Scene Breakdown: Mad Men “Maidenform”

So I diverted from my plan a little with this post. In the last entry, I proposed that I would continue with the feature film breakdowns for a while before going to other mediums; but I lied. This week I was deep into a marathon of the second season of the exquisite AMC show, Mad Men, when one of the episodes jumped out as an excellent candidate for a breakdown. This breakdown is quite different as well, in that it looks at the opening and closing scenes of the episode. The beginning is a great little montage that really sets up the first dialogue scene perfectly and the ending is a beautiful capstone to all the story points covered in the episode. Even though they don’t directly reference each other I had to include both of them in this breakdown. Both scenes have my favorite characteristics of good storytelling; they draw you in and they stay with you after they have passed. Most of my analysis is from a film editorial perspective but there will certainly be comments that deal more with directing and the other disciplines. First, I have to give credit where credit is due.

Mad Men is a dramatic series created and produced by Matthew Weiner; following the inner workings of an ad agency set in the 1960’s. It premiered on July 19, 2007 on the AMC cable channel and has since cleaned up on the awards circuit, garnering numerous Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The episode I chose to look at is “Maidenform”. The Director of the episode was Phil Abraham, the Editor was Cindy Mollo, and the Cinematographer was Chris Manley. The first scene begins at the 37-second mark and is 1-minute long. The final scene begins at the 45-minute, 35-second mark and is 1-minute, 40-seconds long. As in previous posts, for a couple examples I used multiple screenshots over the length of one shot to show varying action and camera moves.

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1) To begin we cut from black. The song “The Infanta” by the The Decemerists starts playing instantly, also cutting on rather than fading in. The opening line in the song we hear is, “Here she comes”, then the guitar and drums slam in. It is quite appropriate to this montage, which involves the 3 main female characters in the show and serves the study in female strength that this episode deals with. From black, we are in a shot tracking to the left while also panning right to left. We move along a bed in a medium shot; 2-frames in, a woman’s arms and back appear. She is just finishing up putting on her undergarments.

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2) The frame moves up, showing the back of her head, and then to reveal a medium shot of her reflection in the mirror she is looking at. The camera stops panning and moves slowly in on the image as the camera switches focus to the reflection. It is Betty Draper, wife of the show’s main character, Don Draper.

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3) While still moving towards the mirror, the camera begins panning to the right and shifts focus to the actual Betty Draper, resulting in a medium close up of her profile. The camera continues to move around her, revealing more of her face as she evaluates herself. The camera move does all of the cutting for us and is actually 3-shots in 1. We started on her back, then saw her face in the mirror, then finished in shot of her actual face. In addition, the shot’s design is amazingly constructed in how it moves our eye across the frame. Initially, we watch the left side as her back comes in and follow it to the right as it moves past. Our eyes then flick to the left once her reflection comes into view. As the camera finally goes to her profile shot, we move back to the right side of the screen. It adds even more interest to this 16-second long shot that doesn’t feel even close to that long.

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4) Just as Betty begins a big inhale, the picture starts to dissolve. At the same moment the dissolve begins, there is a long cymbal crash in the music that goes smashingly with the transition. This is a 40-frame dissolve and is excellently composed. If you notice, Betty is on the right side of the frame while the image of the incoming character is on the left side of the frame. The incoming shot is tilting up across another woman’s dresser.

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5) Now fully dissolved into the new shot, we finish tilting up in a medium over the shoulder shot of Joan Holloway’s mirror reflection. She pulls an undershirt over her head, gives herself a final look, and turns away from the mirror.

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6) Joan turns and leaves the left side of the frame. The camera follows her reflection on the right and pushes into a new medium shot.

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7) Joan, now on the left side of frame, reaches down to the bed and, as she picks up a hangar, we begin to dissolve again. This is another 40-frame dissolve, but this time the outgoing image is on the alternate side of the frame.

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8) We are now in another tracking shot of a bed, with the camera panning left again. A third woman’s back appears in medium close up, also in her underwear. Getting a connection, yet? This woman is sitting on her bed and putting on stockings. The camera pans left until it settles on her outstretched leg, then stays on the leg as camera continues tracking to reveal more of her body in profile.

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9) The woman stands up to finish pulling up her pantyhose, which the camera catches as it pans back to her waist after she lowered he legs. As in the last 2 shots, much of what would be expressed by cutting between various shots of the setting is done through very well crafted camera moves. The editing in this is knowing when to start and stop showing these magnificent shots, and making them creep through each other with impeccably timed dissolves. You could have had cuts between these 3 shots, but the dissolves truly compliment the ever-moving camera. Cuts would have brought too much attention to the changing direction of the moves while the dissolves let them flow into each other.

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10) The camera continues to move, this time tilting up to reveal the face of our third main female character, Peggy Olson. At the same time the camera finishes its tilt, it also finishes tracking; and is now still for the first time so far. Peggy then begins walking left and out of frame.

