Mirrors in Movies: How Filmmakers Make Cameras Disappear
When watching movies, some viewers like to look for errors, such as finding evidence of cameras and crew in the final cut of a film. One situation that should be ripe for spotting mistakes is when a scene includes mirrors and reflections. However, as YouTuber Paul E.T. shows in a pair of videos, filmmakers have incredible tricks to make cameras disappear.
Spotted by Laughing Squid, Paul E.T. tackles the topic in two videos, including one that was published back in January 2021. One video wasn’t enough, so Paul E.T. released a follow-up earlier this week, seen further below.
In Paul E.T.’s 2021 video, he uses scenes from famous movies like “Black Swan” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Paul E.T. to explore mirror shots that should be impossible — but aren’t. Referring to mirrors in scenes, Paul E.T. says that filmmakers have essentially found a way to make “cameras disappear.”
However, it wasn’t these movies that inspired Paul E.T. to make his original “mirror in movies” video — it was a scene from the British television series “Criminal: UK.” The scene in question, shown starting at the one-minute mark in the video above, completely stumped Paul E.T.
To figure out how the scene in “Criminal” is possible, Paul E.T. decided to start by looking at previously explained scenes. Perhaps one of the methods used in another show or movie can explain what’s happening in “Criminal.”
Showing numerous example scenes, including a famous one from the movie “Contact,” sometimes filmmakers use blue screen techniques to combine multiple shots that ultimately look like a seamless single shot, which is how the scene in “Contact” was made. The “mirror” on the door in the scene isn’t a mirror at all but a blue screen on which a shot is later superimposed.
While this may sound simple, this technique is still highly challenging to execute well. It requires impeccable planning and precision to appear convincing. It may not be what was done in “Criminal.”
Moving to another example, Paul E.T. looks at a dizzying scene from “Sucker Punch.” This scene doesn’t rely upon visual effects but is instead just splicing together different shots of a real-world set that is split into parts. As Paul E.T. states, “A duplicated set means a duplicated cast.” The viewer sees doubles who are mimicking the movements of the other actor. Everything visible in the scene that looks like a reflection is actually just a second person or object. This is probably not what’s happening in “Criminal,” although “Sucker Punch” is nonetheless an amazing achievement.
In “Force Majeure,” a mirror shot that seems impossible is remarkably simple. The camera was built into the wall that’s reflected by the mirror, and then the lens was removed in post. “Pretty simple,” Paul E.T. explains, but he wonders if it’s what’s happening in “Criminal.”
Paul E.T.’s “gut” was telling him that the shots in “Force Majeure” and “Criminal” were similar, and might have relied upon identical techniques. “However, I still wasn’t 100 percent sure,” he laments.
He did a bit of digging and tried to find a single behind-the-scenes picture from that particular scene and came up empty until he decided just to email a credited B camera operator from the episode of “Criminal” in question. It turns out that Paul E.T.’s hunch was right, and the technique was like the one used in “Force Majeure” and combined choreographed camera movements and painting out the camera in post-production. Mystery solved.
However, two years later, some viewers had complained that Paul E.T. showed great mirror shots in “Black Swan” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” but didn’t explain them. Paul E.T.’s new video from this week rights the longstanding wrong.
Starting with “Black Swan,” part of the explanation for its remarkable mirror shot is that the camera and its operator were behind a one-way mirror like the type of mirror often shown in interrogation rooms in police dramas.
Another part of the equation is a green-screen element. “Black Swan” star Natalie Portman performed some of her actions on cue in front of a green screen, with multiple shots combined in post. As Paul E.T. says, the result is spectacular, as are many other “mirror moments” in the film.
An all-time great mirror shot in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” combines two shots and relies upon good camera work and visual effects. It’s simple but challenging to execute. Even so, Paul E.T. tried it himself to great effect.
A much more complicated shot from the VFX-laden movie “Inception” has “puzzled” Paul E.T. for years. The scene in question confounded many people for about a decade, with people concocting various theories, although very few ever being certain. Even a Blu-Ray release of “Inception” that described many of the film’s specialized “trick” shots didn’t explain the infinite mirror seen that for so long has evaded explanation.
An article by Inverse in April 2021 finally explained the scene. The writer, Ralph Jones, spoke with members of the VFX company behind some of the incredible shots in “Inception.”
The article includes a photo showing the scene. It included using a real massive mirror, which wobbled, complicating the visual effects work. The crew and camera were removed from the mirror in post, which was “easy,” but the team also created a 3D model of the area surrounding the mirror using still photography. The 3D model was used to recreate the angled reflection on the real mirror as Page’s character shifts the mirror in real life. The VFX work ultimately earned the visual effects team at DNEG an Academy Award in 2011.
In another example, Paul E.T. considers a scene from “Triangle.” The 2009 film’s special features from its home release explain the scene, and it turns out that the incredible scene is like the one from “Sucker Punch” that Paul E.T. featured in his first video. The team used a stunt double and no mirror at all. The scene required precise camera work, cues, and a lot of talent.