How to Shoot an Actor in a Double Role

Rachel M Taylor —  July 25, 2012

Having an actor play two different roles in the same film or TV show has been seen a lot throughout the history of film. One of my favorites was in Cat Ballou where Lee Marvin played a washed gunfighter and his own nemesis Tim Strawn.They both battle it out in the film, and for years, I didn’t even know it was the same actor.

It’s also been seen in a lot of tv shows, such as Friends, in which Lisa Kudrow plays Phoebe and her twin sister Ursula. Even Peter Jackson did it in his first film Bad Taste, playing two characters in the same scene, one torturing the other.

While it may seem tricky, it’s actually a lot easier than one might expect. It definitely makes production a little slower, but if done properly, it should be fairly simple. We experienced this while filming Avaricein which the main character plays a darker version of herself. Here’s how we did it:

Over the Shoulder Shots

The first thing you need to do is find someone who is about the same height as your main actor. Similar hair is also necessary, so whether the Doppelgänger needs to dye his or her hair or wear a wig, that’s a judgment call.

Place the Doppelgänger with his or her back to the camera and frame the shot to shoot over that person’s shoulder to focus on the main actor. Film it that way until you get what you want.

For the reverse of that shot, switch the hair and the outfit of the main actor and the Doppelgänger and do the same thing on the other side. This way you can edit it so that you basically have the same person having a conversation with himself. Pay attention to detail, and it’s super easy.

Wide Shots

This can be a little trickier because it involves special effects. If you’re shooting a wide shot of the two characters being played by the same person, and you want them to appear simultaneously in the same shot, you’re going to have to shoot it two different ways.

Shoot it with the main actor and the Doppelgänger together to start. For example, we shot the our main character in a white dress, and she was on the right side of the screen. The Doppelgänger was in a black dress on the left side of the screen. We filmed the shot with both in it.

Then we switched their makeup, hair, and clothes and filmed it the same way, only they were each in the opposite roles. That way the main actor can play both parts. It’s nice to have the Doppelgänger in there to help your main actor play off of them.

The important thing to remember when filming like this is to NOT MOVE THE CAMERA. Not at all. It will ruin your shot if you do. You want both sides of the shot to match.

The End Result

We took the two version of the shot and composited them together in After Effects, placing the main actor on both sides of the screen, removing the Doppelgänger. That way it looks like the main actor was in both places at once.

You might have to tweak things, adjust, and rearrange each time you shoot to make your scene a little more believable. Just be conscious of that, and it should be a pretty simple effect to achieve.

What are some other ways to achieve this? Anyone have an experience doing it?

Rachel M Taylor

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Rachel is a writer/director. She loves character driven movies and really good cheese.