Although it's essentially a period drama set amid the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, wolf-whistling confines of a midlevel Manhattan advertising firm in the early '60s, Mad Men's visuals are as arresting as anything you'll see in prime time, but there's nothing about them to tie the show to this era in TV production. Unlike the police procedural shows that are saturated in visual gimmickry, Mad Men suffers from none of the constant depth-of-field (DOF) manipulation that will make today's other TV dramas look dated in the years to come. The irony of the way cop shows rack-focus to create suspense—shifting abruptly from one object-in-focus to another to make some dramatic revelation—is that it's become laughably predictable. Abrupt DOF changes have become the TV equivalent of telegraphed passes in a basketball game.
Mad Men sports plenty of comely background bokeh, but the DPs keep the tricks to a minimum. They just seem more confident than their contemporaries in the ability of the situations, the dialogue, and the actors to build drama, and more willing to get out of the way and let the other elements of the show do their jobs.
This notion that there's a time and place for visuals that call attention to themselves aligns well with Mad Men's overarching theme of compartmentalization. There's a fascinating idea embodied in the show's main character, Don Draper, an übermensch with a backstory that's equal parts Mayor of Casterbridge, Martin Guerre, and the guy in Bruce Springsteen's "Stolen Car," who lives and sells all the lies you'd think he would as a whiz-bang ad man in an anything-goes, man's-world era. The idea that holds his life together is that being able to compartmentalize conviction and salesmanship, family and philandering so that they never stand in contradiction to one another is not what erodes your humanity; it's what allows you to retain it (an idea that has, perhaps, proven the undoing of the leading pitchman and übermensch of our era).
Probably the most famous moment of this award-winning series so far comes at the end of the first season when Draper presents Kodak with an unexpected pitch for the ad campaign they'll build around their new slide projector "wheel." The Kodak folks are proud of their new technology and convinced that the campaign should trumpet it. Draper, hours away from abandoning his family to work through Thanksgiving, begins, "Technology is a glittering lure, but there's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash." He then works slowly through slides of his own young family, speaking of nostalgia, of "a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone ... This device," he says, "is a time machine, moving backwards and forwards, taking us to a place where we ache to go again," he continues, something seeming to crack inside of him. "It's not called ‘the wheel'. It's called the Carousel ... It takes us back home again to a place where we know we were loved."
It's an incredibly moving moment, teeming with contradictions. It's a sales pitch for a sales pitch, layered with smoke and mirrors (especially smoke). But it's also an appeal to sentiment and the meaning of family and memory much like the ones wedding filmmakers make all the time.
What's more, it's a moment when new technology is introduced into a world that, to us, is old. Not only have most of us sold photo montages created with technology that seems light years beyond the Kodak Carousel; we've lived to see the 2D montage become such a commonplace product that we can barely even sell it anymore.
In this scene about the enduring power of old technology to convey timeless emotion, there's a message that resonates especially powerfully in a year in which we saw more "game changing" new cameras announced than even the most frenzied and impetuous gearhead could throw away money on. And nearly all of those announcements concerned—or countered—video-capable DSLRs that offer event filmmakers immediate entry to the Shallow DOF Abusers club. I'm not saying that's all these DSLRs are good for, or that they're not the future of our business—make no mistake, they are. But changing DOF on a dime is not the kind of thing that makes your work endure—in fact, it might do just the opposite.
The DOF control these cameras and their tantalizing array of interchangeable lenses make accessible to former fixed-lens shooters is a powerful and remarkable capability. Moreover, the fact that most contemporary TV drama has probably led some of your clients to unconsciously equate excessive DOF manipulation with hip and edgy production value means that it will benefit you to master it. But remember that you're in the time travel business, and if what your work will mean to your clients decades from now matters to you, keep in mind that you don't want it to scream "2009!" any more than "1989!"
Believe it or not, we may not always feel the way we do now about contemporary visual styles. There's a difference between creating timeless films and productions that are trapped in time by their reliance on trendy technique and the hottest features of this year's gear. The deluge of camera announcements with the "glittering lure" of new technology will do their best to convince you otherwise; you just need to keep your head until the sales pitch subsides.
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV.