Primetime: NBC's <i>This Is Us</i>
Issue: November 1, 2016

Primetime: NBC's This Is Us

NBC has an early hit on its hands with This Is Us, a one-hour drama that looks at the lives of three uniquely-connected siblings and their parents at several stages throughout their lives. Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia play parents Rebecca and Jack, with Sterling K. Brown (Randall), Chrissy Metz (Kate) and Justin Hartley (Kevin) portraying the now-adult children.

The show was created and written by Dan Fogelman and is produced by 20th Century Fox Television for NBC. Post recently had a chance to speak with the series’ co-producer Nick Pavonetti and post supervisor Tim Barker. The series’ initial run of 10 episodes will be extended. At press time, the team had just wrapped up work on Episode 9.

Where are you at with production and post at this point?

Nick Pavonetti: “We actually got picked up for some extra episodes, so we're going to be shooting until March, and then of course we'll be in post for four weeks after that. We're on Episode 10, we finished (Episode) 9 yesterday.”

The initial plan was to have a 10-episode season?

Pavonetti: “Exactly! We were the first show to get 'back order.' Before the second episode aired, they came to [executive producers Dan Fogelman and Donald Todd] and the powers that be, and decided to give us some more episodes because everyone was so excited about the show.”

What is the arrangement as far as production goes? You're with 20th Century Fox, and the show is produced for NBC? 

Pavonetti: “That's exactly how it works. Dan Fogelman has an overall deal through 20th, so all of his shows are produced by 20th and this one was picked up by NBC. His other show, Pitch, is on Fox, so 20th is the studio and then they go out to different networks.” 

What is the workflow for This Is Us?

Pavonetti: “It's basically two cameras most times. Arri Alexa is the camera, which I love. If you are not shooting film, it's my favorite camera to use because it gives you so much latitude and color and all that kind of stuff. It's all hand-held, which can kind of be a problem some times.

“What we've gone for in terms of color and even in sound is ‘realism.’ Our first color session with [executive producers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra], they pretty much deconstructed it and took us away from the standard network-colored show. We almost had to reprogram our colorist to not make it look perfect. I think the show is trying to show the imperfections of life — the things that everyone goes through in life.

“Even to the point where Chrissy (Metz) is singing ‘Time After Time’ — we took off every filter. That's just her natural, raw voice. And that's one take. We really strive to get the imperfections. It's like we go out of our way to make things ‘not’ perfect.”

The overall look, and even the cast changes their look from decade to decade.

Pavonetti: “Mandy (Moore) in particular. It's seems like she is in there every day. She doesn't get much of a break. We are rushing from one time period to another. Also, you're forgetting that when Mandy is young, we are dealing with kids too, so the ADs really have their hands full. In a post sense, one of the things it does for us is, it pushes everything, because the schedules are so locked in. We get later and later. Tim and I are rushing to get it delivered on time, and NBC has been so great just helping us make sure that we get everything done, and QC’ing things really fast. We're kind of running in with the tape.”

Where is the post taking place?

Pavonetti: “We do the video-side at Technicolor in Hollywood, and then all sound is done at Smart Post Sound. We have long-running relationships with both of those. Technicolor has been working with us for the past four or five years. And Smart Post Sound — I have been doing my mixes there on Dan Fogelman shows for over 10 years now.”

Is it an Avid workflow?

Pavonetti: “It's Avid. It's just standard. There's a LUT that we put on the picture, and they take the sound and marry the sound and sync up the sound to picture, and that's how dailies are created for us basically. It's not very complicated. We are not one of those shows that has 75 different LUTs or anything crazy like that.

“(Director of photography) Yasu Tanida (Editor’s note: Brett Pawlak shot the pilot) is so talented. He's quick, he knows what he wants and he's able to achieve it in a less complicated way than some of the DPs I've worked with. He's unbelievably talented.”

Shooting with two cameras, does that make it a more manageable show in terms of footage?

Tim Barker: “We have about four-and-a-half hours a day, so it's pretty manageable. You've got a three-editor rotation. For the most part, everyone is able to stay up to camera.”

Four hours a day sounds like a lot for a one-hour show?

Pavonetti: “I've been on shows that have been in the six-hour range, so this isn't that bad. Here, you are solely hunting for performance. You know it's there. Everything's there. This show is top notch across the board: the material, the script, the directors — the actors are Emmy-winning. They are great. Everyone on it is awesome. It's our job just to find that great performance that lives there. We know it lives there, it's just finding it and putting it all together.”

With a three-editor team, how many shows are in the pipeline at any one time?

