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Complexity, Creativity, Conspiracies: Intertwining the Stories in the BBC Thriller ‘Orphan Black’

BBC America’s conspiracy thriller Orphan Black is back for its second season. Co-created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, with Manson also serving as writer and Fawcett as director, and starring Tatiana Maslany in eight distinctly different roles, the series peels back the layers of secrets surrounding a diabolical science experiment that created a group of clones.

One of the pivotal moments in

Orphan Black

episode five concerns Helena being talked out of shooting Rachel by Sarah. All are clones played by Tatiana Maslany.

As season two begins, Sarah, who has befriended fellow clones Alison and Cosima, desperately searches for her missing daughter Kira, which pits her against the ruthless clone Rachel. Stirring up more trouble is the unhinged clone Helena, who doesn’t hesitate to kill. No one can be trusted and the stakes are life itself.

Maslany’s extraordinary performances as all the clones, who often interact in scenes, has already brought her multiple awards (including a TCA Award for Individual Achievement, a Critics’ Choice Best Dramatic Actress Award, the Young Hollywood Award for Breakthrough Performance and a Canadian Screen Actor Award for Best Performance in a Dramatic Role). But little attention has been paid to the art and technology behind putting two versions of Maslany in the same scene and allowing them to interact so intimately.

Helen Shaver, who directed season two’s episode five, spoke about how the filmmakers routinely create this complicated series, episode after episode, on TV’s tight deadlines. (Other episode directors in season two include TJ Scott, David Frazee, Brett Sullivan and Ken Girotti.)

Shaver came to Orphan Black eminently qualified. Starting her career as an actor, she transitioned to director in the late 1990s (although she still occasionally acts), and cut her directorial teeth on several episodes of the VFX-heavy Outer Limits television series, which aired on Showtime and in syndication from 1995 to 2002. (She’s also directed episodes of Revolution, Elementary, Person of Interest, Law & Order: SVU and The Bridge, among others.)

Helen Shaver (pictured) directed

Orphan Black

season two’s episode five. Photo by Jan Thijs for BBC America.

“I’ve shot a lot of visual effects in my life and acted in projects with VFX,” she says. “It’s slightly more complex when the same actor plays on both sides of the line, but the technique is the same.”

After being wowed by Maslany’s performance in Picture Day, Shaver saw her again in Orphan Black and e-mailed Graeme Manson, with whom she’d already worked, to tell him how much she loved the show. Manson offered her a chance to direct episode five, called “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est.”

Shaver says that prep was kept to a minimum. “Prep was finding locations, thinking about how I wanted to shoot the scenes,” says Shaver, who reports that the episode had eight shoot days. Cinematographer Aaron Morton has shot every episode, with the ARRI Alexa. “He’s gifted and incredibly inventive,” says Shaver. “He’s a huge contributor to the look and success of the show.”

Every episode has at least a couple of scenes in which the clones interact, and Orphan Black approaches the effect in a low-tech, analog fashion. Key to making it work is Kathryn Alexandre, who doubles for Maslany. “She’s an extraordinary asset and a very fine actor,” says Shaver. “She and Tatiana have this worked out so they flow back and forth.”

Although motion control would have been ideal, Shaver reports that they “couldn’t afford the time or money” for it. “All my doubling scenes were done in a very simple, rudimentary way,” she explains. Take the scene early on where the mentally disturbed Helena is in Sarah’s apartment. “We did a straight split-screen for the scene in the first act when Helena is on the couch and Sarah is in the kitchen,” she says. “I came in with a move, and had Felix [Sarah’s foster brother, played by Jordan Gavaris] cross Sarah’s character, which really hides the fact that it’s a split-screen. This makes it a bit more difficult in post but not in production,” Shaver says.

The director says of the sniper scene, “The image I wanted very much from the sniper’s nest was where we’re over Helena’s shoulder [looking] to Sarah begging her to stop, and through the scope you see Rachel having sex with Paul.”

“I have it all blocked in my head and I’ve worked it out with the cinematographer before rehearsal,” says Shaver. They rehearse the scene first with Tatiana playing (and costumed as) Helena and Kathryn playing (and costumed as) Sarah, then flip roles and rehearse again. “You start with the close-ups and go to the wider shots,” says Shaver. “In the wider shots, where we lock off the cameras, you see the multiple clones.” After that, Tatiana and Kathryn go to costume and makeup, which takes an hour to an hour and a half, while the production shoots elsewhere.

