MacBooks and iPhones pop up in movies and TV so often that it’s nearly a trope unto itself, but on February 25th ABC’s Modern Family is going a step further. A new episode called "Connection Lost" takes place entirely on the screen of a character’s laptop — and while it’s a fun new riff on the sitcom's successful formula, it’s also one of the most glowing love letters to the Mac you'll see this this side of an Apple keynote.
"Connection Lost" belongs to a burgeoning sub-genre of what could be called "screen capture filmmaking." You’ve seen it before, going back to those heartstring-tugging Google ads from a few years ago: the "camera" captures a computer screen, tracking the mouse, web pages, and other apps the unseen operator uses, all of which end up telling a story along the way. It’s been ideal for short ads, but the technique has been making inroads in longer projects as well. In 2013 a short called Noah used the style to great success, and later this year Universal is going to be releasing an entire horror film built around the conceit.
Apparently everyone in this universe owns iPhones
In the Modern Family episode, we’re looking at the computer screen of Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) while she’s waiting at the airport. She’s had a disagreement with her daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland) and can’t reach her, and over the course of the episode Claire jumps across multiple Mac apps and video chats to talk to her family and track Haley down (apparently everyone in the Modern Family universe uses Apple products for convenient FaceTime and iMessage sessions).
It’s the kind of gag that could get old very quickly, but thanks to some clever writing and brisk direction it works pretty well (Community alum Megan Ganz co-wrote the episode with Modern Family creator Steven Levitan, who directed). Ganz uses characters’ Facebook pages to layer in gags and references to earlier episodes of the series, and contrasting what a character is texting in one window with what they’re saying in a FaceTime call provides the opportunity for jokes that wouldn’t be doable in a standard episode. The dizzying array of Yosemite apps does strain credulity at times — does anybody really use Reminders? — but Levitan says the idea for the episode came from a very real-world scenario.
Does anybody really use the reminders app?
"I have two daughters at college, and we do a lot of FaceTiming," he said at a recent press event in Los Angeles. He was working one day with a number of emails and websites open on his machine, when a video chat from his daughter popped up. On the screen he saw his work, his daughter, himself, and his wife doing something behind him all at the same time. "And I realized on that screen you could tell so much about my life. So the original idea was from there."
Levitan’s made no secret of his love for gadgets and Apple products — an early Modern Family episode was inspired by his own obsession with the iPad — and he’s quick to point out that there’s no conventional product placement in "Connection Lost." That said, the show did approach Apple about the episode, with the company providing iPhones, iPads, and MacBook Pros for shooting the video chats. (Apple also lent the show a Mac Pro for post-production work.)
The entire Mac interface had to be duplicated and animated manually
To pull off the computer screen concept, Levitan and his team relied on motion graphics artist John Brown. "The whole episode was originally shot with crew members, just as a proof of concept," Brown says. He put that footage together into a rough mock-up of Claire’s computer screen, with the working assumption that the episode could then be created using screen capture software, much like the filmmakers behind Noah had done. However, given the resolution the image would lose clarity when they pushed in tight on various elements like Levitan wanted. So instead Brown had to duplicate and animate the entire Mac interface manually, at up to four times the normal resolution.
"I was building the assets for Yosemite back when Yosemite was still in beta," he said. While it helped ensure the episode wouldn’t feel dated when it finally aired, it also led to the unfortunate situation of Brown finishing up assets, only to have to tweak or swap things around when Apple updated the interface in a new build. "It was frustrating to be like, ‘Act one, totally locked,’ and then come in Monday and hear the FaceTime notification has changed."
This isn't your usual FaceTime
While the cut of the episode shown to press wasn’t the final version, Brown’s work is nevertheless impressive. As someone that works on a Mac running Yosemite every day, the environment felt all too familiar, save for two notable exceptions. The first is FaceTime: Ganz and Levitan decided to beef up its capabilities, so their fictional version can handle multiple discrete video chats simultaneously (it doesn’t quite make sense in the episode, but it does lend a certain manic energy).
The second is Yosemite’s heavy use of translucency — something that Brown says he needed to find a way to curb in the name of practicality, but still justify in terms of character. "That was such a thorn in my side!" he says. "Everything is transparent when the message scrolls up, you can sort of see it through the top of Message. So Claire is maybe fussy, and she doesn’t like to deal with all that crap. It slows down the computer, and she wants it easy to read and snappy. So I took the liberty of having her disable transparency."