In the lower east end of Toronto, half a dozen technicians are easing a 3500-pound camera contraption onto ramps in order to elevate it just enough to capture the scene that will soon take place below. Stand-ins are in place as the technicians secure this “Technodolly” to stop it from vibrating when director David Frazee eventually yells “action” on episode 409 of “Orphan Black,” and all five camera operators work in sync to create Tatiana Maslany’s famous clones.
It’s business as usual for the crew, who have had four seasons to perfect the art of capturing the intricate layers used to bring the BBC America/Space co-production to life. In the top-secret scene of the season’s penultimate episode, Maslany, Ari Millen and Jordan Gavaris work around stand-in Kathryn Alexandre and eventually a mounted tennis ball in order to keep the eyelines even and fluid. Once they have the original take wrapped, however, the Technodolly takes over and the magic of film is unleashed.
At this point in the process, the camera — which was a relatively new technology in 2012 when the series began filming — is a standard tool the show has come to rely on despite its hefty cost. According to co-creator, co-showrunner and director John Fawcett, there are only three available to them in the area: in Toronto, New York and Vancouver. And with more productions (such as “Heroes Reborn”) exploring the tech in Toronto’s sci-fi heavy filming district, the producer has found himself having to call in a machine from out of town on days when he hasn’t been able to book it in time. It’s the same scenario when a Technodolly breaks down, which happened back in Season 2. Too heavy for a flight — it’s essentially “a silent crane with a 10-foot reach” — a machine was driven the 40-odd hours from Vancouver in order to shoot the integral scene instead. Given that there’s only one Maslany and more than 10 clones for her to portray at this point in the show, it’s the only way to keep the Leda universe intact.
“It gets easier every time you do it, but John always wants to push the limits of what we’re able to do with the technology,” Maslany explains. “No part of it is natural, but the great thing is we always rehearse the scenes a lot with people in there so I’ve got a good sense of just what it would be like if there was another person there.”
Behind-the-scenes, that rehearsal is even greater. Visual effects supervisor Geoff Scott reveals that some of the bigger, trademark “Orphan Black” scenes, such as the Season 3 dinner party or the infamous sophomore season dance party, can take up to 1500 man hours to assemble, and often come with at least 20 hours of meetings. Even then, an idea isn’t always guaranteed to work. Most recently for the show’s fourth season finale, Fawcett had to put his original idea for the execution of a clone-heavy scene on hold and go with a back-up plan instead.
“We just couldn’t pull it off, but I don’t want to say what it is because I like it too much and I want to use it someplace,” he says. “Maybe I’ll do it in the season premiere next year.” In the end, Fawcett and co. found another way to convey the emotional scene, which he promises will be unlike anything ever featured on the show.
“That scene was a mix of an emotional challenge and a technical one,” Maslany teases. “The scene is a climactic scene in the episode and in the season, actually. It’s definitely complicated when you do a heavy emotional scene in that context. It was a real test, for sure.”
In terms of Season 4 itself, it seems as though there will be plenty of emotions to go around. Now that the controversial Castor storyline has come to a close, the series will experience a return to its roots. That includes revisiting Neolution — the scientific organization obsessed with genetic meddling that viewers encountered in the first season — and more of an exploration into Beth’s tragic past. It also features the introduction of new clone M.K., a hacker sort, who lives on the outskirts of society and comes into contact with Sarah in a new, unexplored way.
“I don’t want to repeat what I’ve done, so I’m always trying to come up with different clever ways to make a camera move or different and unique ways to make clones interact — all the directors do,” Fawcett says. “We’ve done some really cool stuff this year and we push the boundaries a lot with them trying to actually touch each other.”
At this point in the series, it can be easy for viewers and even the producers to sometimes forget that it’s a visual effect they’re watching — and not just several Maslany clones performing the various roles — as seamless as she makes it feel. It’s a feat Fawcett and his team have been attempting for years, and one they hope has taken this fictional world to the next level. At the very least, it’s helped to garner considerable critical acclaim and awards buzz for Maslany.
“It doesn’t even really look like a visual effect shot anymore, it just looks like two people in the same space so you don’t really question it,” Fawcett says. “But it is complicated — obviously there aren’t two Tatianas, but it’s easy to forget that because she’s so good.”
“Orphan Black” Season 4 premieres Thursday, April 14 at 10 p.m. on BBC America in the U.S. and Space in Canada.