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11) Just as she starts walking, a final dissolve begins along with another long cymbal crash in the music. I may be seeing too much in these cymbal crashes, but they seem so perfectly placed I have to think they are there by design. The incoming image is a solid dark color and as we progress through yet another 40-frame dissolve, Peggy clears the frame and we realize it is an office desk.

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12) Just as the dissolve finishes a magazine slaps down on the desk for us to read. It is an advertisement for women’s bras. What a great lead up from this beautiful opener of women getting dressed. Just as the magazine comes to rest a beautiful audio cut goes with it. The music instantly vanishes as we hear a sound effect of paper slamming down and the violent ringing of office telephones. The shot hold for 3 seconds so were can read the ad’s copy, “I dreamed I stopped them in their tracks in my maidenform bra”. Well that edit decision stopped us in our tracks, for sure. After getting sucked into this slow, dreamy montage, we crash into the developing story at the ad agency with a quick movement and jarring audio transition. By dissolving from the last shot of Peggy into this mysterious desk shot, it is never given away that we have now moved out of the homes and into the office. Simply spectacular, and exactly why I had to include this scene with the breakdown to follow.

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So that was the opening scene. One where the editing took somewhat of a back seat to the direction and cinematography; but as always, still essential to the complete artistry of the scene. First we see the product being used in the home then quickly go to the other side of the coin in the office dealing with the product’s advertising. All the while building on the issues of those strong female characters using these products.

Now, the second part of this breakdown is the final scene involving the main male character, Don Draper. This episode has 2 main themes. For the females, it is one of empowerment in a very male oriented world. For the men, it is infidelity. 2 of the main male characters have flings in the episode. Don has been doing it throughout the series, but in this episode, his lover brings up in bed the fact that he has a reputation for it amongst a lot of women in town. He reacts poorly to it; I think for the first time realizing how much of a habitual cheater he is. I could go on and on trying to analyze this, but that’s not why we are here. Hopefully that is enough background to understand the weight of this final scene.

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13) I’ll start with the medium wide shot leading into the scene. Don has just gotten out of bed and is walking towards the bathroom.

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14) We have a jump cut into the bathroom where he is currently applying shaving cream to his face. It is a slight jump in time and space, but gives some separation from the scene that came before. A quick movement of the brush in his hand initiates the following cut.

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15) We cut to a wide shot from a low angle behind Don. I wouldn’t say it was a matched action cut because I don’t think he was about to lower his arm in the previous shot, but the quick hand motion leads nicely into this one where he brings his hand down from his face. After a second, his daughter walks into frame from behind the camera and moves towards the toilet. Just before the cut, there are a couple frames where she begins to turn to sit down on the toilet.

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16) In a medium shot, the daughter finishes sitting down and says, “Hey Daddy”. I would say this cut was much more of a matched action cut than the last cut I discussed; they certainly left out some frames on either side of the cut to speed up the daughter’s turn, and it works nicely. The camera height is closer to Don’s height than the daughter’s, as are most of the shots in this scene other than the low angle wide shot, so we know this scene is more about his perspective than anything.

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17) Back in his original medium close up, Don looks in her direction, acknowledging her presence, then turns back to the mirror and say, “Hey You”. The shot continues in silence, save for some brushing and clinking sound effects, for another 3 seconds as he finishes applying cream and reaches down to the sink.

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18) We get a quick cutaway to the daughter staring up at her father and smiling. My thought is that this is just a patch to cover a cut between two different takes.

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19) Returning to Don’s medium close up, he begins shaving. We overhear the daughter say, “I’m not going to talk. I don’t want you to cut yourself.” As she finishes the line, he turns his head to look down at her. Halfway into the turn we cut.

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20) We get about 2 seconds of the daughter just looking up and smiling. At this point the light sound of birds chirping starts up, which will continue into the following shot.

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21) In a new medium close up from more of the girl’s angle of view, we see Don look back at her lovingly. After a moment he turns back to the mirror with a smile. The sound of birds has increased quite a bit in this shot. This shot is very different in angle and composition from the ones we have seen repeated so far, so it stand out from the pack and makes us pay more attention to what’s following.

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22) We are back in the original medium close up after a matched action cut based on the movement of Don’s face and his lifting of the razor. This camera is already starting to push in when we cut to it, and moves in slowly throughout the shot. After a second the bird chirping sound effects fade away and we hear more of the scrape of the razor on his cheek. Don gives himself a more serious look, and as he slows and then stops shaving, a low, humming, rumbling sound fades in. I believe it comes from the musical instrument, the didjeridu, but not sure.

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23) As the sound swells, the camera keeps pushing closer and Don stares disgustingly at himself. He quickly looks down and the musical tone cuts out, replaced with the squeak of the faucet being turned and water flowing. There are so many hints within these last 2 shots to the importance of this moment to the character. The camera change utilized in the edit to bring our attention to this shot, the new camera movement within this shot, the quick change in acting, and the changes in sound design all wrapped together to empower this story point. This is the moment where a philandering husband may have just seen himself for who he really was. Wonderfully done.

