Visual analysis: Contact – The American Society of Cinematographers

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Don Burgess, ASC reaches the cosmos in this ambitious 1997 sci-fi drama.

Above, SETI scientist Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) listens to a message from space. An article on this film appears in our July 1997 issue. THAT Archives subscribers can read the full story.

Unitary photography by François Duhamel

Based on the 1985 novel by Carl Sagan, Contact tells the story of Eleanor Arroway (Jodie foster), a scientist with the SETI Institute who discovers evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Though crippled by politics and personal beliefs, Arroway is stubborn and relentless in her quest for the truth – who sent the message and why? – aided by allies as unlikely as the mysterious industrialist SR Hadden (John hurt) and the charismatic religious philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey).

Don Burgess, ASC (kneeling, right) and director Robert Zemeckis line up a shot with Foster.  (RGR Collection / Alamy Stock Photo)

Don Burgess, ASC (kneeling, right) and director Robert Zemeckis line up a shot with Foster. (RGR Collection / Alamy Stock Photo)

Released in 1997, Contact marked the cinematographer’s second feature film collaboration Don Burgess, ASC and director Robert zemeckis, Following Forrest Gump (1994). (The count now stands at 15; their last, Pinocchio, is due in 2022.) Whereas Forrest Gump is a wispy slice of Norman Rockwell-style Americana, Contact is a crisp and refined sci-fi odyssey captured in the 65mm, VistaVision, and 35mm anamorphic camera formats.

“Wide angle lenses are more of storytelling lenses – it’s a focal length that keeps the subject and the environment in focus for the most part, and it keeps your subject truly connected to the surroundings and other actors in the scene.” . ”
– Don Burgess, ASC

A low-key but effective example of this approach can be found in a first party scene where Arroway breaks into a conversation between senior science adviser Dr David Drummlin (Tom skerritt) and another group of scientists.

Zemeckis’ directorial voice is formalistic without resorting to an overly simplistic approach. In fact, the opposite is true, with every meticulously composed widescreen frame and every camera movement carefully blocked, in this case almost entirely from an angle: the wide shot that opens the stage first accommodates seven characters. , then, as he leaves and pans right, the focus is on Arroway and Drummlin’s interaction.

Palmer Joss enters the scene in a left frame over the shoulder, shifting the focus of the conversation.

The only clean single on the scene, as well as Arroway’s POV. Not only is Joss an alien – he’s alone there, a man of the stuff among scientists – his presence calls for special attention.

Back to the master, Drummlin and the other scientists come out of the frame on the left. Joss walks over to Arroway and the camera goes over his shoulder.

The scene now consists of two slung singles. Joss and Arroway’s screen direction is consistent throughout.

Contact is definitely told from Ellie’s point of view, so all decisions about where the camera is located were structured around where she was, what she was doing, and how she viewed the camera. situation.



Alien intelligence delivers a set of instructions for building a massive transport device, and after traversing what appears to be a transit system of interdimensional wormholes, Arroway gently lands on the shores of an ocean. cosmic – a psychedelic take on a drawing from Pensacola, Florida that she made as a child. An alien simulacrum of his deceased father (David Morse) appears, posing as the source of the space message.

“You are an interesting species … You are capable of such beautiful dreams and horrible nightmares,” the alien told him.

Burgess and Zemeckis illustrate this dichotomy of dreams and nightmares throughout the film, in repeated close-ups of the primary physical expression of human potential: the hands.

A toy compass is exchanged between Joss and Arroway as the story unfolds. “You better keep this, it might save your life one day,” she told him.

Hands indicating contact over distances.

The religious fanatic Joseph (Jake busey) accuses scientists of heresy, then later attacks them with an explosive device.

Hands holding star constellations.

“You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only you are not. In all of our research, the only thing we have found that makes the vacuum bearable is the other.

“The thing with the hands was unintentional,” says Burgess in a contemporary interview. “It comes from Robert’s cinema, each scene evolves by the movement of the camera rather than by the editing.” In Contact, there are no cutaways – each shot goes further or relates directly to an action point in the corresponding master or single. This linear visual approach works in the service of history by emphasizing the importance of contact between people as well as the universe, through sight, sound, belief and touch.

“So much work has gone into designing each shot,” notes Burgess, 24 years later. “Contact is still the most difficult image I have ever worked on.

Contact (1997)

Real. Robert zemeckis
Chief Executive Officer: Don Burgess, ASC
Production designer: Ed Verraux
Visual Effects Supervisor: Stephane Rosenbaum (Sony Pictures Imageworks)
2.35: 1
Panavision Platinum, System 65, Beaumonte VistaVision, Super 8 mm, Hi-8, Betacam
Panavision C-Series Anamorphic Prime Numbers
Vision Kodak 200T 5293 (daytime interiors; blue screen); Vision 320T 5277 (White House daytime interiors); Vision 500T 5279 (night exteriors); Vision 100T 5248 (exterior by day)



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