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Low Budget Filmmaking

Evolution of the Dolly Zoom

On 19, Jan 2014 | 28 Comments | In Low Budget Filmmaking, Production | By vashi

Vertigo Dolly Zoom

Cameraman Irmin Roberts invented the Dolly Zoom shot

 

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.

 

Dolly Zoom inside the ring during Raging Bull

Raging Bull dolly zoom (1980)

 

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…

vashivisuals.com

@vashikoo

Comments

  1. The good ol’ dolly zoom! Great post Vashi!

    Martin Scorsese uses the dolly zoom in the Quaalude overdose scene in Wolf of Wall Street – It’s probably becoming one of my favorite examples because it’s so perfect to the narrative.

    • vashi

      Thank you so much John! Love all your work and contributions to the discipline of filmmaking. Will have to revisit that Wolf scene to scope it out. My favorite film of last year…quickest 3 hours ever.

  2. Thanks for that Vashi.
    This effect indeed is invisible when done right.
    Apart from the obvious “Vertigo” I’ve only noticed the dolly zoom done in Poltergeist and Jaws.
    Without your clip I would have never noticed how much it is used, specially in Scarface, Ghostbusters or Pulp Fiction.

    • vashi

      My pleasure Alex. Thank you for the kind words!

  3. Love it, the bonus shot is much appreciated!
    Look forward to your next post

  4. You beat me to it! I was planning on doing a little movie like this myself but you’ve hit all the best examples. I did a lot of research to find out if it had been done before “Vertigo”. It seems like such a simple idea I’m surprised it hadn’t but to the best of my research it never had. Someone mentioned it may have been done in “Metropolis” but I couldn’t find one.

    Great stuff. Thanks!

    • vashi

      Thanks for the kind words Evan. I saw a 70mm print of VERTIGO last week in Santa Monica and it inspired me to crank out this post. BTW…I love and reference your site so fucking often. Thank you for all your hard work too!

  5. Hi Vashi,

    Thank you for this inspiring movie.
    Now I’m really considering to use one dolly zoom shot!

    • vashi

      Thanks Jayant for kind words. Use it wisely and let it help tell your story!

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