orphan black

Orphan Black’s technological prowess set the bar for future TV

The competition between television networks and online streaming services currently is flaming hot. Powerhouses like Game of Thrones are bringing movie-quality battles and storytelling to television, and Netflix and Hulu are developing excellent originals such as Stranger Things and Black Mirror. I’ve never found so much TV to love! This upgrade in show quality also comes with an upgrade in special effects, but there’s one problem: these aren’t the early days. The typical CGI dragons and imaginary future tech no longer impress me; they’re expected! There is, however, one thing that does: the use of technology in the sci-fi series Orphan Black.

Beware: Spoilers right ahead!

Welcome to the trip, man

The concept of the Orphan Black mandates an authentic feel, as the show follows a group of women who find out they are clones. We don’t know exactly how many there are in the world, but the show features over a dozen, each played by Emmy award-winner Tatiana Maslany. Although I’d love to go all fan-girl and glow about the amazing job Tatiana does on the show, I don’t want to provide too many spoilers. Besides, even with her talent, the show wouldn’t be what it is today without a key piece of tech: the technodolly.

Every rule needs to be broken

The trip down technology lane all started with the idea that the clone scenes should look natural. The creators did not want to rely on industry tricks that often looked too fake for comfort, especially if the clones were to interact. Luckily, they found their answer in Technocrane s.r.o.‘s telescoping camera cranes.

Using the company’s motion-control technodolly, the crew’s camera can be both manually controlled and automated. First, the director manually controls the camera to get a good shot. Then, they turn it over to the camera. With the push of a button, it retraces the previous movements exactly. This allows Tatiana to act out a scene as one clone, opposite either a tennis ball placeholder or her double Kathryn Alexandre, then act out the same scene as a different clone.

The results speak for themselves. (Note: I chose early scenes that are not spoiler-heavy. There are much better ones in later seasons!)

The whole process that creates these life-like scenes is pretty cool. For instance, when the creators put each of the takes together, sometimes they wind up with Tatiana’s face and torso but Kathryn’s arm. It takes careful alignment and planning to get the clones just right, but boy are they good at it! So good, in fact, that clone hugs and fights look flawless.

Would you believe we’re clones?

The quality of the clones scenes has spoiled me, really.

I remember watching the fight scene between Chip and Dale on Baskets, and the part where Dale chokes Chip looked horrible to me.

The Parent Trap uses backside shots in the twin scenes, except for in short scenes where a still, close-up frame has the characters together, but nicely spaced apart.

Resident Evil: Afterlife does a decent job. There’s a scene where two Alice clones are fighting together, and although it doesn’t look forced, you could draw a line between the two sides of the screen and neither clone would cross.

Orphan Black Sarah and Alison
Sarah pats Alison on the leg in season 1.

In other words, no one does clones and/or twins quite like Orphan Black. While characters face the viewer, the clones actually touch. Instead of relying on the typical still frame shots, the camera flows though the scenes. These two small changes actually make a huge difference in making you see the clones as individuals, and if you ask any Orphan Black fan, making you forget it’s the same actress playing them all!

I just want to make, like, crazy science with you

Since we also love science around here, I’d be a horrible fan if I didn’t take a moment to also geek out on the reality-based scientific aspects of the show. Yes, we aren’t at the point of seeing human clones walking around yet…that we know of…but that doesn’t mean Orphan Black relies on wild, unrealistic ideas.

Recently, news broke of the first human embryo editing experiment in the United States. Using CRISPR, scientists edited the germline of human embryos to remove a gene that causes a specific disease of the heart, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. In the Orphan Black universe, similar tactics are used, except that intent was, obviously, to  implant the embryo.

There are many other cases where the show is just a step or two off from reality, and there are others that turn out to be current reality, no matter how far-fetched they sound. One example that won’t spoil the plot includes stem cell cosmetic treatment causing bone to grow in a woman’s eyelid. I thought it was something made up for the show, but it wasn’t. Lesson learned: don’t dismiss the science if it sounds outlandish with this show because it just might be reality.

Being a show that “follows the science,” it’s not surprising that it covers themes relevant to current and future scientific research. While there’s the well-known nature versus nurture dilemma, Orphan Black also touches on ideas that are becoming ever-more important to tackle as the science of gene editing advances. For instance, the ethics of experimentation has a constant presence: Is it right to experiment on humans if the product is less suffering and illness across humanity? Then, that ties into eugenics, and even bodily autonomy. Should a scientist get to decide the ideal genetic make up of humanity? If anything, Orphan Black makes you think hard about the questions we will have to answer in coming decades as science breaks through more barriers.

Not everyone will find these topics appealing, but if you’re a bit of a science nerd like me? The science is one of the major things that keeps me coming back for more.

You can’t leave me! No!

Now that I’m done hyping you up, I must break the news: There are only two episodes left of Orphan Black. But even though final episode of the fifth season airs Saturday, August 12th, on BBC America, that doesn’t mean it’s too late to join those of us in Clone Club; it means it’s the perfect time to binge it! 

If you’re ready for the trip, stream or download the show from any of the providers below, including directly from BBC America’s website.

Watch the original trailer:

Krista

Krista

Krista's a freelance proofreader and writer who spends most days eyeballing medical texts, others crafting stories for teen games. Sometimes she even makes a few bucks with photography. One thing's always true--she's got a hot geek streak for historical and scientific discovery.
Krista

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