I recently watched the opening sequence of “Contact” with new eyes, thanks to information from the audio commentary on the DVD.
Steve Starkey, Producer: We also decided to keep the type style of the original book [for] the main title of the movie. Remember when Carl [Sagan] was first presented with the idea of this opening, Bob?
Robert Zemeckis, Director: He said it was great to show the audience the vastness of the Universe but he was disturbed that the shot violated every physical law of nature.
SS: We thought that was a good foot to get off on. The wonderful thing was that [Carl] went ahead and gave us his favorite space images that he thought of as we were traveling through the Universe, [images] we should try to show the audience at the beginning of the movie.
RZ: This shot is very impressive and of course it is all done digitally. It is beautiful job that they did, it’s very long.
SS: The sounds from the present day overlap [into a] cacophony.
RZ: And going back in time. And catching up to broadcasts that have been traveling away from the Earth for a long time. I remember we were struggling with this shot and Michael Goldenberg, the screenwriter, and myself. The convention was to have the camera flying toward the Earth; that’s how it was written, that’s how the book started, as if it were ‘the message’ coming at the Earth. It just seemed false and this turned out to be a much better way of doing it. I remember we got that inspiration after talking with Carl, we flying back on the plane and said ‘let’s go the other way.’ And that just solved all our problems, created as The Universe In the Blink of An Eye theme that runs throughout the film.
SS: I thought it was very bold that you elaborated the scale of the Universe by going to silence in the middle of the sequence.
RZ: There is nothing out there [at that point], so there has to be.
SS: This gives you a new perspective on planet Earth to look at it from this far out in the Universe. You render yourself rather insignificant in relation to the whole.
RZ: [Referring to the reveal of the young Ellie Arroway] The thing that I think is so cool about this shot is that Jenna’s eyes are not really that color; those are Jodie [Foster’s].
I love this introductory sequence. The footage was produced in 1997, just one year after astronomers pointed the Hubble telescope at a completely empty part of space, let it collect light for 10 days, and discovered to their astonishment that the empty space in fact contained over 3,000 galaxies. The resulting image, called “Hubble Deep Field,” is easily one of the most influential space images of all time.
Starkey and Zemeckis took that and ran with it, producing a jaw-dropping movie opener. In her audio commentary, Jodie Foster noted that if you saw this in the theater, people got very uncomfortable when all of the sounds of human activity dropped away, because they thought the sound had gone out in the theater.
Today’s wallpaper isn’t the Hubble Deep Field, though. It’s the Hubble Extreme Deep Field (XDF), combining 50 days worth of Hubble data into an image containing around 5,500 galaxies. Here’s the really cool part:
The universe is 13.7 billion years old, and the XDF reveals galaxies that span back 13.2 billion years in time. Most of the galaxies in the XDF are seen when they were young, small, and growing, often violently as they collided and merged together. The early universe was a time of dramatic birth for galaxies containing brilliant blue stars extraordinarily brighter than our Sun. The light from those past events is just arriving at Earth now, and so the XDF is a “time tunnel into the distant past.” The youngest galaxy found in the XDF existed just 450 million years after the universe’s birth in the Big Bang.
Today’s wallpaper is a time tunnel. Look into that, and think about how far into the past you are seeing.
And closer to our present, here is that famous introduction to “Contact.”
(Click the image to blow your mind.)