It’s hard to talk about “Dead Ringers” and not start with the lamb wall. One of the most striking images in the entire six-episode Prime Video adaptation is Elliot Mantle (Rachel Weisz) standing in front of a display of lamb fetuses at different stages of gestation. To fully feel the effects of the Mantles’ painstaking work to push the boundaries of science, the show’s production team did a lot of their work (much more legally and ethically acceptable).
For series prop master Patrick Head, that meant working to help craft something that fit the aesthetic of the show showrunner Alice Birch had established, and that also felt like it served Elliot’s purpose within the story.
“We presented Alice with the prototype, which is very similar to the research they are doing in Philadelphia right now. We were going to introduce various stages, the scientific version of the DIY,” Head said. “The next version would be much cleaner. make these lambs at various ages. Some of them were just static props, and some of them were puppets that can be manipulated so that their legs move. It ended up being the simplest and cleanest presentation in these boxes of glass, and then they float in, you know, gooey.
Before tackling the eventual reality of four-legged puppets, one of the biggest challenges came early in production, with a scene featuring an emergency C-section. It was just one example of the production team working with OB-GYN consultants to make sure the tools and techniques involved were accurate and used correctly. This also applies to the rapid succession of births in the first episode of “Dead Ringers,” which set the stage for Head’s interactions with Los Angeles-based effects house Autonomous FX, which built the prosthetic babies that allowed to the series to film those intense shots in the delivery room. scenes in the most practical way possible.
“The montage of childbirth was something they wanted to portray in a very visceral and accurate way. I had access to many photographers accompanying people during childbirth. I’ve pulled out a lot of pictures of the freshest newborns, and all the different colors they come in and weird head shapes. We identified some of the details we wanted to represent. Early on, I knew I was going to need a lot of pretend babies,” Head said. I deliver standing up for another show. So they sent me a picture of a prosthetic implant they had already built, which was essentially a belly, anatomically correct vagina, and legs. It’s hollow, so they can put the baby in the top and push it through. It went well and we had them build several more in different skin tones. And that was it for the first week of shooting.”
For days like one of the C-section shoots, the intricate setup required everything from silicone umbilical cords to a massive two-step process elsewhere.
“The caesarean section had some moving parts. That was another piece they built for us where they could fit the baby inside the tummy. There was one piece for the incision, where the scalpel cut through the silicone skin and there was a little bit of blood underneath that would come out. Then they had a separate section where the incision had already been cut, and then there’s all the different layers of subcutaneous fat, a uterus that you could cut open. And then inside was the baby attached to an umbilical cord attached to a placenta. They might make their hand movements and eventually pull the baby out.
With all that intricate silicone choreography taking place in this birthing center, there was a surprisingly practical part of the shoot’s demands that turned out to be as complicated as the elaborate setups: having enough supplies.
“Doing take after take, we needed clean gloves, table paper and everything. Once it gets messy, turn everything off again. So we were just blowing through all these different surgical drapes and PPE. It was something that was a little unnerving, I guess, ‘Have we had enough of this very specific type of surgical drape?’” Head said. “And then obviously, whenever you’re working with actors who aren’t doctors, you have to get them to a point where they’re comfortable doing the motions like they’ve been doing it forever. And this was another instance where we would bring in real OB-GYN surgical technicians and use them as hand doubles so that you could work very quickly and with confidence, to get all those steps right.
While these prosthetic babies need to look lifelike, there’s also a lot of attention paid to how much they weigh. For the scenes where Weisz has to move with (at least) one cradled in her arms, it helps the illusion that the model is of equal weight and can’t just be tossed around.
“When you hold a living being in your hand, a precious newborn, you treat it with the utmost care. Every single movement is thoughtful and you have to support your head. You want to incorporate that into the prosthetic or the prop, so that when the actors handle it, they have that same sense of care and consideration with this piece of silicone which, it seems, weighs about the same and is kind of floppy,” Head said.
Those babies represented not only a budget investment for the props department, but a time as well. For any child that came to life within the context of the show, that also represented a lengthy process of making sure that the performers who played the pregnant mothers also fit seamlessly into the fabric of “Dead Ringers.”
“The time frame to get the work done is much longer than you usually have with television. We would have to pick some of these mothers very early in the process, much earlier than they otherwise would. That way, they could make a mold of their body and match their skin tone and all these other things that take weeks and weeks to work,” Head said.
Another distinct challenge for “Dead Ringers” is that certain sequences are switched back and forth between the models and the actual living children they are modeled after. Monitoring that process and making sure everyone stayed safe, especially filming at a time when Covid considerations were still at the forefront, added to the list of considerations for the crew.
“Every time you have a baby, you bring in a nurse. We work with the nurse and costume department to properly swaddle the baby in the blanket and hat or whatever we want it to appear on screen. We work with professionals to make sure we don’t do anything that causes children to react adversely or stress them too much. No one wants a crying baby,” Head said. “If we’re going to do any kind of harm to them, we have to rely on the nurse and the parents. found on the skin of newborn babies.You shouldn’t really clean it because it has nutrients, but that’s why they look like they were smeared with something white.
While birth really is the star of the show, don’t sleep on food. It’s the slicing of poultry that somehow sets the visceral sequences with the scalpel. Head also pointed out that food plays a key role in tracking the thematic evolution of the season.
“Each episode had a fruit theme that corresponded to the development of a fetus. We started with cherries and then moved on to limes. Grapefruit was for the episode when I’m in Alabama, and then we finished with watermelon. If you look closely, there’s also a pomegranate in there when the parents were visiting,” Head said.
This, in turn, was an incredible parting gift for the cast and crew of “Dead Ringers.”
“For wrapping, I made these little bags out of fake placenta and fake umbilical cords and put them in a biohazard sample bag. The dehydrated watermelon was the placenta, and then some red licorice. It was a success,” Head said.
“Dead Ringers” is now available to stream on Prime Video.