It’s Done With Mirrors

Modern still cameras are so easy to use that you can snap a pin-sharp, correctly exposed photograph even with a bag over your head.

We should all be grateful for modern automatic controls; the less there is to worry over the more we can concentrate on framing. But trouble arises when we need to do something other than point and shoot. Many video effects require the disabling of automatic functions.

This month’s article concerns effects involving the use of mirrors. And mirrors, as we know, feature two separate planes-the reflected image and the surface of the glass itself. It’s the difference between the two that sometimes fools the autofocus mechanism.

In previous issues of Videomaker I’ve a 50/50 mirror to produce ghostly apparitions and overlay captions. It is possible to use this item for yet more special effects. Itis these this month that I shall discuss.

Main Types

The two types of mirrors most often used in optical work are the semi-coated 50/50 mirror and the fully-coated front-surfaced mirror. The 50/50 mirror, or beam splitter, reflects 50 percent of incoming light back to its source, allowing the remaining 50 percent to then pass through the coating.

Front-surfaced mirrors are essential for work where secondary ghost images are unacceptable. To understand what I mean, hold a burning match in front of a standard wall minor and look at it from one side. You’ll note three images. Surfaced mirrors in the flip-up viewfinders of still cameras eliminate these images by placing the reflective surface on the front of the glass. The pro surfaced mirrors, usually made of polished plate glass, are coated with aluminum or titanium, metals less prone to oxidation. Small mirrors-around nine inches square-are awtilaiile from specialist suppliers. Videomakers who produce commercial or demonstration videos should own a set of front- surfaced minors and glasses.

Most modern cameras equipped with image/contrast focusing will home in on the reflected picture. Your autofocus may fail because of a dirty mirror surface. Try pointing the camera at the miror and recording your own reflection.

This should adequately demonstrate your model’s adaptability.

Shufftan Shower

Years ago German film technician Eugene Shufftan developed a technique of combining two pictures by scraping away parts of a minor placed in front of the camera lens.

The method was extremely simple but very effective, allowing one camera to combine two pictures.

Though it’s long been replaced by modern post-production techniques, anyone wanting to impress with mock computer effects should consider the Shufftan.

Picture a scene wherein a live actor appears in a cartoon drawing.

Pretend the character is taking a shower. All that’s required in the way of scenery is a sheet of hard-board painted white, with a stylized outline drawing of the shower. You’ll also need an ordinary miror and a cartoon drawing of the bathroom.

Set up the minor and the camera; fix them firmly. Scratch away some of the silver in the middle of the mirror for the area in front of the shower.

To remove silver from a mirror, first remove the backing with paint stripper. Then, after washing and drying, scrape the silver with a scalpel blade and steel wool. Nitric acid applied to large areas of coating will remove the backing without scratching.

Now you have a view through the glass.

With constant reference through the camera viewfinder, scrape away the silver to fully reveal the shower. For this procedure, set the mirror at a forty-five degree angle to the axis of the lens.

All you need now is the drawing, placed to one side of the mirror. It will be seen in reverse, so avoid words or anything else that may appear back to front. Make the drawing as large as possible to ensure both it and shower will remain in focus. Place it approximately the same distance from the minor as the real scene.

With everything firmly positioned, cue the actor and record. Mix a few wide shots with some close-ups; then impress those whose computerized editing devices can’t begin to approach such shots.

It is easy to deride these old techniques, but they’re really worth consideration. A few hours’ effort will make the difference between your video aud point-and-shoot happy snaps.

Fake Twin

The term double exposure applies only to film, as only film can be exposed twice. An example: a sequence wherein an actress performs alongside herself as her twin sister or double.

Though we’ve all seen this effect hundreds of times, it’s the way the film people managed to achieve it that’s truly interesting.

They made the first exposure on one side of the frame, the other side masked by a sheet of black-painted metal positioned in front of the camera lens. They would then wind the film back, slide the mask across to the other side and film the second picture.

They’d disguise the edge of the mask, which appeared as a fuzzy line, with a contrived vertical feature on the set-a return in the wall, a doorway, a bookcase, anything that would divide thepicture from top to bottom.

Those seeking to duplicate this effect have a problem-magnetic tape run through the camera wipes clean every time it hits the erase head.

So some other method is necessary.

Try this one. It’s somewhat protracted, but useful to anyone shooting a script calling for an actor to play two parts.

Edit the major part of the sequence using the technique of intercutting between the two characters, seeing first one and then the other, each from the other’s eye-line and each in a different costume.

This is simple stuff; sooner or later the viewer will recognize the ploy. You thus require a method to show the two characters in a single frame.

One technique involves a second person closely resembling the main character. Shoot this person from behind and across the shoulder.

Note: use this method sparingly.

We still haven’t seen both characters side by side. So try something like the original split-screen technique. Place the actor to one side of the frame, ensuring the background possesses a definite vertical feature. Put a mirror in front of the lens which, angled at forty-five degrees, looks at a tracing paper screen. This screen, used for back projection, should remain at the same distance from the lens as the actor.

Before taping, shoot a few 35mm transparencies of the actor, looking in different directions and dressed in the different costumes. Then project an appropriate slide from behind onto the screen. Voila. A living, breathing actor in one half of the frame, a still picture of the same actor in the other.

Of course the still won’t move, but since viewers trail their eyes to where the action is the trick is to edit so the still appears to listen attentively to the moving, speaking being.

Problems? Correcting the color balance of the projected slide and the real person. Filters and careful scene lighting help.

Remember to project the slide the wrong way round. Photograph a character required to look to the left looking right. A storyboard will help get things right.


We’ve all seen newscasters glibly reeling off lines. How’d they get so word perfect? Not hard. They’re just reading.

A 50/50 mirror angled downwards in front of the camera lens can reflect a piece of paper bearing a prepared script.

In professional teleprompters the script unwinds on a long strip of paper traveling past the lens at a rate controlled by an off-screen operator or a foot pedal under the reader’s table.

The writing, reversed, appears on translucent paper pulled across a back-lit screen. Sometimes it’s viewed through a second mirror, reversing it back to normal.

Because many people often find it so difficult to memorize even the simplest dialogue the introduction of some sort of cueing arrangement can be quite a lifeline, calming nerves and improving delivery. For really tricky dialogue with lots of names it’s nearly a requirement.

Teleprompting needn’t be sophisticated. In an emergency a sheet of glass in front of the lens used with a strip of toilet paper showing the backs of letters absorbed into the paper from a felt- tipped pen will work tolerably well. Don’t attempt to write; use dots.

Teleprompting devices are protected by patents governing use for commercial purposes; Aunt Sophie reading from a handwritten page via sheet of glass is probably exempt.

When planning a lot of mirror or reflective work try building a special box. You’ll find it useful for many different purposes, from teleprompting to creating overlays across maps or objects.

See: there’s a guy talking about his travels abroad.

In fades a map. Later the map appears again, this time on its own. Across the country appears a dotted line tracing his journey-dots uncovered by moving black paper across some punched holes.

Simple. But it looks just like pro TV.

Bernard Wilkie, a Videomaker contributing editor, designed special effects for the BBC for over 25 years.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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