The events of “Connection Lost,” a February episode of Modern Family, take place entirely on the laptop screen of the multitasking Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen), who has time during her layover at a Chicago airport to both create and solve a family crisis.
The episode manages to incorporate all of the show’s characters, even though few are in the same physical location. They come together via laptop and smartphone screens, communicating via FaceTime, Facebook and simple text messages. For the Dunphys, the more methods of communication available to them, the greater the opportunity for miscommunication.
As well as being displayed on an Apple MacBook Pro, the episode was actually filmed with iPhones and other Apple devices. The video broadcast on ABC in the network’s preferred 720p HD format was augmented with visual effects that simulate the interface graphics on the various screens.
Series co-creator Steven Levitan directed and co-wrote this digitally mediated episode with Megan Ganz. James Bagdonas was the director of photography.
While Apple did supply the show with some of its state-of-art products for video and postproduction, Levitan notes that Apple has never paid a penny to the series for product placement.
The director says the idea for this unusual narrative approach to sitcom storytelling came to him when he was FaceTiming with his daughter at college. He noticed that along with the video chat window he had his e-mail open and was working on the latest Modern Family script, while occasionally checking Facebook and sending text messages.
“Right then it occurred to me how much of our lives is exposed on this one computer screen, and you can get a really good picture of someone’s entire life just by looking at it. So wouldn’t it be cool to simply get inside the head of one of characters in the same way?”
Levitan adds, “Then it began to evolve, especially after my daughter sent me a link to a 17-minute movie that these film students [Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg] in Canada produced called ‘Noah,’ which takes place entirely on someone’s computer screen. For us, the big challenge was to come up with a storyline that incorporated all of our characters. Surprisingly, it didn’t take Megan and me all that long to come up with the main idea and start writing.”
Levitan says the entire episode was shot in only two days—about half the time of a typical Modern Family shoot—although postproduction was an entirely different matter. While the finished product may appear to be a fairly easy capture of existing technology to the viewers who use it every day, editing and other post work took the better part of four months, nearly four times longer than usual.
The reason is simple: Most of the activity “seen” on Claire’s MacBook Pro could not be filmed in real life with the same high production values of a network show. (The point is obvious if you’ve ever looked at yourself closely during a FaceTime conversation.)
Similarly, Claire’s laptop possesses powers and abilities not available to regular MacBook Pro users. Claire is able to talk to several family members simultaneously on Apple’s video-chat app FaceTime, for example. While it may be an ideal plot device, it’s just not technically possible in FaceTime, as Levitan fully acknowledges.
The crew found that having cast members shoot video of themselves at arm’s length for selfies and FaceTime also didn’t work very well, so camera operators held iPhones and shot video while the actors extended their arms out of camera range and touched the operators’ hands in order to give the impression of holding the iPhones themselves.
Most of the elements that appear on Claire’s laptop screen had to be created exclusively for the episode—the result of painstakingly nuanced work by motion graphics editor John Brown, who tweaked the final cut repeatedly with editor Tony Orcena and Levitan to maximize the comedic effect. “We’ll look at a typical completed episode maybe four or five times [in post] before it airs, but with this one, we must have viewed it maybe 30 times to get it just right,” Levitan says. Post took place in Avid Media Composer and Adobe After Effects.
Brown was responsible for building the graphic elements that convey the history and online presence of the three families featured in the series. His work included creating Facebook pages, icons and dozens of subtle references to past events that appear in video clips, texts and photo captions. “Building all the elements from scratch allowed us to have super image resolution, which then allowed us to zoom in at certain times. We’ve done that quite often over the years,” Levitan says.
Levitan notes that elements that appeared on screen only a second or two still got the full treatment. “Alex had a college essay to deal with [in the episode] and Megan, our co-writer, sat down and wrote a complete essay for the character. Megan provided other fully produced elements that tend to flash by quickly on Claire’s screen. We also use pictures of the production crew—my wife is now a Facebook friend of Claire Dunphy.”