Alternating zoom-ins and zoom-outs

As zooming in is quite the opposite of zooming out, it may seem counterintuitive — even odd — to do both in the same shots. However, zoom-ins and zoom-outs have their own specific range of meanings, which ingeniously combined together, can have a number of applications in storytelling well worth studying. Let’s go through the ins and outs of zooming.


Sucking and blowing

So zooming in and out within the same shot is perfectly valid, as long as you don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth. In Once Upon a Time in the West (S. Leone, 1968), newly married Jill McBain steps down from the train, seeking her husband in the crowd, only to find that no one is there to meet her. The camera starts by zooming in on her face as she puts in an appearance, then zooms out as she begins to feel quite alone in the crowd on the station platform. Both moves say different things — pointing vs isolating — so the alternation of zoom-in and zoom-out feels natural. In TV series episode The Avengers: The Morning After (J. Hough, 1969), Steed and Merlin cautiously walk down stairs, observing the effect of the gas capsule they have thrown down the basement. The camera starts by zooming out to reveal the characters’ environment, then zooms in to focus on their facial expressions. Again, both moves are not used in contradiction with each other. So is that all it boils down to?…


Sequence design

Well, not quite! It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. There are typical cases where you want zoom-ins and zoom-outs to conspicuously contradict each other. In Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003), the camera (whip-)zooms in on Johnny Mo’s arrival, presenting him as the only opponent to the Bride, but a second later, the camera (whip-)zooms out to reveal his gang barging in. Although it’s true that, in that case, zooming in and out bear distinct meanings — predominance vs reveal — they visually act as one two-staged move, such as that of a yo-yo or a swinging door. In Point Blank (J. Boorman, 1967), the camera zooms in and out to suggest that Walker and Reese have been waiting a long time on a footbridge to ambush two ‘deliverymen’. Again, zooming in and out bear different meanings here — pointing vs reveal — but both moves were clearly thought as a two-staged storytelling effect.

Zooming in and out can even design whole scenes, as in The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980), when Hallorann has a fit of ‘shining’ in his bedroom. At first, the camera zooms out to reveal and isolate the character, only to swoop on him (for awareness) like a wave a moment later, in one big contrasting ‘gesture’. This back and forth motion, if conspicuous enough to stick in the mind of the audience as a two-part effect, can be deliberately divided and used as opening and closing brackets to mark the entry and exit points of another scene (e.g. a flashback), as in Jackie Brown (Q. Tarantino, 1997), when Max remembers a phone conversation he has had with Jackie. Note that the conversation scene has been trimmed out here to limit the duration of the clip.


Shot design

Combinations of whip zoom-ins and whip zoom-outs can give a newsreel or amateur-video look to a shot. In this case, the more the moves clash with each other, the better. Many examples of this technique can be found in JFK (O. Stone, 1991), for instance when a witness is being arrested just after Kennedy is murdered. The Hurt Locker (K. Bigelow, 2008) is filled with those shots made of erratic zoom-ins and zoom-outs, conveying soldiers’ constant feeling of insecurity in their daily mine-clearing activities. Note: Three nearly-consecutive excerpts were stitched together in the presented sample.

There are no limits to creativity when it comes to pulling the zoom ring. In The ‘Burbs (J. Dante, 1989), the camera whip-zooms in and out like crazy on Ray and Art as they realize the bone they have in hand might well belong to their late neighbor Walter. Well, …maybe there are limits to playing with the zoom ring after all…


What’s up?

Alternating between zoom-ins and zoom-outs in one shot has an infinite number of applications in movie storytelling. On the one hand, they will be transparent to the audience, provided they don’t contradict each other. On the other hand, conspicuous combinations can be used to design shots, scenes or even sequences, as they will mark the audience’s mind. In next article, we will see how truck-outs can be used to scale characters down.


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