How the beach scene in ‘Contact’ went down to the wire


Yesterday I posted an interview with Contact’s visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston about his work on the film, which is now 20 years old. This included the incredible mirror shot, and for that high speed compositing supervisor Sheena Duggal also weighed-in on how that shot was made at Imageworks.

Well, Sheena has now also provided me with a great behind the scenes run-down of the challenges Imageworks also faced for the beach encounter Jodie Foster’s character has with her father on Vega (or does she…). That scene made use of bluescreen photography and a virtual environment all pieced together from plates shot in Fiji, despite the restrictions of the vfx technology at the time.

And it also had to be done twice. 

Sheena Duggal: It was quite a groundbreaking sequence. Jodie and her dad were totally shot on a 360 bluescreen, I think maybe the first time that was ever done. Then the plates of Fiji were pan and tiles and the sky was a CG render. These we projected onto a dome to create the virtual environment and then we would render a BG plate from this that matched the BS shot camera and take this into flame and composite it. I feel like it was ground breaking at the time – no-one was doing this kind of virtual environment work.

The big long shot where she comes out of the eye and lands on the island was supposed to be rendered in Cineon and it failed a few days before the premier, so I created a low res version of the shot, with ropey keys and mattes, for the premiere and then did about 36 hrs straight to comp the actual shot for the prints that went out to the theaters. I think that some of the temp version went out into the work as well.

I think it failed to be able to render because it was a long shot, so they brought it to Flame and I spilt it over 3 machines and would create each setup. It was a multitude of steps to create this look, remember before batch or anything like that, all foreground rendering, so I would create a step, share the setup with the artists in the 2 other rooms, run and check it looked right and then do the next step in the comp. It wasn’t just compositing, it was creating this look that was beautiful, dreamlike and heavenly. I spent a few weeks working on looks for Bob to choose from before we got here and pretty much everyone else had tried, so by the time it got to flame as the solution we were 5 weeks out and there were a lot of shots to be done in that time.

Flame saved the day, it was certainly the hardest thing I never nearly did pull off. Jerome Chen will tell you, about 30 hrs into it I was sitting there just saying what if I can’t do it? What happens then?

It was also a nightmare to track with the 360 camera move in flame, wow, really amazing what we pulled off for the time, I really have to say discreet helped a lot adding things to the software for us and I used Sapphire sparks to help create the look.

It’s basically a filter that applies a stocking net look to the image to create an overall diffusion, a technique that bloomed the highlights, keys on her eyes to make them pop, faked DOF, multiple selective colour corrections and cascading keys. Bear in mind each step and to be done one at a time, no batch, no selective or combined keyed functions, only one way to create a key, basic tracking software. It required a lot of imagination and faith and hand work, I would create a single frame that looked good, write down all the steps and then try to recreate it across the seq.

Coming up with the look for her father and the look when she touches the edge of the environment was also challenging, mostly created using displacement maps. I wasn’t ever really happy with his look but I ran out of time to figure out something more sophisticated that I could do in 2d.

A lot of the functionality that later appeared in Flame came from the things we learned from having to do all these tasks manually, we had a team of Discreet R&D people come and stay with us for weeks to observe that challenges we were describing. I’m just super proud of this one mostly because we pulled a rabbit out of a hat and it stands the test of time quite well.

Find out more about Sheena Duggal’s work at her website: