How They Shot the Unimaginable Mirror Scene in ‘Contact’


Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a bi-monthly column that unpacks moments of film magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry appears to be like into the making of the not possible mirror scene in Contact.

Contact takes place on the crossroads of perception, reality, and actuality, which is becoming. As a result of this movie accommodates a shot that may make you query all three of these issues.

Primarily based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the identical identify, Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 sci-fi drama follows Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (Jodie Foster), a SETI scientist chosen to make first contact with extraterrestrial life. Ellie inherited her ardour for astronomy from her father, who handed away from a coronary heart assault when she was a toddler. Early within the movie, there’s a flashback of the night time younger Ellie (Jena Malone) discovered her father collapsed on the ground. As she rushes to his aspect, he reaches out for assist, and Ellie, distraught, runs to fetch his drugs from the lavatory cabinet upstairs.

She sprints frantically up the steps. When she reaches the touchdown, like a nightmare, time slows to a crawl. Each second feels stretched, near-frozen, and valuable. Then, actuality breaks: the digicam pulls again to disclose that all the things we’ve seen has been a mirrored image within the cupboard mirror. Ellie grabs the drugs, the door closes, and we see a mirrored image of {a photograph} of Ellie and her father. How was all of {that a} reflection? Did they use a double? The place was the cameraman? How the hell did they do this?

How’d they do this?

Lengthy story brief:

There isn’t any mirror on this sequence, solely easy, however intelligent, compositing.

Lengthy story lengthy:

The DVD for Contact accommodates not one, however three commentary tracks. One in every of which is by the movie’s visible results supervisors, Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum. Throughout the hallway scene, the pair clarify that the goal was to find a way to convey the intensity of Ellie’s emotional state without showing her father. Certainly, from the slow-mo to the ultimate reveal of the {photograph}, each single component of this sequence places the story first. Which, VFX apart, is an enormous a part of why this sequence is so unforgettable.

Initially, the second the place Ellie discovers her father regarded very completely different. In an interview with vfxblog, Ralston describes how the preliminary imaginative and prescient was for one thing resembling modern-day bullet time: “…[Ellie’s father] was going to be in mid-fall with lots of issues flying within the air however frozen there whereas she is strolling round her father, taking a look at him.” Throughout manufacturing, the main focus of the scene shifted in the direction of simply Ellie.

What seems to be a steady shot is, in reality, two photographs and one nonetheless plate. These three components come along with the assistance of a blue display screen situated on the lavatory cupboard the place the mirror needs to be.

Contact Mirror Shot Breakdown

In Shot A, the digicam is pointed at Ellie as she runs up the steps and down the hallway. It ends along with her extending her hand in the direction of the (non-existent) cupboard deal with. An operator with a Vista Vision camera strapped to his chest ran backward down the hallway, monitoring Malone. “Our digicam operator, who was additionally an incredible Steadicam operator, needed to preserve working up these stairs with [Malone] time and again…he was dying,” describes Ralston. The slow-motion impact, which begins as soon as Ellie reaches the higher touchdown, was achieved by ramping up the framerate. In accordance with Sheena Duggal, Contact’s compositing supervisor, the focus-puller needed to be painted out of the whole shot. No small feat in 1996.

In Shot B, the digicam factors in the direction of the blue display screen on the cupboard and pulls again matching the monitoring velocity in Shot A. This motion synch between the 2 photographs is a big a part of why the impact feels seamless. The graceful “transition” between Shot A and Shot B gives the look that we’re at all times, impossibly, shifting backward in a single steady movement.

Contact Hallway Mirror Reach

The actual brain-breaking second within the sequence is when Ellie slow-runs via the doorway of the lavatory. As she passes via, the deal with of the lavatory cupboard emerges from the lower-left nook of the body. Nevertheless, as a result of our focus is on Ellie, the peripheral cupboard deal with reads like a doorknob. Maybe the doorknob of the open rest room door. In any case, Ellie grabbing that knob feels surprising. What’s happening in that second is a genius sleight of hand: the sting of the cupboard door is rising because the digicam is pulling away from the blue display screen. It’s a reveal of a second shot that by no means seems like a reveal of a second shot.

