Twinning might have become an enduring movie trick, but can it survive the ‘deep fake’ threat? Julian Mitchell investigates behind the scenes of Amazon Prime Video’s Dead Ringers

Twinning is simply the process of shooting movies or episodics that feature twins in their narrative. The practice has been ongoing since George Méliès experimented with compositing in 1898, and has become an industry staple over the years.

Rachel Weisz as Elliot Mantle in Dead Ringers_ Amazon Prime Video

Rachel Weisz as Elliot Mantle in Dead Ringers

Source: Amazon Prime Video

There are in hundreds of films where Twinning has been pivotal to the plot, including Parent Trap, Moon, The Matrix Revolutions, Ghost, The Nutty Professor, Dr. Strangelove, any Austin Powers movie, and Jordan Peele’s Us. There are many others, some with real twins making production potentially quicker, such as Fred and George Weasley in the Harry Potter movies, and Linda Hamilton is playing against her sister Leslie Hamilton Gearren in Terminator 2.

Before digital cinematography, a split screening process used masks and mattes to isolate actors and then superimpose them opposite themselves. Optical printers would reconnect both sides of the frame to complete the illusion, or locked-off cameras would preserve scenes while the character swapping was underway.

Behind the Scenes: Dead Ringers - Six hours of Dead Ringers

1989’s Back to the Future Part II wove a story that depended on characters meeting each other throughout the movie. Director Robert Zemeckis and his crew decided to use a motion control film rig to realise the vision. Motion control automates a shot allowing it to be repeated consistently with new characters but the same actors. The Pizza scene in the McFly’s kitchen, with three different Michael J Foxes, was a good example.

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The 2023 version of Dead Ringers, a remake of the 1988 Cronenberg movie, decided to adopt the same motion control process but this time digitally. Actress Rachel Weisz was to play the twin gynecologists as Jeremy Irons had in 1988. But 2023’s Dead Ringers is an Amazon Prime show with over six one-hour episodes. The production schedule planned for around 13 days to shoot each one, but adding the Twinning too ramped up the pressure for the crew.

Behind the Scenes: Dead Ringers - Twinning the Old-Fashioned Way

In pre-production, the instinct was not to ‘cheat’ with any deep fake compositing, but there were times when this type of compositing was necessary.

The production had one great advantage, the acting of Rachel Weisz. The show had always wanted to highlight her ability to distinguish the twin’s character, so any extended use of deep fakery would only replace Weisz’s face. A body double would have to imitate her physicality, perhaps distilling her performance. It was decided that under the auspices of visual effects supervisor Eric Pascarelli, they would use motion control but always with the condensed schedule in mind.

Behind the Scenes: Dead Ringers - How the Twinning shots were matched

Cinematographers Jody Lee Lipes and Laura Merians Goncalves carefully prepped each Twinning scene. A Motion Control rig controlled everything from panning, tilting, lighting, and sound cues to focusing and framing. It had to be precisely repeatable for Weisz to play the other sister convincingly.

Rachel Weisz as Beverly Mantle in Dead Ringers_ Amazon Prime Video

Rachel Weisz as Beverly Mantle in Dead Ringers

Source: Amazon Prime Video

A stand-in actress, Kitty Hawthorne, was to play opposite Weisz when both sisters were in shot. She would recreate both sisters’ gestures and know their lines.

Each scene was shot twice, ‘A’ scenes would be first with Weisz as Elliot, the more gregarious sister, with ‘B’ scenes seeing her as Beverly. Hawthorne played opposite both, changing positions when Beverly was in shot.

An Elliot dialogue mix would be sent to Weisz’s earpiece when she was Beverly so she knew when to speak. Hawthorne, without playback, would mime Elliot’s words for Weisz to react to – a strange sight for all on set. Everything was in sync with the use of the motion control. The video assist would allow a rough comp for the team to check how the takes were going.

Behind the Scenes: Dead Ringers - Working the Methodology on Set

Goncalves explained a sometimes-painstaking process for a particular scene in episode four. The sisters are across from each other on a bed and touching each other’s heads. “The camera on the rig is slowly zooming out as they touch. In terms of an interaction, there’s a sound cue, where the pacing is set on the ‘A’ side where Rachel Weisz is Elliot with Kitty Hawthorne opposite her.

“When we switched to Beverley or ‘B’ scenes, Rachel would have an earbud to act against her selected take performance. In that scene, Kitty touches the top of Rachel’s arm. A series of beeps telling her when to do it. So in the final shot, the arm and hand are Kitty’s. We would apply her hand with makeup to replicate Rachel’s.”

Behind the Scenes: Dead Ringers - The Psychology of Twinning

The motion control rig was with the production every day, just in case they wanted to add more scenes with both sisters in shot. But Goncalves contests that there is a psychology in play that allows you to ignore that the same actress is playing twins, something your subconscious seems to allow for. 

“After a while, you realise how little you need to see two characters in the same space together. With a performance from Rachel that is so strong, you forget that it’s one person.”

“But within such a tight schedule, it’s the first thing to go. You realise how much you can get away with coverage and not seeing both faces. There were quite a few scenes where we wanted to do Twinning – it’s not like you feel the lack of it,”

The show’s pace is generally considered, and the camera is observational rather than moving ahead of the story. This rhythm played into the effectiveness of the Twinning scenes. By their nature, those scenes had to be well drilled; there was no room for spontaneity. “It is a formula within your schedule,” commented Goncalves. “Because you want to use Twinning efficiently and the time it takes to achieve. You had to consider Rachel’s changes throughout the day.”

Actress Rachel Weisz playing up to the twins theme for a Dead Ringer publicity shot_ Amazon Prime Video

Rachel Weisz in Dead Ringers

Source: Amazon Prime Video

But will motion control survive as a solution for making further Twinning films and episodics like Dead Ringers? Goncalves hopes it will. “In terms of technically combining all the departmental needs and being able to pre-visualise things on set, how they line up, was great to do on set.

“We talked about it and wondered if this could be the last long-form show shot this way, vintage Twinning if you like. In its favour, there’s also the consideration of Rachel’s performance, as with deep fake, you have someone else’s body with a face on top of it. It’ll always be important to have someone’s physicality in a performance.”

Dead Ringers is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

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