'Modern Family' Editor on Crafting iPhone Episode and Its "Hail Mary" Play

ModernFamily_Still - H 2015
Courtesy of ABC

ModernFamily_Still - H 2015

[Warning: spoilers ahead for Tuesday's episode of Modern Family, "Connection Lost"]

Modern Family editor Tony Orcena has seen a lot of challenging production and postproduction techniques, but he admits he initially underestimated the creative and technical complexities of Wednesday's episode.

Titled "Connection Lost," the episode takes place on Claire (Julie Bowen)'s desktop as she communicates with her family. The desktop and all of the apps such as FaceTime and Facebook were created with motion graphics, and the camera shots of the actors were photographed entirely with Apple iPhones, iPads and a Macbook Pro. 

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Initially the plan was to have the actors hold the devices themselves during the shoot, but that proved problematic as they had to perform while avoiding getting things like the ceiling in their shots. So co-creator Steve Levitan and director of photography Jim Bagdonas decided the camera operator should hold the device and have the actor hold the camera operator's arm so that it would appear that the device is in the actor's hand.

But the toughest aspects of the episode came in post. "Claire is on the screen the entire episode. The biggest challenge here was finding a way to change the performance [to a different take] without the audience [seeing] an edit," Orcena tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The easiest way was to put in a camera move, but those had to be story driven. Another way we'd do it was to add a computer glitch or freeze and jump to the next take. Or, we would morph from one shot into the next--that was our Hail Mary."

Postproduction was accomplished in an Avid Media Composer editing system and Adobe After Effects visual effects software--but there were additional challenges. "Since [the camera footage] isn’t exactly broadcast quality we didn't want to degrade it," Orcena said.

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The footage was shot using the H.264 video compression format, which was then ingested directly into the Avid for post. "But it was out of sync in After Effects; the compression wasn't really cooperating," Orcena says, adding that the team decided to encode the footage into the Apple Pro Res compression format  in Avid, and then bring that into After Effects. "That's the opposite of every post workflow."

Another change: They skipped the typical color grading process, only grading shots of Bowen that were shot on a bluescreen.

The production planned for the complexity of the episode. Orcena related that it was shot last fall and "we delivered at the last possible second."

John Brown and Olney Atwell were the motion graphics artists.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA