A Critique of Contact

Contact Contact (1997)


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 aliens.

Scene: On the Beaches of Vega

Ellie on the Beach
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

Bluescreen Outline Outline Enhanced
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.

Mismatched Shadows
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 mirror.

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 / tang@jtang.org