Mad Men Gets Psychedelic
"Mad Men" editor Christopher Gay owes a bit of gratitude towards Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch. When Gay, a former cinematographer, was studying editing, he read everything about Murch’s style and approach to the craft, especially Murch’s understanding of sound.
"He was a sound guy, and this really brought to light the importance of sound to me," said Gay. "Whenever I am doing an episode, I always create a sound design in Avid. It’s not just about the look of the storytelling, but to momentarily guide the audience’s experience."
The attention to sound in editing proved especially beneficial during season five’s episode "Far Away Places." In addition to highlighting three different character’s perspectives of the same day, Gay had to find a way to incorporate an LSD experience that didn’t stray too far from the show’s signature look. "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner had researched LSD use and discovered some users claimed they could listen to and fully concentrate on two different songs playing simultaneously. To achieve this effect, Gay laid down one music track then carefully trimmed frames of the second song, integrating them cleverly so that both songs could be clearly distinguished. Gay also used an auditory cue to inform viewers that the lead character in the scene was about to enter an altered state.
"There’s one cut that is a stand out cut," said Gay. "Roger looks at a note then there is an extreme close up of his face. At this moment, we go from normal city sounds to a slightly off reverb. It’s one of those little things that lets you know we’ve gone from sober to slightly different."
Gay has had his own experiences transitioning into something different since he began working on "Mad Men" during season two. While he always had a love of cameras and had worked as a DP on independent films, Gay was ready to put the skills he acquired from studying editing at AFI to greater use and quickly acquired his union membership. When most DP jobs on indie films dried up during the writers strike, a friend who’d been recently promoted on the set of "Mad Men" told him about a post production p.a. job. Gay landed the job with a long term goal of moving up to an assistant editing position. He maximized his experience, interacting with as many crew members as possible. When a shift occurred in the editing department, Gay was moved into an assistant editor position. Prior to season five, he was promoted once again to editor, and his work that season’s episode "Far Away Places" has presented him his first Emmy nomination.
A key objective for editors working on "Mad Men" is to play out the wide shots and let the audience absorb the atmosphere of the scenes. Gay’s years working as a cinematographer and his time spent helping various departments when training at AFI has proven to be a great asset in achieving this goal. He understands the nuances of the set construction, the value of the costumes, and the complexity of the focus racks and dolley moves – elements of production he ensures get appropriate screen time. His goal for his initial cut is to use all aspects of the composition captured in conjunction with the best performances of each scene.
While wide shots are an important visual element in "Mad Men," Gay also integrates varying degrees of tight shots to emphasis specific tones. In "Far Away Places," Gay chose an extreme close up of Don at a pay phone for an early scene, preventing the viewer from seeing any elements that would hint at his situation. Later in the episode, when the story line circled back to that moment, Gay chose an extremely wide shot to create tension, then cut closer and closer in to Don’s face to illustrate his emotional strain as he realized his wife is missing.
Gay has enjoyed the experience of working with a team of editors, feeling the atmosphere initiated by Weiner is collaborative and designed to aid in telling the story as efficiently as possible. Every editor reads each episode’s script and watches each other’s work – not only to be inspired by each other’s efforts but to watch the way seeds of specific arcs are planted and mature as they reappear through different episodes. While everyone shares ideas early in the process of prepping a new episode, at a certain point each individual editor must make the determination of the direction to move in, while simultaneously keeping the sensibility of the series intact.
"All the editors have their own style; we’re all slightly different," said Gay. "It’s human nature – we all see situations differently as individuals. Our goal is to make sure people don’t realize that there are different folks editing."
Unlike the indie films and documentaries that constituted Gay’s earliest editing experience, episodic television must adhere to a strict time limit. Gay has embraced this practice, feeling that the time crunch helps him become specific and focused in telling the story.
"It’s the best possible thing. Everyone editing features should have the challenge of cutting for a specific time," said Gay. "That little bit of time is when tough choices are made. You may lose some lines or detail, but those choices benefit the story."
While Gay is looking forward to continuing onto season six of "Mad Men," he does hope to explore some different genres in the future. He has a particular fondness for Westerns, courtesy of his father who loved the style so much he insisted Gay’s middle name be "Shane," after his favorite movie.
"I would love nothing more than to do a big western," said Gay. "Also, I know some instructors at AFI would hate me for this, but editing a big summer blockbuster would be fun. I have a family and we’d all be able to get a kick out of it."