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24) We cut back to the daughter’s medium shot. She now has a concerned look on her face as she asks, “Are you okay, Daddy?” There is a second of pause after her line before we cut back to him where all we hear is the loud flow of water.

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25) The camera has stopped moving now and we see Don’s face in this new close up in the mirror. He is still looking down, dazed, and after a long beat, tells his daughter that she should leave him alone. He takes a long pronounced swallow just before the cut.

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26) The daughter immediately looks away, dejected, and gets up to leave. Just as she is about to leave frame, we hear the squeak of the faucet again, the water stops, and we cut.

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27) In the first frame of the close up again, Don is looking himself in the eye with a toweled half raised to his face. He never breaks eye contact as he wipes his face. The next cut is initiated by the beginning of his body movement away from the mirror.

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28) We cut to the final shot of the episode as Don continues turning away from the mirror and sits down on the toilet.

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29) The camera follows Don down and begins slowly moving away from him. As the move starts we hear the chirping of birds again and somber music starts to fade in. Looking down he mulls over the thoughts going through his head. Just as the door frame is about to obscure him, he slowly looks up.

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30) The camera continues to move down the hallway away from the bathroom. Then on the opposite side of frame, Don’s reflection appears on a different mirror. After a couple seconds of seeing more of this reflection, we get a long fade to black before the end titles.

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This long, beautiful camera move sticks with us in its ability to further draw out this important moment in Don Draper’s life, as he begins to acknowledge his mistakes. I sat thinking about this ending well into the end credits, and in the same way I was enthralled by the introduction to the episode I sat contemplating the end. Both are great examples of storytelling, but in very different ways and with drastically different feelings other than being tied together by characters evaluating themselves in front of mirrors. Please add your take in the comments section or give me your suggestion of titles to study in the future.

6 Comments

  1. theteacherneedstaught September 30, 2010

    I’m interested about cueing (sp?) the scene to music:

    clearly you feel the music is picked for the scene (and I agree), but does the music come before or after the scene is shot/conceived? also, how common is it for editors to speed up or slow down music that fits lyrically and/or sound-wise like a DJ mixing records?

  2. Glen September 30, 2010

    It varies, but I think in this case they had the scene shot and rough cut before adding the song. Different editors work different ways. Some like to make sure the edit works on its own before adding music, while others want to start with the music and use it to drive the rhythm of the picture editing. I am sure there is some time shifting done to certain tracks, but in my experience the majority of music plays at normal speed. That doesn’t mean the music isn’t edited to fit though, just not sped up or down.

  3. Michael Traven October 9, 2010

    Hey Glen, great breakdown! I’ve been working my way through Mad Men recently, and I was looking forward to watching Maidenform so that I could read this. Just finished it a little bit ago.

    I don’t know if you noticed this, but it struck me while I was watching that final shot of this scene… it’s the same shot used in the final episode of Season 1, called “The Wheel.” In the end of The Wheel, Don pitches the Kodak projector with pictures of his own family, and he gets a huge wave of nostalgia. It appears that he’s “straightened out,” so to speak – that he’s done cheating, because he realizes he loves his wife and his family.

    Then there’s a quick bit where he goes home and catches them in time to leave with them for the vacation Betty and the kids were going to take without him for Thanksgiving, because he had to work.

    But then it cuts away and we realize that it was just a fantasy – that he actually gets there and they’ve already left. He sits down on the staircase alone, in the dark, and the camera pulls very slowly into the other room until we fade to the credits just before Don is hidden behind the wall. It has that same angle, with Don’s face being slowly obscured by the wall – it even has the same slow fade.

    I just thought it was interesting, because both times he was dealing with his infidelity, and they both ended with that same shot.

  4. Glen October 11, 2010

    Michael, thanks so much for commenting. Excellent pickup. I haven’t seen that season in a couple years so probably never would have made the connecting. But now that you mention it I remember the long pull out shot. I wonder if we will see more like this as we follow Draper’s development.

  5. Jonathan October 27, 2010

    Hey Glen, great blog. I’m enjoying your scene breakdowns. It’s been a while since I saw this episode, but the opening sequence is one of the more memorable montages in the series for me.

    I think the edit speaks thematically as well to the way sexuality and gender roles are portrayed in the show. This I believe is the only time on the show so far that the women have been presented in a way that showcased their beauty and femininity rather than depicting them as frustrated, marginalized, objectified, etc. The artistry and subtlety works beautifully, as you described. Then the jarring magazine slap and we realize this is what Don Draper’s world thinks of femininity – something to be bottled, sold and consumed.

    Thanks for the great breakdown!

  6. kylee March 29, 2012

    i don’t know why i just stumbled across this, but i did and it was superb. it makes me want to go back and rewatch mad men from the beginning to take more time to analyze scenes, since they’re so beautifully crafted.

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