- Hollywood has always been fascinated by twins – and in particular identical twins played by a single actor.
- This episode of “Movies Insider” traces the evolution of the creation of fraternal twins in movies.
- Starting with the matte effects of the silent movie era, we follow the advancement of the twin effects through to “Us” of 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 film ‘Us’. Lupita Nyong’o appears to be one-on-one with her doppelganger, who holds 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 the early talkies.
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See this shot from 1898, where the illusionist Georges Méliès created four mobile versions of his head in a single frame? This was accomplished with the use of matte shots, which were much like old-fashioned green screen composites created by blocking parts of the camera lens.
The first split screen effects were made with mattes. This is the traditional twinning technique you probably associate with “The Parent Trap”.
You shoot the scene twice, with the actor and a replacement, switching locations, and then combine the two filmstrips into one. To hide the seam, filmmakers use background elements in the shot, such as a door frame.
You can see it in “A Stolen Life”, with two Bette Davis. Or here, where the actor once again played twins in “Dead Ringer”. In these films you can also see the use of the classic shoulder technique, where the actor talks to a replacement filmed from behind.
Shared screens were complicated when a 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 placed glass in front of the camera, part of which they covered with masking tape to tame the head and shoulders of the actor’s double. After filming the scene, they turned the movie upside down and filmed it again with the actor on the other side, this time mattifying everything but his head and shoulders.
That’s a lot of work for a handshake that only lasts a few seconds.
The split screen also typically required shooting 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 film “Dead Ringers”?
In this film, not to be confused with Bette Davis’ previous film “Dead Ringer”, Jeremy Irons plays a deranged 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 shot 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. It helped visual effects artists shoot clean plates without an actor 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 with composites on a green screen. That’s when you shoot a twin on a green screen, isolate them, and compose them into one 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 treadmill in front of a green screen so that when his two characters are close together, they are 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 it. In these cases, the filmmakers of “Adaptation” have turned to rotoscoping, which essentially means tracing by hand. With the rise of digital rotoscoping in the 1990s, the technique became a major player in twin films, allowing artists to combine 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 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 big chunk of the film’s $ 150 million budget. The digital dubbing method is therefore best for a single sequence, not a viable 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 double, 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’s and Armie’s heads for digital patterns. During filming, Josh wore tracking markers on his face so that the VFX team could later follow his face movements. Afterwards, they recorded Armie inside a custom scene, which had computer-controlled lighting settings to match the light in each scene. At this point, a set 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
“Living with Yourself” series, except that Paul preferred to play his scenes alone, reacting to his prerecorded lines through an earphone.
In scenes that needed a replacement, like this one, where the character of Paul resurrects his clone, the actor played opposite a guy in a green suit, whom the VFX artists could 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 movie built on every twin effect innovation 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”.
Early on, “Us” required a lot of stunt liners, including a photo liner and body liner 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 Howard sweatshirts and glasses.
Before filming, Jordan and the VFX crew would find out which of the twins was leading the action. They captured this first with the lead actor playing the lead role and their double playing opposite.
Then the actor and the double swapped places. After filming, the VFX crew would patch the twin plates. In many cases, they decide 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-piecing together different parts of an actor’s body from different shots.
Most twin movies and modern TV shows use motion control cameras to smooth out this process, but in “Us” the script provided 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 movements in each scene, marking each position and tilt so they could be replicated after swapping the actor.
There were also scenes that the comedians couldn’t play with a real double, like this face-to-face in the Hall of Mirrors, where the young version of Lupita Nyong’o’s character is suffocated by her evil doppelgänger.
The actor, Madison Curry, needed something to really hold onto, so they made him grab a paper cup wrapped in green, 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 line of his double’s eyes. This method can make the work of the VFX team easier, as it means that there is not an entire body to erase 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 ol ‘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 her film were the culmination of more than 12 decades of Hollywood ingenuity.