I have always been fascinated with movie sequences featuring mirrors. From a technical and practical aspect, I marvel at the ability to hide crew, camera and equipment, especially when it is done practically with little to no post-production help. As a filmmaker, I realize that this is especially challenging to achieve in a shot with camera movement.
One of my favourite mirror shots (and the most impactful) is this one from Contact (1997, Director: Robert Zemeckis, Cinematographer: Don Burgess).
This movie was shot on film. The composition and movement in this shot really helps to enhance the emotional impact of the story. I hadn’t realized that the speed ramp was also done in-camera, which poses even more technical challenges in terms of exposure. Here’s Cinematographer Don Burgess (Contact, Forrest Gump, Cast Away) breaking down the shot.
Vulture published an article in advance of the 35th anniversary of the film in 2022 and there’s a section about the mirror shot.
Robert Zemeckis: The girl’s got to run upstairs and get her father’s medicine, right? So you can either shoot that and it will be perfectly fine, and everyone will understand. Or you say, “How can we do this in a way that no one has ever seen before?”
I just had this fever-dream idea: I went to the camera and visual-effects team and I said, “Try to imagine that the actual lens of the camera isn’t a camera; it’s a mirror. It’s the mirror from the medicine cabinet, and she’s chasing it to get the medicine.” That’s actually what the shot looks like. When you cut to the mirror’s point of view, everything in the set is reversed. The staircase is on the wrong side; her face is flipped.
Ken Ralston, visual-effects supervisor: I do remember how many times Robert Presley, who was our Steadicam guy, had to run up those stairs backwards. He was exhausted.
Jena Malone, Young Ellie: Now I feel like fewer films are as technically proficient. They just put everything in post, and it’s not premeditated. I just love when people actually try to get a shot on set.
My next choice is a particularly impressive mirror shot from Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, Director: James Cameron, Cinematographer: Adam Greenberg), that was left on the cutting room floor. Thankfully it was put back in for the Director’s Cut.
From a story point of view, it explains how the terminator started to learn and from a practical point of view, it shows how skilled actors help sell an effect. If you didn’t already know, Linda Hamilton is a twin and what’s really impressive is that there’s actually no mirror in that scene. What you see is a hole in the wall and a complete mirror set with actors matching the moves others on the other side of the cut-out in the wall.
Here’s a very brief breakdown of the shot.
Inspired by work like this, I decided to take a crack at some practical magic in my directorial debut, Algebra. With the assistance of Karim Ayari and Nicolas Séguin, we used a circular track and two actors (father and son) to create a shot of the main character looking into a mirror and seeing his younger self.
Here’s a behind the scenes look.
Editor, Web Designer
Jith Paul is an independent filmmaker based in Ottawa. While persuing a career as a software engineer, he decided to take a detour to follow his passion for film and filmmaking, establishing Treepot Media in 2010.
He is a co-founder of the Ottawa Canadian Film Festival, and editor of the film613 blog.
When he is not busy fighting crime, he coordinates the efforts of an international team of software developers and service providers as the Team Lead for Digital Development at CPAC, the Cable Public Affairs Channel.