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ABC's 'Modern Family' Shot an Entire Episode Using Only Apple's iPhone and iPad

In a novel storytelling approach, a forthcoming "Modern Family" episode plays out entirely on a computer screen.

Twentieth Century Fox Television

A forthcoming installment of ABC’s Emmy Award-winning comedy “Modern Family” finds a setting that viewers will find both unusual and familiar — it unfolds entirely on a computer screen.

The episode revolves around Claire Dunphy, a working mother of three played by Julie Bowen, who is stuck in an airport and desperate to reach her daughter, Haley, to reconcile after a fight. The story plays out on her Macbook, as she employs all the forms of modern communication at her disposal, from email to FaceTime to Facebook, in an attempt to locate her eldest child, played by Sarah Hyland.

Comedic misinterpretations naturally ensue.

To lend the episode, titled “Connection Lost,” authenticity, it was shot entirely with Apple’s iPhone 6 and iPad Air 2 tablets.

Steven Levitan, “Modern Family’s” co-creator and executive producer, said the story was drawn from his own life, and how he and his two daughters communicate while they’re away at college.

“We all had that reference in our heads — this is how families are communicating today,” Levitan said. “How do we use this to tell a story?”

After Levitan saw “Noah,” a 17-minute short that takes place entirely on a computer screen, he knew the same concept could be used for an entire episode. As with the “Modern Family” episode, the short, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival’s student showcase in 2013, uses Facebook, instant messages, iTunes and iPhones to capture the teen’s angst.

The trick was producing footage that would look good (and prove readable) on a giant living-room TV. That required the technical intervention of a post-production team, which worked for months to create a replica of Apple’s OS X “Yosemite” desktop operating system painstakingly updated with every revision to the software.

“Basically, what you’re seeing on screen is all hand-made,” said John Brown, the show’s motion graphics producer, who had previously worked on commercials for the Google+ social network that uses a similar narrative approach.

The decision to contain the story to the desktop presented fresh opportunities for visual gags, as when Claire’s attention wanders off to a Pinterest page while she converses via FaceTime with her father’s much-younger second wife, Gloria (played by Sofia Vergara).

Attentive viewers will be rewarded with Easter Eggs, as with the Yahoo News page ad for “Croctopus 4,” a reference to an episode from the show’s second season.

“We got to populate extra jokes that you won’t catch on in first viewing,” said Megan Ganz, “Modern Family’s” co-executive producer and writer.

Apple furnished iPhones for the episode, though Levitan said it did not pay for product placement.

“We called them and informed them what we were doing,” he said. “They loved the idea. They provided the iPhones for us.”

“Modern Family” attracted criticism for the show’s prominent use of Apple’s original iPad in a 2010 episode, which featured character Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) anticipating the device’s introduction. Levitan recalled getting grief, but said the product fit his storytelling needs.

“We had an episode where Phil needed to be waiting in line for something new,” Levitan recalled. “I’d been tracking the iPad, because I knew it was coming out, so I contacted Apple. … One day, a couple of months before it came out, a guy came down with the iPad. Outside of captivity at Apple, we were among the first people in the country to ever touch it.”

Apple and ABC’s parent company, Disney, have enjoyed a close relationship for years — ever since Disney acquired Pixar Animation Studios in 2006 and brought Apple co-founder Steve Jobs onto the studio’s board of directors.

The “Modern Family” episode airs at 9 pm Wednesday, Feb. 25, on ABC.

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