A Critique of Contact
In Contact, radio astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) discovers
an intelligent signal from the star Vega. The message contains
blueprints to build The Machine, a device thought to be capable
of transporting a single passenger back to Vega. After a tragic mishap,
Ellie becomes the chosen traveler to represent all of humanity to the
- Scene: On the Beaches of Vega
Ellie has just arrived at her destination. She is in a surrealistic
landscape, reminiscent of a painting she made as a child years ago. Out
of the mirage her long-dead father (David Morse) appears.
The figure is really an alien, who explains that they (the Vegans)
believed this to be the easiest way to present themselves to Ellie.
- Analysis of Scene
The entire scene was filmed upon a blue screen. This is especially
evident by a faint outline surrounding the actors. When the area around
her nose is enlarged and enhanced, the outline becomes apparant.
Although the entire background is computer generated, editors kept
Foster's and Morse's shadows. This actually causes a problem -- in many
scenes, their shadows are not synchronized with the computer
generated lighting. Near the end of the scene, as the camera pulls
back, their shadows are angled differently from the palm trees.
Finally, the visual artists applied a filter over the raw footage so as
to give both Foster and Morse an eerie, alien look. Their skin glows
red; their clothing lacks vibrant colors. Lighting is inconsistent
during the scene. In the opening shot, it appears as if the sun is over
Foster's left shoulder. A few seconds, and a couple of cuts, later it
appears as if the sun drifted towards the horizon. And still later on,
the overhead shot clearly shows it at another position.
- Scene: The Mirror Scene
In this sequence, young Ellie runs from the unconscious body of her
father up the stairs and around the corner to the bathroom. The effect
in this scene is that the camera is dollying backwards in front of Ellie
throughout her run, but as she reaches the bathroom, the camera zooms
out to show that you're really seeing Ellie's reflection in the
- Analysis of Scene
The interesting thing about this is that, of course, it's not
technically possible for the camera to have "pulled out" of the mirror
after preceding Ellie up the stairs. Upon closer examination, it is
obvious that this effect was done by the compositing of two different
shots. First, the crew filmed Ellie running up the stairs, around the
corner and into the bathroom, dollying in front of her. As she reached
a pre-determined mark, she reached up with her left hand as if to open
the bathroom mirror. Next, the crew filmed Ellie's hand reaching past
the camera to open a bluescreened cabinet/mirror. With this shot
composited onto the first shot, you get the reflection effect without
actually seeing a mirror. Then, the effects team constructed a
completely artificial, computer-generated cabinet and matched its moves
to Ellie's hand, even including the bevel on the edge of the mirror. On
the separate audio track of the DVD, the effects supervisors discussed
how the shot was created. They mentioned both the bluescreening of the
foreground (meaning her hand) and the fact that the mirror was
completely fake. They also mentioned during her run up the stairs that
the crew had "painted" out a cameraman's shoulder that appeared at one
point in the scene.
It is obvious upon viewing the scene in slow motion that the hand in the
mirror and the hand in the foreground are not, in fact the same. There
are certain points where it is very obvious that the fingers are in a
different position. In addition, the mirrored cabinet, when it opens,
does not reflect correctly according to the laws of physics. The
picture of Ellie and her father that is visible when the mirror swings
closed would have to be visible when she opens the mirror, but it
is nowhere to be found.
It is also interesting that the shot of the reflected photo lasts no
more than a second or two, with a very quick fade to white before the
mirror swings back far enough to see that the door is not visible, with
the picture in its place. In short, this effect is very complex, but
easily accomplished because the whole sequence is a very short piece of
film. Some minor flaws are allowable since the audience usually won't
replay an effect in slow motion in order to see them. In fact, most
people who see this sequence for the first time don't even realize a
special effect has taken place.
Critique by Group 1 [the to-be-renamed group], Spring 2000, Mark
Haines, Eric Stevens, and Jason Tang
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Last modified 1 May 2000.
Jason Tang / firstname.lastname@example.org