Orphan Black and Twinning in the Movies

by Graham Edwards

This article was first published in slightly different form on the Cinefex blog on 8 April 2014.

Orphan Black - Season 3

What’s the best visual effect of them all? Which camera trick brings everything together to make a perfect whole – conceptual elegance, technical expertise, editorial sleight of hand, dramatic performance? Which cinematic illusion wins the grand VFX prize? My answer may split opinion.

It’s the twinning effect.

I know. You’re scratching your head in puzzlement. How is creating twins more impressive than blowing up a planet? Does a pair of chatty clones really beat a ninety-foot robot grappling a multi-tentacled mutant from another dimension?

Yes. And yes. Let me tell you why. But first, let me explain what I’m talking about.

By “twinning”, I mean the process whereby a single actor plays two or more roles in the same film. For the performer, it’s a delicious challenge. For the visual effects artist, the challenge comes with the shots where both (or multiple) incarnations of said actor appear on screen at the same time.

"Orphan Black" clone strangling scene

One of the latest productions to use this time-honoured trick is the TV series Orphan Black, the second season of which begins its run on BBC America later this month. In the show, Tatiana Maslany plays a woman who encounters several cloned versions of herself and becomes caught up in a deadly conspiracy, in a remarkable performance that saw her nominated for a Golden Globe. Orphan Black’s visual effects are by Intelligent Creatures; according to visual effects producer Che Spencer, their mandate was “to push the effect and not settle for what was easy.”

Watch an Intelligent Creatures breakdown video of the extended “clone dance party” from the Orphan Black season 2 finale (including a surprise unaired ending):

We’ll hear more from Intelligent Creatures about Orphan Black in a moment, including a breakdown of one of Season One’s most daring multi-clone shots. Before then, let’s take a brief look at the history of the twinning effect.

Old-School Double Acts

A good early example of twinning is the 1944 Bing Crosby musical Here Come The Waves, in which Betty Hutton stars as identical twins Susan and Rosemary Allison. The film uses a fairly standard range of twinning tricks including a body double with her back to the camera, and judiciously-placed split screens.

"Here Come the Waves" trailer image

In many of the shots in Here Come The Waves, it’s easy to spot where split line is (the binary Betties are generally positioned on opposite sides of the screen, with plenty of empty set gaping between). Some shots – such as the one where both characters leave the stage after a dance number (at 1:45 in the clip below) – make effective use of a moving split, allowing the twins to occupy the same physical space, albeit after a small but convenient time interval.

For some journalists of the time, such trick photography was akin to witchcraft, as evidenced in a contemporary article from May 29, 1944 by Frederick C. Othman of Associated Press – here’s an extract:

This piece is going to be complicated; it involves two Betty Huttons and how can anybody expect you to understand what’s going on, when the writer doesn’t exactly understand himself? … The boys are making with the double talk about split screens and synchronous recordings. … If one Miss Hutton is a squillionth of an inch off her marks when she gets out of her chair, the other Miss Hutton is a blur. And, of course, vice versa. That’s because of the split screen (says Othman, who has only the vaguest idea of what he’s talking about).

Olivia de Havilland faces herself in "The Dark Mirror"

If Here Come The Waves exemplifies the early frivolous use of twinning techniques, The Dark Mirror, released two years later in 1946, is its shadowy counterpart.

In the film, Olivia de Havilland plays twins Terry and Ruth Collins, both suspected of murder and both possessing an alibi for the night the crime was committed. While this psychological melodrama uses similar techniques to Here Come The Waves, director Robert Siodmak exploits its darker themes with shots like the one at 1:20 in the clip below, in which moody lighting is used to conceal the use of the ever-reliable body double.

Before we run forward in time, let’s quickly wind the clock even further back to 1937 and take a look The Prisoner of Zenda, in which Ronald Colman plays both the king of Ruritaria and his English lookalike.