Pavonetti: “It’s a seven- or eight-day shoot, depending on which episode we're doing, and then it's usually about three or four weeks of editorial after that to get it to the air. Usually we have about four episodes. You'll have one of the editors finishing up an episode while they are starting dailies, and then the other two will be in 'cut land,' cutting, doing cuts for studio, network and producers.”

How do you two break up overseeing the post production? 

Pavonetti: “Honestly, I could not do any of these shows without Tim and everyone. I am on two shows right now. I am doing Pitch and This is Us for Dan (Fogelman). I spend most of my days mixing sound for the shows. Tim is running the video side, making sure to get with the different producers for color, getting vis effects approved and titling, and making sure of the online. He handles the video and I pretty much handle the sound, and then we kind of meet in the middle.”

Who oversees the initial editorial?

Barker: “That's all Dan (Fogelman). Once he gets it to a place he is happy with, he'll sign off and we'll take it to Technicolor and start doing final touches, onlining, and I'll coordinate with our VFX house, and keep everyone on a realistic schedule to get the show delivered on time.”

So the initial editorial is being done at 20th Century Fox? 

Pavonetti: “We're actually on the Paramount lot. We have editorial suites here at the Paramount editorial building. We have six suites for the show — three for the editors, three for the assists. Six Avids. They do all their offline work here, like Tim said. Once Dan and the studio and network sign off on it, we do an online and color it, and then we drop in all our VFX. And then we go and title it. Meanwhile, while that's going on, I'm making the sound on the show, and getting that all done. Once everything is done, like today, we're going to layback a show and put sound and picture together…Technicolor is right down the street at Sunset Gower. It's really nice, we can actually ride our bikes there!”

Can you talk a little bit about the looks of the different time periods?

Pavonetti: “I worked with John (Requa) and Glenn (Ficarra) on this. The thing they're looking for is: they like the lens flares. They like the colors. They don't want all the backfill. They never want anyone to look bad. If the makeup is not perfect, we should go in and fix that. But at the same time, if the light is cutting someone's face in half, were OK with that, because that's what you'd see in reality. We are really going for the reality look of things. In some shows, they'll go to visual effects to fix that. We'll leave it in our show.”

What type of VFX does this show require?

Barker: “Most of our VFX are stuff that you won't notice. We shoot in LA, obviously, but a lot of our story takes place in New York. We were replacing a lot of the alley backdrops with New York skyscrapers. There's a lot of clean-up work.”

Pavonetti: “Also, for a lot of the montages at the end, there's one that's coming up where it shows a man — and this is not a spoiler or anything — their ancestor, getting off a boat at Ellis Island. Obviously we couldn't go to Ellis Island and shoot that, so we put up a big greenscreen and shot it here on the backlot.”
Barker: "A matte painting was created and it came out great. Everyone was very happy with it.”

Pavonetti: “It's in Episode 5, which is pretty much my favorite episode right now.”

Who is handling the visual effects?

Pavonetti: “CBS Digital is doing the bulk of it. Craig Weiss is a great guy.”

Has the show evolved since the pilot? Have you encountered anything unexpected?

Pavonetti: “It is so what we expected. It is straight down the pipe. It is a fastball across the plate. It's a great show. It seems like other shows that Tim and I have done, as production goes on, it gets harder and harder for us. It seems that because the script and the acting is so good, some of the stuff that we put in post for vis effects, they take away because it's working so well is without having to use it…I've never had it happen that way, where we'll go to a production meeting and they say, ‘We're going to do all this crazy VFX work,’ and then they shoot it and are like, ‘It kind of works without it. We don't need it anymore, it gets in the way.’”

Barker: "Straight from the pilot, it's been a pretty easy show — not a lot of headaches.”

The soundtrack uses music to really add to the emotional elements. Can you talk about that? 

Pavonetti: “In the episode that just aired, Mandy sings a little song, and I am the one who is helping to produce all of those songs. We've got two songs with Mandy, and Chrissy did her ‘Time After Time,’ which was amazing. We are talking about putting out an album at some point.”

Barker: “Yes, Universal Music Group wants to put out an album. It's a big focus of theirs.”

Pavonetti: “It's great to have more than a pop star, but a true musical talent in Mandy Moore, and to find out another actress on our show has a great voice too. I love doing the music. It's one of my favorite parts of making television.” 

How are the musical segments produced? 

Pavonetti: “With Mandy, we do a pre-record, because there are a lot of bands and stuff involved, so it's pretty complicated when we do Mandy singing on-camera. We'll record her ahead of time and what we'll do it put an earwig — the little thing that hides in her ear — and she sings along to what she's already done. It works out great.”

Any final thoughts?

Pavonetti: “From the actors to the producers to everybody across the board, it's a great place to be. It's amazing to be on a show that is blowing up like this."