Seeing Double: An Appreciation for Dual-Screen Roles

‘Orphan Black’ has brought the concept of dual-screen roles back into the spotlight.
By  · Published on June 24th, 2017

‘Orphan Black’ has brought the concept of dual-screen roles back into the spotlight. This trend has existed in cinema and television for decades and deserves more credit than it receives. 

When Orphan Black premiered on BBC America in 2013, lead actress Tatiana Maslany took the world by storm because of her multiple roles in the series. As of season five, Maslany has played 11 different clones and plays six of those roles on a regular basis. She takes the role to a new level, even acting one clone pretending to be another one. All of this is achieved through a technique called dual-screen roles. Though the most common example of this technique, Orphan Black is not the first to use it.

Dual-screen roles are not a new concept. The earliest use of this concept dates back to 1922 in Lady of the Night where Norma Shearer portrays two characters and uses an unknown Joan Crawford as her stand in. Back then, the effect was created by the layering of film strips, after filming a scene twice with the actress playing both roles. Today, the same editing technique is used, but instead of film strips layered, digital scenes are layered in post production. When filming the scene, the main actor will perform the scene once as the first character, with a stand in acting and reacting as the other character(s) in the scene. Then, the roles reverse to allow for the main actor to film all necessary scenes as each character.

From Hayley Mills in Parent Trap to Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in Big Business, the trend continued throughout film and television. Actors who portray multiple characters have received acclaim and nominations, such as Nicholas Cage in Adaptation and Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. By giving an actor an opportunity to perform in such a role, it offers a challenge to both actor and filmmaker.

For the actor involved, the actor now has to play two separate characters at the same time. They have to master a new persona not just once, which is hard enough, but twice to act as both characters. On top of this, they have to interact with another person pretending to be them. Unlike a traditional acting situation, a star is required to act with a body double who stands in place of the actor’s other character. Once they film the first scene, they quickly change from one character to the next and then reenact the scene as the other character. Not only do they have to remember two sets of lines for one scene, they also have to react appropriately, depending on their performance of the first character. It becomes even more complicated when there are more than two characters, such as Heinz Erhardt as Eduard, Otto and Heinz Bollmann in Triplets on Board. It’s important for the actor to offer their best work, as the filmmaker’s job to pull off this effect is difficult.

On the filmmaker end, movie magic is a power but it takes time and effort to achieve. And an effect like this that requires combining scenes is no easy feat. Not only do they have to combine two different scenes, they have to erase all evidence of the body double and replace them with the actor performing the second time. Then, they have to match up the scene and make sure the reactions and actions performed by each character match up with one another.

In some scenarios, this has to be done on top of CGI rendering, such as in Doctor Strange where Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular hero and Dormammu, a CGI villain. It’s hard enough to keep continuity in check. Yet, these editors are required to make sure two different actors are in the same scene, even if it doesn’t seem like they are.

The least these actors and editors deserve is a round of applause for the hours of work that go into each of these scenes. The effort pays off when you get not one, but two spectacular performances from an actor or actress. Whether you appreciate this effect in Fargo season three, Back to the Future: Part 2 and Legend, the dual-screen technique adds a new dimension to storytelling and helps to push the boundaries of technology.


Related Topics:

Usually works best after her third Red Bull of the day. Lover of film, insomniatic dreamer.