Low Budget Filmmaking
The Dolly Zoom is a camera shot made famous in Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958). It was invented by cameraman Irmin Roberts to visually convey the feeling and effects of acrophobia by zooming in with the lens while simultaneously dollying the camera backwards…or vice versa. Since 1958 it has been used hundreds of times in motion pictures…sadly most of the time only as a trick shot. Filmmakers often use it because it looks cool, has direct cinema lineage to Hitchcock and they love to point out it’s in their film. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This post is about the WHY not the HOW.
The Dolly Zoom is only effective (and curiously invisible) when it visually amplifies the internal emotional mindset of a character’s critical story moment.
When Scottie (James Stewart) battles his fear of heights and looks down the staircase in Vertigo…the viewer sees a visual representation of his mental fragility and shares his POV. It’s unsettling, disturbing and true to the moment. Hitchcock uses it not as a gimmick shot…but as pure cinema. You FEEL what the character feels and understand how difficult it is for him to climb those stairs…all by proxy of a perfectly choreographed camera shot.
I have compiled 23 of my favorite Dolly Zoom shots in the video below to help further explore and demonstrate this phenomenon. Directors such as: Hitchcock, Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino, Truffaut, Mendes, Melville, Raimi and others have used this effect to its fullest potential. I find it amazing that such an obvious visual manipulation becomes virtually unseen when deftly employed in the right moment.
It’s clear that EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT is the key to making this specialized shot work and not come across as just a trick shot.
In this video, I’ve included the shot before or after each Dolly Zoom so you see it with some context to the scene…
It’s wonderful to see pure visuals convey the message without resorting to words for exposition. That is Cinema.
For more information about the science and mechanics behind the Dolly Zoom
I recommend this post from John P. Hess.
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Until next time…