VFX For TV: 'Orphan Black'
Issue: April 1, 2015

VFX For TV: 'Orphan Black'

Season 3 of Orphan Black, BBC America’s popular sci-fi clone drama, returns this month with all-new episodes centered around lead character Sarah Manning, who had discovered an unsettling truth in Season 1 — that she was part of a cloning experiment. Lead actress Tatiana Maslany masterfully portrays all iterations of her clone, from soccer mom Alison Hendrix and science geek Cosima Niehaus, to the ruthless corporate Rachel Duncan and the unstable and sometimes dangerous Helena.

Here, Post speaks with senior VFX supervisor Geoff Scott of Intelligent Creatures (www.intelligentcreatures.com), the Toronto-based VFX house and sole VFX vendor for the show, about its work on Orphan Black, including the show’s signature “clone scenes” and Season 2’s inspiring “clone dance party” finale, which featured all of the show’s clones together in one scene.

“This all obviously started with, ‘How do we do clones,’” says Scott. “That was the trick. We needed to do clones that would be believable and feel real; not staged. So, we ran a series of tests prior to Season 1, trying different motion-control systems, but, as with everything, it grows. In Season 1, we did over 300 visual effects for the show — the majority of them being clone work.”

Many of the clone scenes are shot with Maslany portraying one of her many characters, essentially acting with a microphone where a body double/stand-in actress (Kathryn Alexandre) reads the other clone’s lines. That way, Maslany has something to respond to. Maslany then switches into the other character and does the scene over again, this time, portraying her clone.

“Quite often, in almost every clone scene, there’s a piece of physical interaction between the clones,” explains Scott. “And we always try to do it in a way that’s very natural, doesn’t feel forced and is only there to help the story. So, they almost always pass something, hand something to each other, talk to each other, touch each other. For example, at the end of Season 1, we had one of the clones pour wine to the other clone. For those scenes, we use Katherine. We took Katherine’s arm at the sockets, and tracked that arm onto Tat’s body. We could have done CG fluid dynamic from the bottle of wine to the glass, but we’re still working with a TV budget and this is the most economical way to do it. With that being said, we still had to sort of break her arm in a few places, shorten it and reposition it.”

Scott is also proud of one of the other signature scenes from Season 2 — what he refers to as the “clone dance party.” He says, “It was a bit of a showcase for us. I think the first time we put our reel out, we got about 250,000 hits on it. Nobody has ever had a demo reel with 250,000 hits on it before,” he laughs.  

According to Scott, the clone dance party was “on the board for a very long time in the writers’ room. When they first mentioned it to me, they said, ‘What would it take to do this?’ And I responded, ‘Are you kidding me!?’”

Scott says that there were “probably almost 20 hours of meetings and talks and prep about it; almost a full, 24-hour cycle on discussing whether we could do it, how we could do it, what the logistics behind it would be, etc.”

After about another eight hours of rehearsal, where production and cast walked through the scene, and paced it out, Scott says they actually gridded out the floor.

“Whenever we do a clone scene, particularly when it’s moving, we sort of do a football match sort of plan, like, ‘This person is over here, this person is over here,’ so we laid it out that way, so we have a game plan of where everyone is,” explains Scott. “We laid out quadrants for Tatiana to contain herself in and we used Jordan Gavaris [Felix] to act as a bridge between all the clones. The one thing is, that’s very subtle, is that he interacts with each of the clones, which helps add a level of connectivity to it. He starts off dancing with Cosima, and then he walks past Sarah, lifts up the table and then we cheated him out of the frame. He no longer lived in that take. And, he almost immediately pops back in and he pulls Alison up, and then slides behind Helena and comes back around and dances with Sarah. So he was what we refer to as our bridge.”

The scene was shot green screen on Arri Alexi, like the rest of the series, and involved rotoscoping. The ArriRaw files were then delivered to the studio, which converted the plates to the DPX format. Scott says they use Digital Fusion for all compositing, rotoscoping, 2D tracking and final integration. All 3D tracking is done in PFTrack. All 3D modeling and animation is done in Maya. And all of the rendering is in V-Ray, with effects work done in Maya fluids and Houdini.

Scott adds that going beyond clone work, they are also doing set extensions and some augmented reality. For instance, at the end of Season 2, “We really upped the game,” he says. “We did a fully digital C17, which Helena is carted off [by soldiers] in a completely-digital environment which we’re very proud of. We set it up outside to get some natural light and shot with bluescreen. We didn’t need to go to an airport or rent a plane. We just did it digitally.”

Scott adds that he’s seen “exponential growth” in the amount of VFX shots and challenges between seasons, explaining that “show creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson wanted to create a level of realism in a science fiction fantasy show — there’s a level of believability that keeps you dialed in. I obviously can’t say anything, but Season 3 is going to be great.”