New Lesson! Mirror Magic - Visual Effects Illusions of Light and Reflection

Mark Sawicki shares illusions for filmmakers with reflection and light: clever camera tricks using the unique properties of special mirrors.

Mar 30, 2013


by Jeff Dixon

To watch the FREE lesson preview, simply click on the player above. Check out the Full Lesson page HERE.

If you’re a fan of special effects at all (and my guess is that if you’re reading this blog, you are), you will truly appreciate this week’s lesson.  MIRROR MAGIC - VISUAL EFFECTS USING REFLECTIONS is a unique and specialized look at the use of mirrors in trick photography.  The methods presented here are steeped in history and have been used on stage and screen alike for ages.  These are techniques that I feel haven’t really been presented before like this in a basic how-to lesson, and who better to lead this journey than VFX veteran Mark Sawicki.

Pictured above: Mark Sawicki's lesson on in-camera visual effects using mirrors.


As with anything, to best understand something, it’s best to know where it came from.  So to begin, Mark takes you through a brief history lesson on trick photography using mirrors.  He discusses the pioneer processes, such as the Dircksian Phantasmagoria and the Pepper’s Ghost techniques.  These were mainly used on stage to trick audiences into seeing things that weren’t actually there.  In fact, these are the same types of techniques that magicians use on stage still today, just in a much grander way.

Pictured above: The man, Eugene Shüfftan with camera at the ready.

Continuing on, he talks about how these techniques eventually translated to film.  Citing movies such as METROPOLIS, THE 39 STEPS, and even DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, Mark explains all about the Schufftan Process, a way of using a mirror to project miniatures along with the actors at the same time.  The great thing is, all of these historical techniques he discusses, he recreates here in this lesson.

Pictured above: DARBY O'GILL & THE LITTLE PEOPLE employs a mirror and 2 live-action simultaneous scenes TOGETHER in-camera.


Before he starts any technique, he gives lessons on how to light for a mirror effect scene, how to dress a set for a mirror effect scene (paying specific attention to the fact that things are reversed in a mirror), and even how to direct actors for a mirror effect scene.  It’s this latter part that some of the potential directors out there might be interested in.  Mark is a character in himself and the way he works with his actresses is light and fun.

Pictured above: Mark demonstrates the use of a cucoloris to break up a hard light into patterns and shadows.

IN CAMERA EFFECTS: PART 1 - Schüfftan's 4th Dimension

First up is the Schüfftan 4th Dimension technique.  Here, Mark places an straight, front surface mirror at an angle to block out a section.  When you look through the camera, it looks like a continuous wall.  He then has actors behind the blocked out mirror “pull” an actress into the “netherworld.”  It’s essentially a split screen technique that still works great, and better yet, it’s all done in camera.

Pictured above: The final 4th Dimension effect where eerie hands grab at our hero from a void in space.

IN CAMERA EFFECTS: PART 2 - Pepper's Ghost Effect

Secondly, Mark recreates the Pepper’s Ghost effect.  This is my personal favorite of the bunch because honestly, it just works so well you’d be hard pressed to say it’s not a digitally processed post effect.  Here he uses a 50/50 Stereoscopic mirror to essentially shoot two things at once.  The camera catches the actress through the glass as well as the actress being reflected on it.  The combination creates an ethereal effect on the actress playing the “ghost,” and it really packs a punch.

Pictured above: Melissa is standing across the room from Mark and Camille. The mirror into lens places them together and makes SOMEONE an apparition.

IN CAMERA EFFECTS: PART 3 - Schüfftan's Box

Next up, Mark builds and recreates a variation of the Schüfftan box.  This is the exact same technique that was used in many of those aforementioned films.  This is a technique that uses a matte and a counter-matte, which basically is the foundation of all compositing in special effects.  In this example, by using this preocess, Mark’s able to make one actress look extremely large while the other actress is normal sized.  Combined, they work flawlessly and you can see how many of these types of effects in film are still used today.

Pictured above: A matte box with a mini gallery wall set into a mirror creates an ALICE IN WONDERLAND effect.

IN CAMERA EFFECTS: PART 4 - Schüfftan's Beam

And lastly, Mark uses a mirror to create light effects.  Specifically for this one, he creates a beam of light across an actress than in reality doesn’t exist there.  Again, it’s all done simply with a mirror.  Really basic and yet very effective.

Pictured above: Can't guess how THIS is done? Well... MIRRORS. And light. And a girl. And a camera.

All in all, this is a lesson that is both extremely simple and yet utterly effective.  The charm here is that honestly anyone can do it.  All you need is a mirror and a camera.  And I promise, after watching, you’ll want to bust out your own camera and try the techniques yourself.  Enjoy.

--Jeff Dixon

Check out the Full Lesson page HERE.

Find out about MARK SAWICKI HERE.

WATCH Mark Sawicki's tutorial on STOP-MOTION ANIMATION.