Scaling down – Zoom out (Part 2)

Here we go with the emotional aspect of zooming out. Scaling characters down by zooming out on them objectifies their figures and make them look isolated or defeated. But design and speed also have an important role to play with the emotions we feel, as we will see below.


Isolating a subject

Just as zooming in on characters makes them look important and committed, zooming out unsurprisingly turns them into lost, isolated or defeated souls. In The Usual Suspects (B. Singer, 1995), Kujan finds himself in deep trouble now that he has unfortunately let a prime suspect leave the police station freely. The camera zooms out on him to depict his embarrassment, making him look lost in all that empty blurry space. The same technique can be applied to any kind of subjects, as in Black Book (P. Verhoeven, 2006), when SS commandant Franken attempts to flee to Germany by boat. The engine inexplicably stops, and a zoom-out brings out the character’s precarious situation, showing how lost his boat looks in the middle of the ocean.

Furthermore, the environment can add a symbolic touch to characters’ apparent isolation due to zooming out. In Barry Lyndon (S. Kubrick, 1975), Barry is feeling down after shamefully brawling with his wife’s first-born son Lord Bullingdon. But Barry is not just defeated, he is a prisoner of the environment he has strived to be part of, which is what this long zoom-out brings out. In Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978), barbed wires in the foreground act as a symbolic overlay as the camera zooms out on Billy dragged by Hamidou to a dungeon of the prison where he’s being held. Zooming out makes the character look defeated and helpless, but the covering foreground adds to his misery by scratching and battering his figure.


Closing shot

In Have subjects move to the background, we saw how zooming out could help the audience disconnect from characters leaving the scene by letting them go away even more quickly. Such zoom-out shots can be used to close a scene, even a movie. For example, in Sorcerer (W. Friedkin, 1977), Kassem’s friend is being taken away by the military after causing a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. As the truck drives off, the camera zooms out to emphasize its movement towards the background, which marks the end of the Israeli sequence of the film. The final zoom-out shot of The Name of the Rose (J.-J. Annaud, 1986) shows Adso leaving the Abbey with William on donkey back as he comments on his choices in voice over. A typical closing shot.



Like zoom-ins, zoom-outs can be used as a design effect to give a distinctive feeling to a shot, or series of shots. For instance, zooming out is commonly used as a design effect to display newspaper headlines, by tightly framing some important word or picture, then widening the frame to reveal the surrounding article, as in A Clockwork Orange (S. Kubrick, 1971) when a montage sequence shows the political aftermaths of Alex’s attempted suicide. Constant zoom adjustments constitute another design effect frequently used in the cinéma vérité genre to dramatize the action. In The Hurt Locker (K. Bigelow, 2008), the camera keeps erratically zooming out (and in), getting the audience to reconsider the action virtually every second of the film. This effect makes them share the high level of insecurity the characters experience in their dangerous environment. Note: Two excerpts from the same film have been stitched together to better showcase the use of those erratic zoom-outs.


Whip zoom-outs

Whip zoom-outs are another kind of design effects where speed is key to conveying the violence of an action. Speed is used to emphasize the emotional impact of traditional zoom-outs — basically for isolation or revelation. For instance, let’s start with zooming out for isolation. In For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965), a whip zoom-out (for isolation) is used to exaggerate the startle reflex of El Indio woken up by gunshots. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (P. Kaufman, 1978), another whip zoom-out (for isolation) tosses the audience away from Jack and Nancy, pushing both characters to the background as they recoil at the sight (and touch) of a body behind a curtain.

Whip zoom-outs for revelation are also very common in certain genres of movies. In For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965), when El Indio and his gang rob the bank of El Paso, a whip zoom-out — starting with his jolly face — reveals his gun as he deliberately shoots at a guard. In Run Lola Run (T. Tykwer, 1998), a whip zoom-out reveals the tracery of an empty square — a symbol of complexity largely repeated in this sequence — as Lola flies for the second time to the rescue of Manni.


What’s up?

By scaling characters down, zoom-outs convey a feeling of isolation or despair, in which the environment can play an active role. Zooming out is frequently used to close a scene, a sequence, or even a movie. Pushed to their limits, zoom-outs can literally design a shot — or series of shots — in repeated or erratic patterns, or by exaggerating speed. But the story doesn’t end there. Strange as it may sound, both zoom-ins and zoom-outs can be used in the same shot, as we will see in next article.


Recommended reading


Recommended watching