Today an animated GIF of the staircase shot from Contact hit the front page of Reddit. And that's great, because if you're a regular reader, you may remember that we've already explained why Contact is the best science fiction movie no one talks about.
Well, today people are talking about it, so I wanted to join in and further explain the deeper meaning of this shot. First, the technical explanation, and then the thematic explanation that kicks everything to the next level.
It's a very clever cinematography trick accomplished by filming three different shots and blending them together. Shot A is Jena Malone running up the stairs. Shot B is the opening of a medicine cabinet with a blue screen where the mirror would be. Shot C (not included in the GIF below) is of a picture frame in the bathroom containing an old photo of Malone and David Morse standing together. Flip Shot A so it looks like it's in a mirror, insert it into the blue screen on Shot B, show her opening the mirror, and then when the blue screen comes back, it now has Shot C in it. It's deceptively simple, but the combination of them all is just stunning because it appears as though the camera rotates 180 degrees without ever moving an inch.
But the technical wizardry on display isn't the reason this is my favorite shot of all time (which happens to be in my favorite movie of all time). Lots of movies have great, mind-blowing shots in them. This one is actually about something.
This moment comes when Ellie (Malone) has discovered that her father (Morse) has had a heart attack. She tries to get to his medicine in time, but is too slow (she later laments she should have kept the pills on the first floor), and is unable to save him. It's arguably the most pivotal moment in her life. He's the one who gave her this passion for science, and having him ripped from her life is what galvanizes many of her beliefs about the world and a search for a deeper meaning, for contact with someone, something out there that will give all of this purpose.
Instead of just showing that with a bunch of random edits, though, Zemeckis goes for this elaborate, seemingly single take because it captures how this one moment changes everything for Ellie without her even realizing it. She's experiencing a distinct before-and-after event in her life, even though it seems like one continuous moment. The 180-degree shift is absolutely invisible. There's no movement, and yet, the perspective has changed entirely.
Maybe it's just because I went through the sudden death of my mother at the same age Ellie is in the movie, so I'm more tuned to the emotional side of it, but this shot is a flawless visualization of those kind of imperceptible moments in childhood that change us forever. It's a flashback to when a cataclysmic event has altered your course in life without you even knowing it. It's flipped your entire outlook on the world, and you were never aware it was happening.
It's a brilliant, brilliant moment in a brilliant, brilliant movie.
And for another truly inspired shot, just look to the opening of Contact, which tracks through space away from Earth as we hear radio transmissions that have gone out to the galaxy, taking us back in time while simultaneously drawing us out into the future. And then, just as we hear the alien radio transmissions that will mark first contact for mankind, we pull out of that shot (also without the camera ever moving) and are inside the mind of the young woman who will eventually be the connective tissue between humanity and other life in the universe.
Well played, Zemeckis. Well played.
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