Scaling down – Truck out (Part 1)

A truck-out is the opposite of a truck-in. Instead of moving forwards, the camera pulls back along its view axis to scale down the characters and their environment. Unlike zoom-outs, the camera actually moves backwards, which makes this technique a weapon of choice when it comes to reveal a concealed foreground.


Exposing context

Truck-outs are not as commonly used as zoom-outs to reveal open environments, for the simple reason that one has to pull back the camera over a long distance to achieve a comparable effect. But the result can really be stunning, as in Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), when the camera trucks out miles away from Gabe to reveal the cliff he is climbing. Obviously, the smaller the environment, the smaller the distance the camera needs pulling back to reveal it. In Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982), the camera pulls back (and a bit sideways) a more ‘reasonable’ distance to reveal the stairs when Gandhi climbs the steps of Vice-Regal Palace to be handed keys to India.

But trucking out is not limited to scaling backdrops down. In Braveheart (M. Gibson, 1995), when Wallace finds the remnants of his father’s farm, the camera pulls a few feet back to reveal some ruins in the foreground. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (S. Spielberg, 1977), the camera trucks out to reveal a roadblock in the foreground, bringing the car to a halt. In both cases, pulling back the camera only exposes a small but meaningful part of the environment, just enough to let us figure out the context, and doesn’t really scale down the characters in the middle ground.


Exposing business

Similarly, truck-outs are frequently used to reveal characters’ business in the foreground. Instead of getting scaled down along with the background, characters become dominated by an oversized foreground. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (S. Spielberg, 1984), the camera trucks out to reveal two wheels spinning freely in the foreground, demonstrating that no one is flying the plane. In Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), our attention is drawn to the fax machine in the foreground as the camera trucks out on Ellie, depicting the character as the plaything of her interlocutor. In both cases, pulling back the camera gets the audience to feel what the characters feel, by visually confronting them with their overwhelming ‘business’.


Exposing characters

In the same vein, trucking out can be used to introduce characters by letting them enter the frame in the foreground. In Enemy at the Gates (J.-J. Annaud, 2001), the camera pulls back to let Vassili’s lower body enter the frame and dominate his German enemy in the background. In Barry Lyndon (S. Kubrick, 1975), the camera trucks out to introduce Barry and his lustful cousin playing cards, starting on a cherub-like figure to set the tone for their relationship.

Truck-outs can also be used to scale down one character and reveal another one who we know is on the stage. Those characters don’t come out of the blue anymore, for we want them to be part of the frame. For instance, in Jackie Brown (Q. Tarantino, 1997), as Jackie is waiting at LAPD headquarters, our attention is drawn to the voice and shadow of (supposedly) agent Nicolette out of frame. All of a sudden, the composition feels unbalanced, and the camera has to truck out so as to include the concealed character in the frame as the conversation goes on. Another example comes from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (S. Spielberg, 1982), when a new scene starts with reflections of Elliott’s face in a mirror. We initially think that the boy is alone, but as soon as he starts talking (supposedly to some character out of frame), we feel the need for a broader view, and the camera pulls back accordingly to reveal his sister Gertie in the foreground. This technique gives an active role to the audience by letting them expect the camera to pull back. Moreover, the characters who initially dominate the screen become scaled down by the rearward movement of the camera, which makes them less prominent when the concealed character is revealed.

Now characters themselves can be revealed by trucking out on a part of their face or body. In Dances with Wolves (K. Costner, 1990), the camera pulls back from Dunbar’s leg to reveal the character lying injured on the ground. In Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl (G. Verbinski, 2003), the camera only frames Elizabeth’s eyes before pulling back to scale her face down and reveal the character as an adult for the first time.


Creating space

When the background is really far away, trucking out on a foreground subject creates extra space around and, above all, behind that subject. Characters seem to recede in the frame onto a solid backdrop, as though they were falling down towards the background. In Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), the camera trucks out to bring out the tremendous distance between the characters and the background. This effect works because truck-outs scale the foreground down much quicker than the background. Both characters look as though they were falling backwards away from the camera, which is remarkably effective in this case.


What’s up?

Even though trucking out is an effective method of exposing backdrops by scaling them down on screen, truck-outs are most often used to reveal characters, their business or their environment in the foreground. Moreover, the audience naturally wants to broaden the view when they suspect some important element of the story to be out of frame, or when a shot starts too close to a subject.

In part 2, we will get into the emotional aspects of truck-outs.


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