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The Evolution of the Way Actors Play Fraternal Twins in Hollywood Movies and TV

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  • Hollywood has always been fascinated by twins and specifically identical twins played by a single actor.
  • This episode of “Movies Insider” traces the evolution of the creation of fraternal twins in films.
  • Starting with the matte effects of the silent movie era, we follow the progress of the twin effects to “Us” in 2019.
  • Visit the Insider home page for more stories.

Here is the transcript of the video.

Narrator: Take a look at this scene from “The Parent Trap” from 1961. It’s easy enough to spot where the shot is sewn to make it look like Hayley Mills is playing two twins.

Now take a look at this photo from the 2019 movie “Us”. Lupita Nyong’o appears to be one-on-one with her lookalike, who squeezes her neck as they grab each other by the wrists. To pull off this scene, director Jordan Peele needed more than just a point.

But creating complex twin plans like this has required many building blocks over more than 100 years of innovation. So how did this happen?

Having a starring actor in two roles was a popular novelty in the silent movie era and in early walkie-talkies.

Join the navy group when they play

See that shot from 1898, where illusionist Georges Mlis created four moving versions of his head in a single image? This was accomplished with the use of matte shots, which were a bit like old-school green screen composites created by blocking out portions of the camera lens.

The first split screen effects were obtained with mattes. This is the traditional twin technique that you probably associate with “The Parent Trap”.

You film the scene twice, with the actor and a replacement, then combine the two filmstrips into one. To hide the seam, filmmakers use in-plane background elements, such as a door frame.

You can see it in “A Stolen Life”, with two Bette Davises. Or here, where the actor once again played twins in “Dead Ringer”. In these movies you can also see the use of the classic over the shoulder technique, where the actor is talking to a replacement filmed from behind.

Shared screens got complicated when one twin had to interact with another. Take this scene from “The Prisoner of Zenda”, where Ronald Colman shakes hands with his identical cousin. The filmmakers put glass in front of the camera, part of which was covered with masking tape to tame the head and shoulders of the actor’s double. After filming the scene, they turned the film upside down and filmed it again with the actor on the other side, this time doing everything but his head and shoulders.

That’s a lot of work for a helping hand that only lasts a few seconds.

The split screen also typically required filming with a locked, stationary camera, resulting in shot compositions that could look very designed, with a sort of butterfly symmetry.

So how did you go from that to a shot like this, from David Cronenberg’s horror movie “Dead Ringers”?

In this film, not to be confused with Bette Davis’ previous film “Dead Ringer”, Jeremy Irons plays a disturbed pair of twin gynecologists. The movie was a big deal back then due to the dynamics of its plans. In this scene, for example, you see the twins walking and talking together, followed by a flowing camera.

And a plan like this was only possible thanks to the innovations of “Star Wars”, which in 1977 was the first film to make extensive use of motion control cameras. This was revolutionary for twin effects as directors could now program precise, repeatable camera movements to reproduce the same shot over and over again. This has helped visual effects artists film clean plates without actors and use those plates to help merge people into the scene in post-production.

Motion control became a mainstay of the twin films. And in 2002, that was among several techniques used to create the 130 twinning plans in the movie “Adaptation,” where Nic Cage plays the same Kaufman brothers.

In particular, the filmmakers made the effects invisible thanks to green screen composites. That’s when you shoot a twin on a green screen, isolate them, and compose them into a shot with the other twin, as seen here with Seth Rogen’s two characters in ” An American Pickle ”.

For this scene, Seth walked on a conveyor belt in front of a green screen so that when his two characters were together, they were moving at exactly the right pace. In “Adaptation,” the green screen method only worked for about 20% of the twin shots, mostly in the scenes that took place indoors.

Outdoors, green screens can create green spill issues, when that green light ends up in places you don’t want. In these cases, the filmmakers of “Adaptation” have turned to rotoscoping, which essentially consists of tracing by hand. With the rise of digital rotoscoping in the 90s, the technique became a major player in twin films, allowing artists to bring together elements from different shots even if they weren’t filmed in front of a green screen.

It’s one thing to do two versions of an actor, but what about 80?

