Richard Edlund looks back at the making of ‘Multiplicity’

The invisible effects film is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Harold Ramis’ Multiplicity is just about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The film saw Michael Keaton play four versions of himself, owing to a cloning machine that duplicated his character while making slightly different personalities each time.

In order for multiple Michael Keatons to appear on screen at the same time, the filmmakers needed to develop an efficient ‘twinning’ effects solution. For that they turned to Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios. I talked to Edlund about Multiplicity for my book, Masters of FX, and now with the 25th anniversary approaching, I thought I’d publish the full interview we did back then, which describes the twinning shoot, splitscreens, live-compositing and final compositing involved.

b&a: How did Boss come to work on Multiplicity?

Richard Edlund: We were bidding against Sony Imageworks who did an elaborate test of the beer can clip with a digital beer can. I thought, there’s gotta be a simpler way of doing this.

b&a: What was your overall approach to the splitscreens?

Richard Edlund: Well, the technical complexity here was that it was a 99 day shoot – a long shooting schedule. Michael was playing four different roles and carrying the movie. He had to change his character and wardrobe and make-up between each take. Harold had hired three stand-ins for Michael and each one of the stand-ins had the personality of the character and the body language. These were professional actors who were real smart guys.

The first take—it was always going to be the key take and it would encompass a camera move and all that and so each take had pan tilt, dolly, track, boom and follow focus. The camera operator always teases the move with the gear head. We had a special gear head he was operating via video.

We also had a motion control system that was silent that I built for Alien 3. At that time it was the only silent system, including a dolly and a boom. It was a Fisher Model 9 dolly that we hot-rodded.

A Boss Film advertisement.

So take one there would be a guy off-screen. I built a camera head that had a laser sight that you buy at a gun shop. There was an operator that would follow the footsteps of the stand-in who was the second guy that Michael was playing. This laser sight that was focused on the floor on his feet was in sync with a video camera that the stand-in was carrying so that Michael was then playing to his second character, and basically his second character would see what the stand in was shooting, which is Michael. So the eyeline was perfect. Michael was looking at a camera which was going to be where his head was going to be in the next shot.

So we’d do the first take, and we had a laser playback that would playback the position on the floor that the guy had been following with the laser sight. So the next stand in knew exactly where Michael’s feet were for the last shot, so that he could carry the video monitor right over that laser dot. So Michael could then play to the camera.

Sometimes we had small pieces of greenscreen on the set, or the set was mostly green, like the bathroom. The dolly grip was really good because they would actually push the dolly for the scene, so the scene was shot with the camera crew doing the same thing they normally did. But we had an encoder so we knew exactly where and when the camera was at any split second.

b&a: You had a way of giving very quick feedback on set. How did you do that back then?

Richard Edlund: Between the takes we had a trailer with guys in the trailer [Gautham Krishnamurti, Shahril Ibrahim and Hiro Miyoshi developed Boss’ on-set compositing system] who would do traveling splitscreens and quick greenscreen comps. It’s funny, we were visually limited by half-res video – the flicker free video that comes through the Panaflex).

That was a 40 foot trailer filled with the guys and Silicon Graphics workstations and servers that were handling the data, and it was pandemonium in there!

Michael was great, we’d get the first take down in 2 or 3 takes mostly. Harold had to pick one of those takes as it was the key take. The guys in the trailer would do a moving split, and sometimes it had to have some quick roto. We’d have to go through this operation 4 times for the 4 roles.

b&a: Can you talk about some of the specific shots and challenges?

Richard Edlund: There was one scene where he hands himself a plate with a sandwich on it. The way we did that was: take 1, Michael would do the take with his downstage arm behind his back. The second take we’d do with the stand-in. The stand-in would be in the shot and he would hand the plate to Michael but his hand was going to be replaced as Michael’s hand. So we basically roto’d Michael’s arm at his shoulder and used the stand-in’s hand.

We got the line-up perfect. We did that upstage arm trick several times because it was so effective there was no point doing it any other complicated way. Harold was also very responsible as a director. If we were going to do four shots in a day and it turned out in blocking in the morning that we had five shots, the next day he would cut one shot, so we came in on time and budget.

Another scene that was very tricky was where there were four guys and Michael comes in and discovers that there was a little hanky panky going on. So there were three Michaels on the couch and Michael 2, 3 and 4 were on the couch and Michael 1 was traipsing around behind the couch and the guys on the couch were reacting to him. They were sitting on a regular couch that had cushions. They were moving around—we had the ability of Elastic Reality so we could fix overlaps and things like that that happened during the shots.

He also chest-bumps himself. We had one Michael with a green suit on and his stand-in with a green suit, and Michael does the chest bump with the other stand-in in a green suit, and that worked perfectly.

b&a: And how did you do the beer can shot, in the end?

Richard Edlund: OK, so, take 1: Michael’s sitting on the couch and he’s talking to himself, ie. talking to the stand-in. He throws him a beer. The beer goes out of frame for like 2 frames. Then in the second shot, the stand-in has to throw Michael the beer and then Michael catches it, and it worked perfectly. We got it on take 2!

b&a: It sounds like it was intense shoot—how was that for you and your team each day?

Richard Edlund: Between takes, we’d do take one, then wait for Michael to go to his trailer, change his attitude, his wardrobe and make-up and come back as a different character. That would usually take around 45 minutes so between takes, when Michael left, Harold brought a pool table to the set so we could shoot pool between takes! At the wrap party we had a pool tournament and I lost the game because the other player didn’t make any balls and I snookered myself.

I’ve often said if I finish a show and I feel it’s perfect, I’m ready to retire. But I didn’t retire! However, there aren’t any shots in there that are failures.

The Multiplicity spread from Masters of FX.

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