Scaling down – Zoom out (Part 1)

By widening our vision field, zoom-outs give a broader view of the stage while at the same time objectifying characters by scaling them down. This twofold effect has a number of important uses. In part 1, we will explore zoom-outs for exposition. We will go through their emotional and design effects in part 2.


Exposing context

Zoom-outs are frequently used to expose or reveal characters’ environment as a context. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (P. Jackson, 2001), we hear Saruman commenting in voice over on the fellowship’s attempt to cross dangerous mountain ranges. To illustrate his thoughts, the camera zooms out from the characters trudging in the snow to a broader view of their hostile environment. In Battle Royale (K. Fukasaku, 2000), when Shuya chases Yuko to the top of a lighthouse, the camera zooms out to show Shuya’s arriving at the deck. This move reveals a contradiction: Although the place looks inescapable, the girl is not there — so where is she? In both cases, zooming out is merely used to display the environment as a conceptual context while scaling characters down to kind of ‘moving entities’.


Exposing business

By extension, zoom-outs can be used to reveal characters’ business while at the same time scaling those characters down, transitioning them from a mental to a more physical presence. In Barry Lyndon (S. Kubrick, 1975), the camera zooms out on Lady Lyndon and her son to reveal a cradle just as the narrator mentions the impact of the newborn on her life. The effect is twofold: It draws our attention to Lady Lyndon’s business (the cradle) while scaling her figure down. This relegates the character to the background, transitioning her from a mental to a physical role. In For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965), the camera zooms out on Col. Mortimer as he puts his rifle back in place after killing Calloway. Again, the effect is twofold: It widens our field of vision to include the character’s business (the gun rack) while scaling him down. This makes him look less mentally committed now his ‘mission’ has been fulfilled.


Exposing action

Widening the frame can also surprise the audience by allowing a subject initially concealed to be revealed, changing our perspective on the action. In The Avengers: Legacy of Death (D. Chaffey, 1968), Steed and Tara are ambushed by a man lurking on a nearby roof top as they leave her apartment. At first, we don’t know about the man. We simply focus on the couple leaving Tara’s apartment, unaware as they are of his presence. But we suddenly change our perspective on the action when the camera zooms out and reveals the aggressor. In The Avengers: Thingumajig (L. Norman, 1969), the same camera move is used to reveal the empty table top in the foreground, where a mysterious metal box was resting a moment earlier. This time, the lack of an important subject in the frame changes our point of view on the action. Note how, in both cases, the characters become objectified as zooming out scales them down.


Exposing characters

Now zoom-outs can be used the other way round, to reveal characters themselves in an intriguing way at the beginning of a new ‘static’ scene, starting with their environment. At first, we are prevented from seeing the characters that we expect to be on stage, so we are left to imagine how they relate to the context we are presented with until we see them. As a result, we feel entertained even though nothing really happens during the shot. In Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987), the ‘rifle-range scene’ starts with remote targets and sounds of gunshots, but as we can hear Hartman’s voice, we know he and his platoon must already be somewhere in the field. Whether the recruits are actually shooting at the targets is anyone’s guess. Only when the camera ends zooming out do we realize that the soldiers are simply listening one more time to their instructor in the foreground. In Barry Lyndon (S. Kubrick, 1975), the duel scene between Barry and Captain Quin starts with pistols being loaded by two self-assured characters that we initially think are the two opponents. Only when the camera ends zooming out on the set — revealing characters one at a time — do we realize that Barry and Quin are already in place. And contrary to what we initially thought, none of them seems happy to be there. So in both cases, intriguing the audience about characters with a zoom-out increases their interest in what they could otherwise consider to be yet another static scene.

Focusing on the environment before zooming out is not the only way to reveal characters in an intriguing way. In A Clockwork Orange (S. Kubrick, 1971), not only does a zoom-out reveal Alex’s droogs waiting for him, but starting with a Close Shot of the milk bottle Dim is hiding behind his back leaves no doubt about their intents. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (S. Leone, 1966), the camera zooms out from a hand spinning a spur to its owner, threatening Blondie in a hotel room. Focusing on a detail first makes the audience eager to figure out who the characters are and what they are doing as the zoom-out develops.


Creating space

Finally, zoom-outs can be used to create space around characters. Unbalancing the frame is a great way to make the audience uncomfortable and expect something to fill the void (read more in off-centered characters). In The Avengers: The Rotters (R. Fuest, 1968), Steed is playing games with two crooks at Mrs Forsythe’s house. A timely zoom-out broadens the stage to welcome the old lady in the frame — who involuntarily brings Steed’s little game to light. The effect is twofold. It makes room for an extra character while scaling the others down, which visually disrupts their exclusive relationship and recomposes the group as two opposing factions. In The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980), the camera zooms out to show Danny playing alone with his toys in a hallway of the deserted Overlook Hotel, but as it carries on, too much space is created around the character, which feels uncomfortable and draws our attention to the ball inexplicably entering the frame.


What’s up?

When used for their descriptive effect, zoom-outs act as revealers, whether they reveal characters, their business or their environment. It always feels intriguing when a zoom-out reveals characters after contextual details, and even more when creating empty space to unbalance the frame. In part 2, we will focus on the emotional and design aspects of zoom-outs.


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