By Iain Blair
In a time when issues of diversity and social change are at the forefront of society’s collective conversation, the Emmy Award-winning series This Is Us has proved to be very timely. Created by Dan Fogelman, produced by 20th Century Fox Television and airing on NBC and Hulu, the show chronicles the Pearson family across the decades: from Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) as young parents in the 1980s to their kids Kevin, Kate and Randall searching for love and fulfillment in the present day.
Fogelman’s TV credits include The Neighbors, Pitch and Like Family. He’s written film screenplays for Pixar’s Cars and Disney’s Bolt and Tangled. His live-action film credits include the screenplays for Last Vegas; Crazy, Stupid, Love; and the semi-autobiographical The Guilt Trip. He also directed and wrote the features Danny Collins and Life Itself.
I recently talked with Fogelman about making the show, the challenges and why he loves post. In fact, post supervisor Nick Pavonetti also joined in the conversation.
You finished Season 4 just before the COVID crisis. Have you started Season 5?
Yes, and we have a pretty unusual process. We’ve had early pickups for the show, which allows us to jump right into the next season at the end of the last one in terms of storytelling. So we’ve already mapped out a lot of it and written quite a lot, and we’re way ahead, which helps us with both production and post.
Where do you shoot, and what cameras do you shoot on?
We shoot on stages at Paramount using ARRI Alexa cameras. It’s a two-camera setup — A and B — and our shooting style is pretty voyeuristic. This was established right back in the pilot. We like to put you right inside the room with the family. It’s not that super-hand-held, shaky, on-the-ground action look.
We try to really get inside with the characters and cross-shoot where possible, as it allows for the natural moments to play out with multiple angles, as opposed to trying to manufacture them for a second position. We have an amazing DP, Yasu Tanida, who works with the directors to find the frames that allow us to use this setup. But for specialized episodes — like the Vietnam battle sequence the concert or the episode that was set entirely in a waiting room — we’ll use three or four cameras, but that’s very rare.
Do you like being a showrunner?
I love it. It’s the best job ever, but it’s difficult, challenging and relentless in terms of the schedule. When I’m exhausted, I often fantasize about jobs that allow you to clock off at 5pm. That’s not this gig. But I started down this path because I wanted to be the final word on the page and the final edit of this thing you love.
You have a giant crew and giant cast. Are those the big challenges of running this show?
Yeah, it’s a huge army of super-talented people. The big challenge is storytelling because on this show it’s really complicated since you’re not just telling one linear story a week, but often five or six, all in just 42 minutes. And we have seasons that are interconnected in time periods and multiple time periods — up to six. So keeping track of all that when we should be focused on one character, one storyline, one time period, is the real challenge.
Where do you post?
We do the editing on the lot at Paramount and have three editors and their Avid bays, which are conveniently close to our writers’ room and Nick Pavonetti’s post team. We do our mixing at Technicolor on the lot and the color timing at Technicolor at Sunset Gower; our sound editorial is done at Smart Post Sound with supervising sound editor Randy Thomas.
Do you like post?
Honestly, it’s my favorite part of the whole process. I’m a writer by trade, and post is all about rewriting. I spend very little time on set because when I go, I find very little I can add, as everyone knows what they’re doing. I spend a lot of time writing the scripts and working with writers on theirs, and then with the editors, as you’re essentially writing in the edit bay sometimes. I have a hard time letting anyone else take control in the edit bay.
Besides dealing with all the characters, storylines and time periods, what are the big editing challenges?
Timing and pacing, since after a first cut, a typical episode tends to come in about 10 minutes longer than NBC’s very strict run time of 42 minutes and 30 seconds, which is what we have to hit. So we have to reshape the story and maybe cut down my overly long monologues — but they still have to feel part of a whole with the piece.
This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music, and working supervising sound editor Randy Thomas.
That’s another part of post I love — playing with the score by composer Siddhartha Khosla, which is such a vital part of the show’s emotion and power. Even without picture, it stirs real emotion. Then I drive Nick crazy talking about the mix since we have a lot of music — a lot of needle drops, a lot of score — but all the dialogue is crucial too, so finding that balance in the mix takes a lot of time and effort to make it all sing together. Randy is so good at all that.
What about all the VFX? What’s involved?
Nick Pavonetti: It’s quite complicated. We’re this little family drama, but there’s a huge amount of VFX that are quite delicate and subtle — ageing and de-ageing characters. We have an in-house VFX coordinator, Jim Owens, and an in-house artist, Josh Bryson, who’ve really helped us get the VFX to the high level we want. That team will probably grow next year. So they’re right with us in the edit room and going through cuts in progress. We use a bunch of VFX companies — Ingenuity, Technicolor, CBS Digital, Big Little Panda, Inviseffects and Parker Mountain.
Nick, what are the big challenges in post for you?
It’s a big show and just getting all the pieces together on time in post is very demanding. As Dan said, we’re always trying to cut stuff down and we may be doing reshoots at the last minute and then having to drop that in. It’s not like a Netflix show where it’s all done six months in advance. We’ve mixed Saturday and Sunday for Tuesday air. That’s a very tight schedule.
Dan, where do you do the DI, and how closely do you work with colorist Tom Forletta?
It’s not really in my wheelhouse, so I trust Nick, Tom and our DP and their judgment on all that. But if we’re doing an episode set in Vietnam, for instance, where we’re doing a lot of really heavy VFX, I want to make sure it all looks real and realistic in the final color, so I’ll be more involved.
There’s a lot of talk about the lack of diversity in the entertainment business, but you recruited behind-the-scenes diverse talent, including black directors like George Tillman Jr. and Regina King, and black female writers like Kay Oyegun and Jas Waters. Why did that matter to you?
Well, this show is meant to be about the collective human experience in this country, so you’d like the people working on it to reflect that — and you’d like it to be like that on any show, and I feel we all still have a ways to go.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.