Movies

Even James Wan Has No Idea How Contact’s Wild Mirror Scene Was Filmed, But I Do

The 1997 science fiction movie Contact could be remembered for many things. Crafted by the esteemed American astronomer Carl Sagan, the film is celebrated as one of the best space movies ever made and as a highlight in Matthew McConaughey’s filmography. Also, Contact‘s controversial ending continues to spark discussions among fans and critics alike. Amidst these notable attributes, one aspect of the film particularly captivates audiences and filmmakers: the enigmatic mirror scene. This complicated sequence has even puzzled industry veterans, like James Wan, who expressed his fascination with it in a new social media post. But I know how it was executed, so let’s dissect the iconic sequence.

Few scenes have sparked as much intrigue and head-scratching as the iconic mirror scene, directed by Robert Zemeckis. James Wan, the mastermind behind blockbuster horror movies like The Conjuring and Saw, recently took to his Instagram stories, posting a clip of the mirror scene and expressing his bewilderment in a caption that read:

I’ve asked Don Burgess [Contact’s Cinematographer] many times about how this was shot, and I still scratch my head every time going ‘huh?’

It’s a solid question from the Aquaman director. How did they do it? Lets jump into it. 

The sequence, which you can see embedded below, features young Ellie (Jena Malone) running up the stairs and into the bathroom to retrieve her father’s medication. It culminates in a mirror reflection shot that defies conventional logic and camera placement. 

The scene’s genius lies in its seamless blend of practical effects and early digital wizardry. The DVD release of Contact sheds light on the making of this iconic scene through three commentary tracks, including insights from the film’s visual effects supervisors, Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum. Their explanations reveal a meticulously planned sequence designed to convey Ellie’s emotional turmoil without the visual presence of her father.

Initially, the concept for this scene was vastly different, Ralston told VFXblog

Initially, it wasn’t going to be that at all. One of the things that we were starting to pursue was a very, very early version of what is now called ‘bullet time’, shooting something with stills and using those, like in The Matrix. At the time, we were looking at The Rolling Stones music video that had been done.

However, as the scene’s focus shifted solely towards Ellie, the execution transformed into a masterful blend of practical effects and digital ingenuity.

How Robert Zemeckis Pulled Off the Mirror Scene

The final product combines two shots and one still image, cleverly blended to give the impression of a single, uninterrupted shot. Shot A captures Ellie’s sprint up the stairs and down the hallway, ending with her reaching out to a nonexistent cabinet handle. The camera operator used a Vista Vision camera to track this movement in reverse.

In Shot B, the camera faces a blue screen placed where the mirror should be on the cabinet. It pulls back to match the pace and movement of Shot A, ensuring that the transition between the two shots appears seamless and continuous.

The pivotal moment occurs when Ellie reaches for the cabinet handle, which ingeniously emerges from the lower-left corner of the frame as the camera pulls back from the blue screen. This clever manipulation tricks the viewer’s perception, making the handle’s appearance feel unexpected and natural.

The popular YouTube channel The Corridor Crew did a brilliant breakdown and reaction of the scene, if you want to go into more detail. 

It’s hardly surprising that James Wan remains amazed by the ingenuity of the mirror scene in Contact. This sequence was the result of careful planning by the director, cinematographer, and visual effects team to maximize its emotional impact through visual storytelling. Given the lasting impression it continues to make nearly thirty years later, it seems all involved achieved their goal because we are still talking about it as one of the best movies of the 1990s.

Check out our 2024 movie schedule to see what other exciting movies are coming to a theater near you. 

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