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Visual Inventions on the Final Season of ‘Orphan Black’

After five thrilling seasons, BBC's hit sci-fi series "Orphan Black" is winding down to what fans expect will be a gripping conclusion.

After five thrilling seasons, BBC’s hit sci-fi series Orphan Black is winding down to what fans expect will be a gripping conclusion. From the moment that young single mom Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) saw a woman with her own face leap to her death at a train station, her life hasn’t been the same. Over the course of the show, Sarah has learned that the woman wasn’t simply a doppelgänger but an honest-to-goodness clone with an evil corporation responsible for her existence. Further, there are more clones—many more—and multiple factions seeking to hunt, control, betray or kill them. In an epic performance, actor Tatiana Maslany plays all of the clones and a good portion of all of the characters on the show.

New Zealand-based cinematographer Aaron Morton has the distinction of having shot almost every single episode of the show’s five seasons, barring three of them when he was prepping to direct episodes (which he also shot). Morton got the gig owing to his long friendship with series co-creator John Fawcett, who he met two decades ago when Fawcett was a director on the New Zealand-shot Xena: Warrior Princess and Morton was starting out as a camera assistant. From there, Fawcett tapped Morton to shoot episodes of the Starz series Spartacus. “Then when he got his own show, he asked me to come up to Canada,” Morton explains of his work on Orphan Black, whose five seasons have all been shot in Toronto.

Rachel Duncan (Tatiana Maslany, left), the first female clone raised aware of her origin, and Sarah Manning (Maslany), the original clone whose life changes dramatically after witnessing the suicide of a woman who looks just like her.
Photo by Woroner/BBC America

One of the very first things Morton did when prepping and establishing the show’s look during the first season was to create a LUT. “I create a grade with certain color and contrast that I use almost as a film stock. I don’t do any grading on the set,” he explains. “And then I pretty much stick to those LUTs across the whole series. So that meant it had a unified sort of look.”

Of course, one of the show’s signature creative and technical challenges is that one actress—Emmy Award-winning Tatiana Maslany, in a career-defining role—is playing multiple characters, often in the same scene. In some instances, the effect is achieved simply with a locked-off camera and a split-screen. That works well if the clones are on opposite sides of the frame and they don’t cross and don’t touch. “But anytime there’s a major scene or anytime we need camera movement, we use the amazing SuperTechno Technodolly,” Morton reveals. “That’s basically a 15-foot telescoping crane on a moving dolly. The way we use it, we can record the shot’s movement live. So we can treat it like a traditional, analog piece of grip equipment like a crane or jib to work out the action and rehearse with the actors until we get it right. Once we’ve nailed the move the way we want it, that move is recorded by the machine, and then it can repeat that move ad infinitum.”

Alison Hendrix (Maslany) and Neo (Calvin Desautels)
Photo by Ken Woroner/BBC America

At that point, Maslany will play the other roles alongside her acting double, Kathryn Alexandre, while the camera automatically reshoots the scene until they have every shot they need. “Once we’ve recorded the move, the robot camera can do it exactly the same way each time, but that relies on the actors doing it exactly the same way each time as well,” says Morton.

“The ace up our sleeve is that Tatiana is like an acting robot—but in a very human way,” he adds with a laugh. “She has an incredible ability to make it feel real and very natural, but between each take, you can say: you were just slightly late when you picked up that glass or when you reached across here or when you went out the door. She’ll be able to retain that information, do the take again, and really retain those small, physical, subtle notes.”

Helena (Maslany, left) and Sarah (Maslany). Helena is Sarah’s identical twin, estranged at birth and raised by nuns in an oppressive Ukrainian convent. Helena is now pregnant with twins that hold the secret to their clone biology.
Photo by Ken Woroner/BBC America

Morton credits Alexandre as the “unsung hero” of the series and an integral part of the show’s success. “Their rapport, and they’ve gotten to know each other so well, is what really makes it quite seamless.” From there, visual effects company Intelligent Creatures, led by VFX supervisor Geoff Scott, blends the passes together to make Clone Club come to life.

Morton admits that one of the most challenging parts of his job for those sequences is the lighting. He says he tends to light the whole scene before they begin shooting and then leaves it alone, for the most part. “Once it’s lit, it’s better not to touch it because the more I change the lighting, the harder it’s going to be to blend the different layers together,” he explains.

Cosima Niehaus (Maslany) is the laid-back geeky stoner who dropped out of a Ph.D. program to study the female clones’ biology.
Photo by Ken Woroner/BBC America

Morton’s go-to lighting fixtures have been Kino Flo’s Celeb LEDs, which he’s used over all five seasons. “They’re my favorite lights,” he says. “I think they’re a really great tool for fine-tuning and fine lighting on a film set. [ARRI] SkyPanels [which he has also used on the show] are great for bluescreens and big, broad brushstrokes kind of lighting, but you can be quite delicate with the Celebs.”

The show has been shot with ARRI Alexa cameras since day one. Two cameras are rolling on every scene, but when the Technodolly is being used, a third camera is mounted on that. “It’s bulletproof, mostly,” Morton says about the Alexa. “The dynamic range, the color technology, the color science in those cameras is amazing. They just never stop. You never have the camera break down or have issues in a typical way. That’s what I love about ARRI. They just make things that work—with beautiful pictures as well.” Morton’s lens kit includes ARRI Master Primes and Angenieux Optimo 24-290 zooms.

Krystal (Maslany), the newest clone, is on a crusade to expose the forces that oppose them.
Photo by Ken Woroner/BBC America

Color correction for the show is handled by colorist Mark Kueper of Technicolor Toronto. Kueper actually helped Morton develop the show’s original LUT, giving the DP peace of mind that the process is in very capable hands. “I live in New Zealand so I’m not able to follow the post all the way through. During post for the first two or three episodes I’m usually still in Toronto, so I drop in and color correct for those,” says Morton. “But because we’ve got the LUTs, you’re sort of fine-tuning and embellishing within that look that we’ve already established.”

The final episode of Orphan Black airs August 12 on BBC America. The entire series is available to stream on the BBC America app.  

Download the August 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine

Twitter links:

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Aaron Morton on Twitter: Follow @ronjmorton

John Fawcett on Twitter: Follow @JohnFawcett75

Intelligent Creatures on Twitter: Follow @icvfx

Geoff Scott on Twitter: Follow @geoff_vfx

Kino Flo on Twitter: Follow @KinoFloLighting

ARRI on Twitter: Follow @ARRIChannel

Angenieux on Twitter: Follow @AngenieuxLenses

Technicolor on Twitter: Follow @TechnicolorCrea
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