This is the number of versions of Hugo Weaving that appear in the “Burly Brawl” sequence of “The Matrix Reloaded”. No amount of motion control, split screens, or rotoscoping could make a fight streak possible with so many clones.

Instead, this scene took advantage of digital doubles. These CG humans were most often used for wild stunt sequences that no one could perform in real life. Because CG faces can look rubbery up close, digi-doubles are best used for wide shots, like those of Agent Smith’s clones in “The Matrix Reloaded”.

CG humans are also very expensive to create. The “Burly Brawl” scene alone cost Warner Bros. roughly $ 40 million, a large part of the film’s $ 150 million budget. Thus, the digital dubbing method is best for a single sequence, not a feasible option for dubbing an actor throughout a movie.

Director David Fincher had to find a different solution for his film “The Social Network”, where Armie Hammer played the Winklevoss twins.

Armie and his dual body Josh Pence went through a bespoke training program to make their bodies as similar as possible. To transpose Armie’s face to Josh’s body, the filmmakers opted for a facial capture process very similar to that used in video games like NBA 2K.

The VFX team first used a medical-grade laser to scan Josh and Armie’s heads for digital models. During filming, Josh wore tracking markers on his face so the VFX team could later track his facial movements. Then they recorded Armie in a custom scene, which had computer-controlled lighting settings to match the light in each scene. At this point, an array of cameras recorded every angle of Armie’s face to provide what’s called a face texture map, which could then be used to animate the CG model of his head, which in turn , would be mapped to Josh’s body.

This basic process was also used to clone Paul Rudd for the Netflix series “Live with Yourself”, except that Paul preferred to play his scenes on his own, reacting to his prerecorded lines through an earpiece.

In scenes that needed a replacement, like this one, where Paul’s character resurrects his clone, the actor performed opposite a guy in a green suit, whom VFX artists might replace later.

The elaborate face-sweeping approach wouldn’t have been as achievable for “Us,” who follows a family of four confronting their evil look-alikes. The film builds on all of the twin effects innovations over the past 100 years to bring this nightmare storyline to life.

With the advancement of face, head and body replacements, the technology could now be used in Dr. Frankenstein’s way to harvest different limbs and body parts, a similar method used to create the clones in many scenes of “Orphan Black”.

Right off the bat, “Us” required a lot of stunt liners, including a double photo and double body for each of the four main cast. One producer joked that there could be six versions of Winston Duke on set at one point, all dressed in sweatshirts and Howard glasses.

Before filming, Jordan and the VFX crew had to determine which of the twins was leading the action. They were capturing this first with the lead actor playing the lead and their double playing opposite.

Then the actor and the double exchanged places. After filming, the VFX crew repaired the twin plates. In many cases, they decided to use a head from one plate and follow it over the body of the double in the other plate. But often it got more complicated, with artists hand-stitching various parts of an actor’s body from different shots.

Most modern paired movies and TV shows use motion control cameras to smooth out this process, but in “Us” the script called for plenty of hand-held shots filmed with a more visceral camera style. Without motion control, the team had to take careful notes of all camera movement in each scene, marking each position and tilt so they could replicate after swapping the actor.

There were also scenes the actors couldn’t perform with a real double, like this one-on-one in the Hall of Mirrors, when the younger version of Lupita Nyong’o’s character is suffocated by her evil doppelganger.

The actor, Madison Curry, needed something to really cling to, so they took a green-wrapped paper cup from him, which would be digitally replaced later. A similar technique was used in “Enemy,” where Jake Gyllenhaal acted in front of a tennis ball on a stick, his height representing the eye line of his double. This method can make the work of the VFX team easier, as it means that there isn’t a whole body to wipe out later, as seen here for “Orphan Black” and “An American Pickle”.

None of these innovations happened in a vacuum. Even in 2019, “Us” relied on some of Hollywood’s proven methods, like the good old split screen, for a number of shots. Every now and then on set Jordan Peele would say, “I think this shot is a Hayley Mills.”

The vibrant twin scenes in his film were the culmination of over 12 decades of Hollywood ingenuity.

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