The Prisoner of Zenda contains an early example of twins not only appearing side by side, but also physically interacting, in a shot where the two Ronald Colmans shake hands. This quote from David O. Selznick’s Hollywood by Ronald Haver*, makes the intricate matte work used to pull the shot off sound deceptively straightforward:

The camera shot through a plate of sheet glass that had been taped to cover the area of the double’s head and shoulders. After exposing the action, the film was rewound in the camera, the plate glass was retaped to cover everything except the area of the double’s head and shoulders, and Colman changed costumes and stood in. Colman’s head and shoulders were then photographed in perfect register with the double’s body.

Attack of the Clones

Throughout the 20th century, there was a regular flow of twinning films, most of which relied on these familiar visual effects techniques – perhaps most famously when a young Hayley Mills played identical twins in The Parent Trap (1961). Then, in 1988, came a matched pair of twinning films that upped the ante and doubled the stakes.

The first was Big Business, which starred Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as two sets of identical twins. The second was David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), in which Jeremy Irons played twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Both films made a bold leap by using motion control to introduce camera moves into their split-screen shots.

Jeremy Irons doubles up in "Dead Ringers" (1988)

Luckily for us, when dissecting the revolutionary visual effects of Dead Ringers in Cinefex #36, Don Shay demonstrated a little more understanding of the twinning process than Here Come The Waves reporter Fred Offman did back in 1944:

The most difficult of the motion control setups was a reverse tracking shot of the twins walking towards camera. To compensate for normal arm and body sway, Film Effects of Toronto had to develop matting sequences that constantly shifted the split from side to side. And since diffused splits of varying widths were required – depending on background light levels – different splits were dissolved in and out as the scene progressed. From start to finish, the shot required four separate split-screen mattes – each with an average of four dissolves.

Once the Pandora’s Box of motion control twinning effects had been opened, there was no going back. From Back to the Future II through Multiplicity to Adaptation and beyond, filmmakers have experimented with ever-more elaborate ways of duplicating the talent. In The Social Network, Lola raised the bar higher than ever when they created the Vinklevoss twins by mapping Armie Hammer’s face on to that of fellow actor Josh Pence. Read all about how they did it in this excellent article at FXGuide.

These recent refinements mean filmmakers can now do proper justice to that staple of science fiction: the clone story. In The City of Lost Children, Pitof/Duboi presented us with more copies of Dominique Pinon than we knew what to do with. More recently, Moon pitted Sam Rockwell against, er, Sam Rockwell, in a stunning variety of clone scenes that showcased not only Rockwell’s acting chops, but Cinesite’s invisible digital effects.

In planning Moon’s judiciously-used clone shots, director Duncan Jones studied both Dead Ringers and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.  “[Spike] told me that when you’re working through scenes, you need to choose which character really leads the scene, and shoot that one first,” Jones remarked in Estelle Shay’s article Moon Madness (Cinefex #118).

Sam Rockwell checks his counterpart's temperature in "Moon"

The same article has the following to say about the above Cinesite split-screen shot in which “Sam1” feels the forehead of “Sam 2”:

In the hero pass, Rockwell as the ill Sam1 performed to a stand-in serving as Sam 2, with a C-stand used to record the position of the double’s left shoulder. In the second pass, Rockwell performed as Sam 2, aligning his shoulder with the marker and using his body to occlude that of the double. A third pass allowed for the removal of extra lighting, cameras and floor markers, and the shadow cast by the C-stand and opposing action. In post, Cinesite attached the double’s arm to Rockwell’s Sam 2 through careful rotoscoping and warping of clothing.

Orphan Black

All this talk of clones brings us neatly back to Orphan Black and Intelligent Creatures. Early on, the show’s producers told visual effects supervisor Geoff Scott that the budget wouldn’t allow for motion controlled camera moves, prompting Scott to explore other ways of taking away the curse of the locked-off twinning shot. In the end, however, motion control won the day, as described here by the Intelligent Creatures team:

Before production began we considered many different techniques from simple handheld camera moves to repeatable slider rigs, but ultimately it came down to a full motion control system.  In fact, we shot the scene from the pilot where Sarah meets Katja on two different motion control rigs before settling on what became the go to rig for the series – the Super TechnoDolly. The first of its generation, the TechnoDolly is a robotic camera system, essentially a smart Technocrane. It allowed us to create movements of unlimited length and complexity, and more importantly, repeat those moves with incredible precision. We shot the entire scene with Tatiana playing Sarah alongside a stand in actor to work out blocking and eyelines. Then we repeated the scene with Tatiana alone following carefully placed eyeline markers. Finally, Tatiana changed over to Katja and we did the whole thing over again. The passes were later combined in compositing using Digital Fusion to create the seamless effect.

