Primetime: BBC America's 'Orphan Black'
Issue: September 1, 2014

Primetime: BBC America's 'Orphan Black'

BBC America pleasantly surprised viewers when it introduced them to street-wise hustler Sarah Manning (played by actress Tatiana Maslany), in its original series Orphan Black, and threw in a suspense/sci-fi twist when Manning discovers a mind-blowing secret that she is one of a series of genetically-identical individuals — otherwise known as clones. Following that premise, the show requires numerous scenes where Maslany portrays not only Manning, but any number of her clones; essentially acting with herself.

Co-created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, and produced by Temple Street Productions in association with BBC America and Space, Orphan Black, which is shot in Vancouver, completed its second season earlier this year and recently became available on DVD to carry enthusiasts throughout the fall.

Having doubled its ratings from Season 1 to Season 2, it was recently announced that Orphan Black is now in production of Season 3, which will premiere early next year.

The series has won and/or been nominated for a host of awards, including Golden Globes and Canadian Cinema Editors Awards, and more recently a 2014 Canadian Screen Award for show editor, D. Gillian Truster, for “Best Picture Editing in a Dramatic Program or Series” for the innovative “clone” scenes.
Here, Truster explains the complex process in more detail, from production to post.

It seems that the shots where Tatiana is playing her clones — Cosima, Alison, Rachel, Helena — in the same scenes are getting lots of attention. Can you talk about them?

“It’s true, people want to know, how are the clone scenes done? They definitely add an additional complication to the editing process. We’ve seen twinning in shows before, but what Orphan Black is doing is a very complex version of that by putting the clones in the same frame with a moving camera [Arri Alexa] and having them interact with each other as if they are separate people. When they are doing the master shots, they’ll use Tatiana’s double, Catherine Alexander, and they’ll figure out the blocking. Then they’ll do a pass with the camera where the two of them — when it’s two of them in the scene, sometimes it’s more — where the camera locks down the motion and captures the blocking. And then they’ll do a pass with Tatiana as one of the characters and she has an ear bud with Catherine saying the other lines, so that Tatiana has something to react to. So Tatiana has to basically copy the blocking that she did, and she has to remember where she was looking, because nobody else is in the frame with her in that pass.”

D. Gillian Truster (left)

So the double is not in those scenes with Tatiana?

“She’s in the scenes when they’re doing the over the shoulder shots and there are close ups. But in the master shots, unless they’re doing them as a split screen, when they are using the moving cameras and actually doing the shots where the shot will actually be composited, Catherine is off-camera, doing lines. 

"They’ll do a bunch of takes with Tatiana as one character and then they’ll redo it, she’ll change and she’ll redo it as the other character. And it really is quite a feat because she really is remembering where she was looking in frame, what she was doing and then, basically, the editors, when we get the footage, when we’re cutting those scenes [in Avid Media Composer], we’re creating those master shots. We’re picking takes and doing sort of a temp composite to see how it works and cutting. There are times when the double is in the scene, say, like last year there was a scene where one of the clones, Alison, pushes Sarah against a wall. In those cases, an arm is actually not Tatiana’s arm, part of that arm is actually the double’s arm and the VFX team cuts it off and attaches it to Tatiana’s body. It definitely adds a level of complexity to the edits.”

What do you think is the key to making these scenes work so well?

"There are two things. Intelligence Creatures is the VFX company, and they do a fantastic job with compositing these shots. But to also really sell it, is Tatiana’s performance. She’s behaving as if she were acting against somebody. There are times when I forget it’s the same actress. I’m sitting there cutting the two scenes together and I’m forgetting that this is one person, and not two separate people [laughs]. The hair, makeup and wardrobe people do a fantastic job as well, differentiating the characters, but also what I find amazing about Tatiana’s performance is how different the body language is and even the cadence of the speech. Even when she’s playing different characters whose accents are different. For example, Allison and Casema, they have different accents but they are not as pronounced, because of the difference in the cadence of the speech you can tell them apart immediately. And Rachel’s accent is different from Sarah’s British accent."

Any special techniques that you want to talk about with regard to the editing process on this show?

“The way I approach this is, ‘What is the story that I’m trying to tell here and what is it that I’m trying to get out of the scene?’ One thing I do is, I’ll go back to the scenes I already cut, look at them again, and try other things, and re-cut. I’ll do that for the entire assembly process. Even when I have all the scenes, and I string them all together, I look at them and will continue to re-cut because that will put things in context. How does the one scene work in context with the other scene or when I see everything together? Sometimes that will help me realize that I have to change the focus of earlier scenes because of something that happens in a later scene.”

Are there any particular challenges for you with regard to the editing? 

“I think with this show, there are additional considerations. The one obvious one we already discussed are the clone scenes; those take more time. 

"But also what’s important with this show, is the tone — there are quite a few tonal shifts that are really interesting. On one hand, most of the show is dark, mysterious. It has the thriller elements to it. On the other hand, the show can actually be quite hilarious. There's a ton of humor and it can also even go into almost screwball comedy.”

The scenes with Allison and her husband, where she has him tied up in the basement, and in another episode, they are trying to hide a body?

"Exactly. Certainly last year, with Episode 6, the house party comes to mind. That’s very much an upstairs/downstairs episode. This season, certainly, with Episode 7, with Felix and Allison trying to hide Vic. So, the great thing about it is, the writing is so good that with these changes of tone, they just flow naturally. But we still have to consider how far we want to take the comedy. For instance, when we’re placing the music, how far do we want to take the music? How comedic do we want to go with it? Because those are all things that will affect the tone. Even though there’s a tonal shift, we still want it to feel like the same show.”

I would also think the directing is key in this as well?

"Absolutely. This is a show where I think it really is extremely collaborative. I think everything, to pull off something like this, I think all the departments need to come to the table to really make this work. It really is a fantastic cast and crew."

This is such a different type of show, what were your initial thoughts when it was first brought to you?

“I had worked on another series for Temple Street and they liked working with me, so before they brought me in for an interview with John Fawcett, they sent me the first two scripts to read. I was blown away. When I read them, I was thinking, ‘I just have to get on this show; I have to.’ I was just keeping my fingers crossed.”