybe a small source or bounce board from his left side, off camera right. The floor reflects light from above the stage behind Megan to him.

Here is a wonderful interview with the second DP about it from the American Society of Cinematographers magazine, October 2009.  It actually includes a lighting diagram of the set!

Here’s an interview with the original DP about the lighting scheme as originally devised and why, from the same magazine in 2008.  Including the diagram as well!

A naked roger sterling looks out his hotel window in a power pose

There’s a light on the left wall but cut off from the front wall.  Some light around the window, and you can see a small source from the lower right that provides the perfect amount of illumination for Roger’s entire back side.

The darkness of Mad Men, the drama, is certainly enhanced by our visual cues in darkness and light.  Many office scenes take place during day but the mood can vary significantly depending on what is going on in the scene, the lighting adjusted to match it.  The story of Mad Men is so much about the light and the dark within every person.  This is reflected in a variety of complex to even simple setups on every set and in each scene.


Depressing yet aspirational.

Peggy reminds Don of himself – he says to her early on, move on with your life, move forward.  It will be okay.  His message and that of the show is that horrible things happen, and are done to us and by us.  The most important thing is to move forward, and keep improving.  If you can improve yourself, your work will be better and your life will improve.  And you do that by moving forward.

The emotion seems so deep.  Forgiveness of oneself.  And as Mrs. Blankenship says, “It’s a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are.”


How thrilled was I to see two soap stars in this show.  The guy who probably went to jail on General Hospital just so he could do an episode of Mad Men, not to mention it being the finale… Jeffrey Vincent Parise, this one’s for you.  **swigs whiskey**

Jeffrey Vincent Parise visits Mad Men in the finale

And this guy, playing Greg Harris, was on Mad Men after playing Trey on All My Children (and Josh Duhamel’s brother) in 2002-03 but before appearing in The Mindy Project in 2014.  And of course Christina Hendricks who was on Firefly twice.  (The guy that played Lee Garner Jr. was also in Firefly once too!)

mad men s4e8 jamie amc


I got to see this in the last days of exhibition at MOMI, early September 2015.  They did not allow pictures but I got to see the sets to Betty and Don’s kitchen and Don’s office.  Writers notes including a flashcard bulletin board for an entire season fleshed out by character and episode in a recreation of the writers room, and Matthew Weiner’s play far preceding the series, repurposed for providing the backstory to Don Draper’s character.  They displayed costumes for the major characters – including the green dress Joan wears in the tractor episode and Megan’s party dress, and of course several suits.  They played clips of the opening scene of the series (which I made my friend stand and watch as I whispered in her ear, “Dolly… dolly…” and then proceeded to show her how to push a dolly minimizing footsteps by utilizing the warrior pose) and the “Zou Bisou Bisou” scene that Megan sings which I had in my head ever since I first saw it.  The sets, costumes and writers room recreation were smaller than I ever realized – it just reminds that the camera can make everything look so much larger than what is actually being filmed.  Perhaps that is part of the magic.


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