After the two women have switched costumes (and identities), the scene is reshot. “We repeat the setup we’ve just ended with, the wide setup, with them playing the reverse roles, and then go into the close-ups of Tatiana in the Sarah role,” explains Shaver. “Thank God the monitor is there, so as we’re doing the second half, they’re marrying the two scenes in the monitor, replaying what’s been played, superimposing the second scene.”

The most complex setup in episode five is the penultimate scene. Helena has created a sniper’s nest in a ballroom high up in a skyscraper. As she assembles the rifle and gets Rachel in her crosshairs, Sarah rushes in and convinces Helena not to pull the trigger. “We were planning a crane shot—not motion control, but a more elaborate shot to put them in the same frame,” says Shaver. “But the elevator in that building was too small for the crane.”

Instead, the crew used a RED EPIC camera, shooting at the highest resolution. Cinematographer Aaron Morton elaborates: “We used the RED EPIC for a lock-off clone shot of Helena getting down off the table and standing with Sarah. We did this so we could reframe if necessary within the large RED frame. It is a higher resolution camera than the Alexa.”

Sarah convinces Helena not to pull the trigger.

Shaver says, “That allowed us to move within the frame and take the elements we wanted. It’s all smoke and mirrors to a degree, tricking the eye of the audience. This scene is a more extreme example of that.”

Throughout the episode, Shaver made sure to focus carefully on each clone. “When I approach directing, I want to tell the story in the strongest possible way, but there’s always the story under the story,” she says. “What I wanted to do in this piece was really to look in the eyes of each of these characters.”

Helena gets her moment in the opening scene of the episode, when she looks into a tank of brightly colored fish. In the fourth act, Cosima gets hers when Dr. Leekie is about to inject her with a potentially healing serum. “It’s extreme close-ups,” Shaver says. “For the clones I deal with in this episode—Cosima, Helena, Sarah and Rachel—I wanted to have the audience become incredibly intimate with each of them.”

The audience is just getting to know Rachel, a clone who knows her genetic history and is an apparently emotionless leader in the nefarious Dyad Institute. When Helena is in her sniper’s nest, getting ready to fire on Rachel, Rachel is inside her glass-and-metal apartment, getting ready to sexually dominate Paul, a Dyad Institute employee.

“The image I wanted very much from the sniper’s nest was where we’re over Helena’s shoulder [looking] to Sarah begging her to stop, and through the scope you see Rachel having sex with Paul,” she says. Shaver put her directorial stamp on the scene in which Rachel and Paul have sex. “I began thinking about how can I create this female-dominant sex that really tells us something about Rachel,” she says. She placed the scene in the dining room, and put Paul in a chair, where Rachel mounts him.

Characters in

Orphan Black

season two.

“Tatiana and I talked and worked a little more,” Shaver continues. “I had the idea—I don’t know from where—of Rachel putting her hand in his mouth, like checking a horse’s teeth, of slapping him and sending him to get the chair. These were things that came to me and I gave to her and she embraced them.”

“Graeme and I talked about the scene, and Graeme took it to another level,” she says. “Rachel doesn’t want to completely emasculate Paul so Graeme came up with the dialogue exchange and the scene developed more. We brought Dylan [Bruce, who plays Paul] into it to make sure he was comfortable and then we rehearsed. From those basic tent-poles, these two actors gave themselves to the moment, as great actors do. And the result was specific and moving and sexy and scary.”

“Through the course of working together, it was really fluid and good,” she adds. “Each director finds the relationship with each actor; it’s a very individual, alive relationship. Tatiana and I resonated with each other very much. Her performances are a diamond and each clone is a facet on this diamond. To truly look at each plane, each facet of the diamond, was of interest to me.”

None of this could happen, says Shaver, without the intensely collaborative environment that Manson and Fawcett have created. “So much of TV these days is shot in a way where the production is one place in the world and the writers are someplace else,” she says. “This show is not. It’s unusual and quite extraordinary the collaborative way in which it is made, and that’s due to John and Graeme, who are really brilliant executive producers.”