Author: Laura Prudom
Orphan Black debuts its fifth and final season on June 10, and while the show will always be remembered for introducing us to the incredible, multifaceted performances of star Tatiana Maslany — who has brought almost a dozen clones to life over the course of the series — some of its greatest achievements are moments that you never realized you saw.
Visual Effects Supervisor Geoff Scott and his team at Intelligent Creatures have been in charge of bringing Clone Club to life across the show’s 50 episodes, and like a magician performing up-close tricks, much of their work is designed to be invisible.
In a TV landscape where viewers are used to screenshotting their favorite scenes to search for clues, this visual sleight-of-hand becomes even more impressive. Suspending our disbelief for dragons or zombies is one thing, but every one of the visual effects in Orphan Black needs to be indistinguishable from reality, and it’s a feat that truly takes a village.
“The clone work, what was initially really rewarding for that, was the fact that nobody noticed it,” Scott explains. “Most people put a lot of praise on Tatiana, and that’s fantastic — that means I’ve done my job, because nobody noticed, and they’re enamored with the performances… For the first season, every time we did one and we put it out there, I would always read the blogs, and the forums, and different websites. And nobody commented on our work. But that was great — it meant that all the hard work was worthwhile.”
Each clone scene is a collaborative effort, beginning with Maslany and her acting double, Kathryn Alexandre, who film the scenes from start to finish with each of them playing one role before they switch, allowing Maslany to have a tangible scene partner to play against. At a certain point, Alexandre will step off the set and Maslany will play the scene alone, using tape or tennis balls to guide her eyeline and wearing an earpiece to hear Alexandre’s lines, allowing her to interact with the other clone even with no one acting opposite her.
All this is aided by a motion control camera rig called a technodolly, which can be programmed to repeat the same complex camera movements over and over again, allowing for complete consistency between takes, even when the actors are swapping in and out.
“We used to call it ‘the time vampire’ because, occasionally, it would break down and just not work at all for us. But we couldn’t have done the show without it,” Scott says. “I strongly believe that it was the thing that helped us make the show.”
For the clone scenes, Scott’s team has a number of duties in addition to compositing the two Maslany performances together, which range from removing lights and camera reflections from the background, to digitally adding blood or props. Sometimes, Scott reveals, it also requires him to “harvest” different body parts from Maslany and Alexandre to create a whole clone, a process that he admits is “a little Frankenstein-y, to be honest.”
In a Season 1 scene which featured Sarah, Alison and Cosima in Felix’s loft, Scott recalls, “Alison pours Cosima a glass of wine. And we’d have to steal Kathryn’s arm and put it onto Tatiana’s body while she poured wine to Cosima. And it was the first time ever, when I was going through the forums, that somebody went, ‘Wait a minute. How the hell did they get her to pour her own glass of wine?’ And I felt that somebody noticed, but without noticing. So it was good.”
“The clone fight [in the Season 4 finale] was probably one of the most laborious scenes,” Scott shares. “I had to take Tatiana’s torso from, at one point, a different camera angle on the technodolly, because they liked the performance if you could see her face better, and then I had to marry it to her acting double’s legs from a different take and a different angle completely.”
Even the knife that Rachel stabs into Sarah’s leg became a CG replacement, Scott says. “We do a lot of those things, and, when nobody notices … everybody knows what a knife looks like, everybody has a knife in their kitchen. Making that look completely real is the toughest stuff.”
And of course, the show has become known for its elaborate multiple-clone scenes — including the Season 2 dance party featuring Felix, Sarah, Helena, Alison and Cosima, and the even more complicated dinner party scene at the end of Season 3.
“We usually have anywhere from eight to 11 artists working on a clone scene at a time. It’s eight to 10 hours, 10 to 12 hours day,” Scott says. “The clone dance party took four weeks to assemble. The more complex one after the dance party was the dinner scene, because we had four clones, but then we also had five other actors in the scene in a very tight, tiny space, with a bunch of little bottles and stuff that were always on the hairy edge of moving. And two dinner sets, there was the ‘where everybody ate’ setting, and so props had to come out and make sure that was all matching. And then there was the mid-meal set. So that was a lot of mental data wrangling to organize that.”
But the show also contains hundreds of non-clone effects that viewers wouldn’t think to look for.
“The helicopters landing on the beach [in Season 4], that was quite literally Tat on a blue box, on a beach in Toronto,” Scott says.
Back in Season 1, Scott’s team even created a fully computer-generated version of the train and station where Beth commits suicide.
“Although we shot at the train station here in Toronto … The shot that sort of pans and follows her off, that was Tatiana on the stage in the studio on green screen. And then we filmed several plates of the train going by. But what we ended up having to do, in order to really get the timing and the sense of speed but without messing with the camera, is essentially take all our plates projected onto geometry. So it’s actually a fully CG build of the train and the station,” Scott reveals.
And while it seems impossible to imagine how the show might pull off anything more elaborate than the dance party or dinner scene, Scott says “of course” they were trying to top their previous high benchmarks in the final season.
“This season we’ve done even more. But not in a way that’s gratuitous and only in a way that supports the narrative and the story,” he says. “Again, my biggest hope is nobody notices my team’s work.”
From Maslany’s nuanced performances to the visual wizardry taking place behind the scenes, Orphan Black‘s greatest strength is making the impossible seem real — and that’s a legacy that will last long after the show leaves our screens.
Orphan Black Season 5 airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on BBC America.