Like all Modern Family episodes, "Connection Lost," airing Feb. 25, was inspired by the real home lives of co-creator/executive producer Steven Levitan and the Emmy-winning comedy's stable of writers.
"One day, I was on my computer. I was working on something, had some emails open, some websites up, and then my daughter [who is at college] showed up [on FaceTime]. I could not only see her and me but my wife behind me. I realized [from] that screen, you could tell so much about my life," Levitan explained at a special screening last week in Los Angeles. "This is how families are communicating today. I see it in my family all the time. The original idea [was], how can we use this to tell a story?"
The "how" ended up being why the episode is unlike anything viewers have seen in the past five and a half seasons — maybe even unlike anything they've ever watched on TV. The entire half hour was shot and edited on Apple products (iPhone 6s, iPads, and MacBook Pros), and the whole story unfolds on Claire's laptop screen via Facebook, FaceTime, Pinterest, photos, the Cloud, iCal, emails, texts, shopping websites, Notes, and even a Yahoo search (whoa, meta!) while she's waiting to board a plane home from a business trip.
"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to do an episode this way?' We've always embraced technology on the show [because] I'm super geeky about all this stuff, but I didn't know if we could sustain it," said Levitan, who co-wrote and co-directed the episode. "I mentioned the idea to my daughter, and she sent me a link to a short film called Noah by three young guys out of Canada. The whole 17-minute film about a boy and a breakup is on a computer screen. That was proof of concept. You could sustain people's interest for a long time, and you could follow complicated things.
"I came into work at the beginning of the season and said, 'I would like to do an episode on a computer screen,' and [we] sat in a room and started looking for a story: What's the reason why it has to be on a screen? Why doesn't she have her phone? How do you work 11 cast members into one computer screen and have it feel organic? How do you make it good? This was fun, but also a tremendous challenge."
They knew immediately that the plot would revolve around the Dunphys, as Levitan feels that's what form their "modern" takes, and fairly quickly landed on a concept in which Claire cannot get a hold of Haley after a fight. Little bits of information and a social media equivalent to a game of telephone lead the entire clan to jump to conclusions about Haley's relationship to her Grandpa's manny, Andy.
"It is an interesting way to tell this specific story. We are in an age where we have too much information, and sometimes it can lead us down some crazy paths," executive producer Megan Ganz said. "The real-time nature drove up the stakes of the story: She's gonna be boarding and be offline, so she's gotta get to the bottom of this right now."
The first challenge was deciding not to shoot with the crew's standard cameras and tech. "We thought it'd be silly to shoot amazing footage and then dumb it down. It will never look quite right," Levitan said, adding that Apple supplied them with the latest tech but there was no product placement deal or dollars. "We informed them about what we were doing, and they loved the idea. It was a very unusual shoot. We shot 95 percent of the episode over two days but often had three sets going at once. The actors could hear but not see each other."
One cast member who didn't find the change of format challenging was prolific tweeter and selfie taker Sofia Vergara. "We didn't even need a cameraman for Sofia. She naturally knew what her angles were," Ganz joked.
The aforementioned Noah was shot with screen capture software, but that technique quickly proved to not be up to snuff for broadcast television. "We originally tried it with screen captures, but when you really push in, it breaks up and looks jaggy," explained John Brown, the visual FX and motion graphics producer on the episode. "We thought if we scaled up and made all the elements two to four times bigger, then you can push in and everything stays clean, much like a retina display. It is easier to read, so I had to try to counterfeit Apple's Yosemite interface."
But to achieve better visibility meant way more man hours in post-production because everything you see onscreen is "all handmade," according to Brown, and Apple's constant iOS updates proved to be maddening. "I started building assets on this episode when the Yosemite operating system was still in beta. I would build the entire OS in that state, and then they would release an update," he said. "I would go through the renders and change them to keep everything consistent. Eventually, we had to cut it off, so I'm sure someone on Reddit will be like, 'Hey, that's only Yosemite 10.2.'"
Ganz, who said the lines between post and creative have become really blurred, recalled one of those dreaded nights. "They [would] change the way FaceTime rotates from portrait to landscape, and I [would] come in the next morning and John [would] have bags under his eyes. 'Bitch, they updated!'"
Even after they decided to stop keeping up with Apple's iterative tweaks, "Connection Lost" proved to be the mother of all episodes. "The one we showed is still a little bit of a rough cut. What we need to finish takes us up to a day or two before it airs," Levitan said. "This has easily been the most labor-intensive episode we've ever done. Typically, I'll watch three or four cuts. I gotta be at 25 already. I can't begin to express to you the detail that is in every frame. Every single element, every Facebook page, every window, every bar, every ad, every line was put on by us."
Their pain, however, will be your gain. That level of detail means plenty of Easter eggs for viewers to gobble up. They created Facebook pages with fake inspirational posts, email inboxes, to-do lists, photo albums, fake web searches, articles, and more. "We got to populate it with a lot of little jokes you won't catch on the first viewing," Ganz said. "The crew wrote comments on Claire's page, and we took pictures from previous episodes. On the Yahoo News page, there's an ad for Croctopus 4, [a sequel] to a film that Claire and Phil went to see in Season 2. [The search] for moms who raise their daughters' babies [has] pictures of crew with their kids. My favorite thing was on that page as well. It is a Lifetime movie called Not Without My Daughter's Daughter. You can read Alex's essay to Yale. It was my satire of those essays where you try to say the least amount of information in the most words."
The opportunity for new types of jokes is what excited Ganz about the episode. "For instance, [there's] a moment where Claire is talking to Gloria and she drifts off and starts looking at Pinterest," she said. "You just couldn't tell that joke within a normal show."
While everyone is extremely happy with the final product, don't assume this plugged-in storytelling device will become commonplace. "Will we start to do one of these every year or integrate little bits of this? You never know," Levitan said. "There are going to be some opportunities going forward because of the way the show is evolving and characters [are] going off to school. But probably not as ambitious as this. At least not on a regular basis. I don't think our goal will be, if this episode is well received, when can we do another one?"
Modern Family airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.