Posts Tagged ‘Mad Men’

One of Mad Men's most distinctive ads

Capturing Style – and getting the period right

How to seduce the viewer, the consumer, the public?  A show that has explored that driving question in very powerful, incisive, and grownup ways has been the series Mad Men, which is reaching its final episode in just a few days.  This article by Brooke Marine from Vulture features the work of co-producer Josh Weltman, who was brought on board Mad Men by creator and showrunner Matt Weiner to create fictional period-appropriate advertising for protagonist adman Don Draper.

The challenges presented by commercial work have been explored in Moving Images and in previous posts on this blog, including an appreciation of Saul Bass and the close-up interview with Kevin Goff, creator of the 2015 Esurance ad featuring the Breaking Bad Walter White character and McDonald’s “Mom vs. Dad” and “The Last Fry,” among others.  Besides “seducing strangers,” as Josh Weltman puts it, how about simply keeping the attention of teenagers or college students?  That’s the enormous challenge faced by any young filmmakers creating ads or PSAs for high school or university contexts.  It’s also a tall order that can help any young adpeople to hone their communications skills for some of the toughest audiences imaginable.  And this helps all students to understand and critique the media messages that they face every day.

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dayofthedoctorThis year saw the landmark 50th anniversary of Dr. Who, the British science fiction show that has seen an astonishing resurgence of popularity during the past decade after being canceled for a decade and a half (with a TV-movie in the midst of the hiatus).  Recently, the show celebrated another notable achievement with the widest distribution simulcast in history to date (for “The Day of the Doctor”), combining the possibilities of various digital technologies (including rapid distribution to theaters and RealD-3D) along with the communal experience of projected moving images.

Back from when prime-time dramas were generally not serials but episodic narratives

Back from when prime-time dramas were generally not serials but episodic narratives

In the past two decades, another remarkable shift has taken place in relation to critical appreciation of fiction writing for movies on big screens and small: namely, that some of the most notable, well-crafted, and culturally and narratively significant storytelling taking place is happening through the medium of television.  Naturally, this is a long tale that can take many volumes to satisfactorily discuss, but it is widely acknowledged that building on earlier examples in genre-setting and -defying dramas such as Hill Street Blues to E.R. to The X-Filestelevision is clearly reaching new levels of character development and narrative complexity with such shows as The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones, among many other passionately followed and hotly debated series.  (Related, but very different, evolutions can be traced in the world of comedy.)

However, there has been something of a critical backlash amidst the high acclaim of many of these series: in numerous analyses, they have been compared to soap-opera.  For example, in Douglas Rushkoff‘s Present Shock (which I very highly recommend for media teachers – or any educators or parents for that matter),  he describes “soap-opera like series” such as The Sopranos and The Wire that feature “no drama, no insight,” as compared to storytelling featuring classical dramatic narrative.  I raise this topic because it relates directly to issues discussed in Moving Images: how do we describe storytelling values, narrative structures, and tone and style throughout media platforms?  In Chapter 5, Personal Expression and Studio ProductionI discuss the definition of serials and their impact on moviemaking practices throughout the 20th century, from the development of the star system to Saturday matinees to television shows.

the-wireHowever, when critics use terms like “soap opera” to describe shows, what do they really mean?  What do readers understand from the term soap opera?  Personally, I think that the interpretation of that description is as much about poor lighting, oddly stylized editing, static blocking, and heavy handed plots twists as it is about open-ended, endlessly spiraling narrative structure (or lack thereof).  Yet the term is consistently used solely for that last reason while it conjures up the poor qualities of all of those attributes ascribed to soap operas.  When investigating, analyzing, evaluating, and learning from new developments in narrative traditions in television series, it is important to distinguish: how do narrative structures evolve within and throughout episodes?  How can we distinguish between different methods and recognize distinctive qualities or values in particular series?  What are the particular lessons of shows like Lost (whose past/present structure was particularly rich in innovation for a few seasons) or Breaking Bad (whose characters arcs of Walt and Jesse are rich troves of investigation in both psychological and moral arenas, while its stylistic range remains relatively unexplored) or The Wire (justifiably lauded for its jaw-droppingly complex, and, yes, satisfyingly constructed character- and thematically-driven narratives that reached levels of classic tragedy in virtually every season) or many others that may be appropriate for either university or high school classrooms?  How do we understand and process the stories that we encounter, how can they create messages and meanings of value, how can they frustrate us with their weaknesses or do they lead us to enlightenment and inspiration?

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Poster created from iconic images by artist Saul Bass

Just recently a definitive, in-depth book on the design work of artist Saul Bass has been released: Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design (by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham).  Bass was a true media innovator and through his work one can observe the synergy between text, composition, color, movement, and other visual elements at the core of effective communication.

Bass’s work has provided inspiration for generations of design professionals, advertisers, and filmmakers.  The dynamism of his designs were key as filmmakers invigorated the function and importance of title sequences in movies, and his work helped to usher in the mid-century modern style that has seen a renaissance in recent years, from advertising to graphic novels to animation.

Bass’s storyboard for the infamous and extremely influential shower murder scene from Psycho is highlighted in Chapter 1 of Moving Images (see Figure 1-36).  The half-hour movie Bass on Titles provides a good overview of his work and viewpoints on the craft of movie titles, such as his groundbreaking work for a number of Alfred Hitchcock films (such as Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest), Scorsese movies (including Goodfellas, Cape Fearand The Age of Innocence), and many others including The Man with the Golden Arm and Cowboy.  His work can provide examples for many aspects of the essential questions in Moving Images, including motion picture forms in Chapter 5 and the full production process in Chapter 8.

As a final point, Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design features a superb foreword by Martin Scorsese – to add to the list of his exceptional work in this vein, including the moving piece he wrote for the DVD release of the Beatles’ movie Help, directed by Richard Lester.

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