Because the digicam retains zooming out, we discover ourselves behind Ellie, whose hand emerges from the suitable to open the cupboard and seize the drugs. She exits the body, and the cupboard door swings shut, revealing a “reflection” of {a photograph} elsewhere within the rest room. Take note: this can be a pretend mirror. So the “mirrored” shot with the {photograph} isn’t actually there. Neither are the finger smudges or the distortion created by the mirror’s bevilled edge as the cupboard swings open and shut. One other cool element: when you preserve your eyes on the “reflection” as Shot-B-Ellie opens the cupboard, you possibly can see that the digicam operator from Shot A panned away to imitate the motion of the hinged cupboard door.

Contact Mirror Effect

On a technical stage, Photographs A and B by no means “flip from one shot into the opposite.” However, narratively, the 2 photographs “trade-off” their maintain on what the viewers considers actuality vs. reflection when Ellie reaches the mirror. As Ellie reaches out for the deal with, you possibly can inform that the space between her “actual hand” (in Shot B) and her “mirrored hand” (in Shot A) doesn’t fairly look proper. A number of the fingers have been even reconstructed digitally, in accordance with Duggal. In any case, most folk aren’t taking a look at Jena Malone’s hand placement throughout this shot, not to mention her fingers. They’re making an attempt to gather their jaws up off the ground as a result of they’ve simply witnessed a digicam cross backward via a mirror.

What’s the precedent?

Compositing— the approach of mixing completely different photographs and components into one picture—is the spine of visible results. The earliest incarnations of compositing drew from still-frame methods, particularly: a number of exposures. Georges Méliès’ and F.W. Murnau’s work accommodates a number of the most recognizable examples of silent-era matte composites, which concerned masking up a part of a shot throughout its preliminary publicity. Later, that coated part might be uncovered once more to seize a distinct topic.


In 1916, Murnau’s cinematographer of alternative, Frank D. Williams, created the primary touring mattes utilizing a black display screen course of. A touring matte is an opaque matte that matches the actions of a topic in order that they are often superimposed over a individually filmed background with out showing semi-transparent. Within the 1930s, the impact improved with the Dunning Course of. Dunning’s technique shot foreground topics with a robust yellow gentle in opposition to a strongly lit blue display screen, utilizing panchromatic movie inventory. The captured footage might then be cut up into two completely different movie components: the foreground component and the touring matte.

In 1940, particular results artist Larry Butler created a method of compositing colour movie sequences. Utilizing the three-strip technicolor course of, he shot his topics in opposition to a plain blue background. The particular results division would then manipulate that sequence to provide a black-and-white touring matte utilizing a way much like the Williams course of. This matte would then be handed via an optical printer to mix all of the layers into one single component with a composited picture. The approach received Butler an Academy award in 1940. The sodium vapor course of, which used a yellow display screen and a beam-splitting prism, was famously utilized by Disney to mix live-action and animated sequences. The method was technically superior, but it surely was so ridiculously costly that just one sodium vapor digicam was ever produced.

The fundamentals of Butler’s approach would stay basically unaltered till the 1970s when Star Wars upped the stakes for blue display screen touring mattes with computer-controlled cameras. If you wish to study extra concerning the rise of the blue display screen within the 80s, this video from ILM’s Mark Vargo is a good place to start out.

Orpheus Mirror

Lastly, simply when it comes to trippy cinematic mirror results, I’d be remiss to not point out the watery mirror of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950). Within the movie, Orpheus (Jean Marais) travels between the world of the dwelling and the lifeless via a magic mirror, which ripples like water as he passes via it. The mirror was shot from above and was, in reality, a vat of liquid mercury. Marais needed to put on protecting gloves with the intention to work together with the “mirror.”

Let’s be grateful for blue screens: a method of passing via mirrors that doesn’t contain interacting with a poisonous liquid.


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