The TechnoDolly proved adaptable enough in operation to give the director flexibility on set, and – crucially in a show where ADR needed to be kept to an absolute minimum – it was near-silent in operation.

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Orphan Black uses every trick in the twinning book to help create Maslany’s various clone characters, from old-school over-the-shoulder shots to complex composites involving moving cameras and selected body parts from one actor stitched on to those of another.

With each episode the challenges grew. The one main request was that once an episode the clones would touch. Sometimes we had as many as three clones in the room all interacting with each other, delivering dialogue and making eye contact. We used the Super TechnoDolly for these really complex movements in order to maintain image integrity and repeatability. In the penultimate episode, we had one clone pour wine for two others, and another hug one in a deep embrace. As the episode continued we saw clones strangling each other, head butting, and eventually shoot the other. In a single episode we had a season’s worth of visual effects.

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The Intelligent Creatures team is adamant that the general lack of attention drawn to their work on Orphan Black is in fact a great compliment:

The truest testament to our skill is how little the audience notices it. If people can immerse themselves within the plot enough to forget that this shot was done with VFX, then our jobs are done. We used visual effects to help do what the show’s creators intended to do: tell a story. The rest might as well be magic.

Watch the Intelligent Creatures sizzle reel for their work on Orphan Black:

Two Are One

There’s one twinning technique I haven’t discussed here. That’s because it puts visual effects artists out of work. I’m talking about those rare occasions when the director needs to double up the lead actor … and that actor just happens to have a real twin.

The example that springs into my mind (and probably into the minds of most regular Cinefex readers) is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which the shape-shifting T-1000 makes a last-ditch attempt to fool John Connor by mimicking his mother’s physical form. Director James Cameron placed the two Sarah Connors on screen simultaneously not with visual effects, but by drafting in actress Linda Hamilton’s twin sister Leslie. (Cameron used the same trick with twins Don and Dan Stanton, who played Lewis the Guard and his deadly doppelganger respectively.)

Audiences who don’t realise that Hamilton and Stanton are twins undoubtedly assume they’re seeing a camera trick, which only underlines just how tough it is for any visual effects artist to take on the twinning challenge. Why is it so hard? Because the audience knows.

They know the famous actor they’re seeing doesn’t have a twin. They know it’s a trick. When presented with a twinning effect, the average Joe Schmoe in the second row will put down his popcorn, sit forward in his seat and try his damndest to spot the join, even if ordinarily he has no interest in VFX whatsoever. Nowhere are the creators of visual effects placed under greater scrutiny than when they’re giving birth to twins.

And that’s why, of all the illusions a filmmaker might choose to put on screen, the twinning effect is undoubtedly in the running for my all-time number one.

Season 3 of Orphan Black is currently airing on BBC America:

*Published by Bonanza Books, 1987, quote sourced via The Ronald Colman Appreciation SocietyMoon image copyright © 2009 Lunar Industries/Sony Pictures. Orphan Black images copyright © 2014 Intelligent Creatures/Temple Street Productions.

5 thoughts on “Orphan Black and Twinning in the Movies

  1. I hope in the future Cinefex publishes a Cinefex blog book. It would be wonderful to have these articles in book form right up there on the shelf with my Cinefex collection..

  2. I’m glad you mentioned “Prisoner of Zenda.” This shot was done in camera by James Wong Howe, and I had the opportunity to ask him to describe this shot to the audience of a seminar I was attending back in the ’70’s. He was too ill to physically attend but appeared by phone. What a great example of the incredible skills of the pioneering camera people!

  3. “As many as three clones…” Pfft, that’s nothing. Stargate SG1’s “Insiders” featured twenty two clones of system lord Baal.

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