Mirror, mirror on the wall—can you please not show my camera in the shot?
If there is one single filmmaking rule that you should follow, it should be to never, ever show the camera.
Showing the camera breaks the illusion of the film and can be very distracting if spotted in a scene by the audience. Hiding the camera isn’t always the easiest thing to do, especially if you want to get a killer mirror shot.
Mirror shots are beloved by filmmakers and audiences alike because of how insanely talented or meticulously planned the filming process for that shot has to be. Most mirror shots should be impossible, but filmmakers, being the clever and creative people they are, found a way to make the camera disappear.
Paul E.T. breaks down how camera placement, camera movement, and simple editing created some of the most iconic mirror shots in film history. Check out his full video here.
Blue Screen and Stitching
We’ve all watched that iconic mirror shot from Contact where young Ellie Arroway (Jena Malone) runs to the bathroom mirror, and the camera seamlessly transitions. The shot looks effortless while still confusing the audience and filmmakers alike.
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It’s not as complicated as you might think. The shot is two different shots stitched together.
One camera tracks young Ellie as she runs towards the bathroom, and a second camera captures the same character opening the cabinet door in the bathroom. The shot of the daughter running to the bathroom is all real, but the second shot, the one looking at the cabinet mirror, is just the first shot superimposed on a blue screen in the place where the mirror should be.
The character in shot one acts as if they are reaching out for the mirror when they are really reaching out to nothing. In the second shot, they flip the camera and have it track backward to mimic the movement of shot one, then have the character reach out and open the cabinet for real this time. Combine the two shots and match the timing, and you have one of the greatest shot transitions in history that involves a mirror.
The Classic Case of Duplication
In Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, there is a scene where the camera starts on one side of the mirror, then tracks to the other side of the mirror.
At first glance, it is hard to tell how Snyder achieved such a sick shot. Unlike Contact, this shot has no VFX.
The mirror shot in Sucker Punch is a common movie magic trick that has been used in films for decades. What the audience sees is the camera transition from one side of a duplicated set to the other. With a duplicated set comes a duplicated cast that mirrors one another as best as they can. Think of it as a well-rehearsed partner dance.
When one actor moves, the other actor moves with her while trying to mirror the movements as best as she can. This trick sells the idea that there is a mirror in the scene. Small details are added into the set design to sell the effect that the images are reflections rather than duplications such as pictures tucked into the mirror and makeup scattered across the vanities.
The hidden cut stitches the fake mirror shot to the real mirror shot once the camera tracks to the other side of the set. A mirror is placed in front of the actresses in the real mirror shot so the scene can have the true reflections of the characters. Whether it served the story of Sucker Punch or not, it was still a pretty cool transition.
Digitally Removing the Camera
TV and film have been digitally removing unwanted objects since the technology allowed them to do so. The mirror technique in Force Majeure is impressive because of how simple it is.
The camera should be in the middle of the bathroom filming both characters as they brush their teeth in the bathroom. It could be a blue screen or doubles mirroring the actors. What director Ruben Östlund did was build the camera into the wall, then edited out the lens that was sticking out of the wall in post. It is a very simple way to make the camera disappear.
One of the most polished mirror shots today in film and TV would be the now-infamous mirror scene in Criminal: United Kingdom.
The shot is simple: four people sit in an interrogation room with a large one-way mirror reflecting the scene as the camera slowly rotates 180 degrees. It is the Force Majeure technique without the hole in the wall, with some well-choreographed camera work and a VFX team. A dolly with a stabilizer head was used and operated remotely.
A piece of black fabric covered the equipment and grip to make rotoscoping as minimal as possible. Rotoscoping is a technique used to trace an image frame by frame, remove it from the frame, then replace the space with a clean plate of the wall. To make it simple, they literally make the camera disappear.
Now, you’ve got three new tricks up your sleeve to create a sick mirror shot without exposing your camera. While mirrors will forever be a filmmaker’s mortal enemy, we can at least meet them on equal ground with some simple camera movement, hidden cuts, and post-production editing. So go out and start creating some amazing mirror shots that will make other filmmakers scratch their heads.
Did any of these tricks not explain your favorite mirror shot? Let us know what the shot is in the comments, and we will try to figure it out together!