Scaling up – Zoom in (Part 1)

Zooming in to magnify a subject has a number of important uses in storytelling. Whereas characters coming close to the camera only scale up their own figures, zooming in on characters scales up the whole image — environment included — making for totally different effects. Let’s see that in action.


Narrowing the frame to introduce characters

Although they were commonplace in the 70’s, long, slow zoom-ins narrowing the frame from context to character are still used to introduce a scene. In Sorcerer (W. Friedkin, 1977), the Jerusalem sequence starts with a slow zoom-in transitioning from an Extreme Long Shot (ELS) of the Damascus Gate to a Full Shot (FS) of Kassem meeting up with a friend. Indoor environments usually need shallower introductory zoom-ins (i.e. starting closer to the subject), as in Battle Royale (K. Fukasaku, 2000), where a flashback shows Shuya and his friend Yôshitoki having a conversation about the girl they both love in secret. In both cases, the effect is the same: introducing characters in relation to their environment.


Pointing to a subject from an objective POV

Very often, zoom-ins are merely used to point to some important subject that would go unnoticed in a wider shot. In The Killer (J. Woo, 1989), Li Ying — a police detective in Hong Kong — rides a motorbike without realizing that he is being followed by a group of Triad hitmen. A zoom-in points to the car in the background to make sure the audience is aware of the ongoing chase. In My Name is Nobody (T. Valerii, 1973), a boy hides in his father’s shop to watch three gunmen arriving in town. To ensure that the audience notices the boy’s worried expression through a door pane (acting as a subframe), a zoom-in starts to point to the door when he enters the shop and long before his face actually shows up behind the door.

Zooming in can also be used to show a concealed subject, as in Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982), where a couple of soldiers watch the pyre of cloth Gandhi and his followers have ignited in protest against the British occupier. Without a zoom-in, it would be difficult for the audience to spot the soldiers’ figures in the background through such strong image deformation in one shot. Conversely, zooming in can be used to evict a visible subject from the screen. In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather: Part II (F. F. Coppola, 1974), Michael supervises the execution of his brother Fredo — who has betrayed him — by a henchman while they are fishing on a lake. This time, a zoom-in is used to evict the executioner from the frame while pointing to the victim appropriately saying a prayer. This unusual framing warns the audience that something nasty is to happen behind Fredo’s back, which is reinforced by the following shot of Michael waiting behind a bay window.


Pointing to a subject from a subjective POV

By extension, zoom-ins are commonly used to depict characters looking closer to a subject from their own POVs. In Sleepy Hollow (T. Burton, 1999), Ichabod Crane leans forwards to better discover a lineage relationship between the Van Garretts and the Van Tassels on a family tree. The initial move forwards of the character is logically repeated by a subjective zoom-in on the book page, representing his POV. In Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987), an unseen Vietcong sniper — hiding in a ruined building — pins down a squad of American soldiers, wounding them one by one as they approach. The two zoom-in shots (stitched together here but occurring at different times in the film) represent the sniper’s POV as she (supposedly) adjusts her telescopic sight — as opposed to actually moving closer to the subject.

Even though human beings can’t ‘zoom in’ with their eyes, subjective zoom-ins are very efficient at depicting characters focusing on a subject, especially when that subject is hardly visible. In Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), Kynette — a member of hijacker Qualen’s crew — spots some movement in the snow, which gives away Gabe’s hideout (i.e. in a cave underneath). In some cases, characters have to scan their environment before they spot a subject, making for a sudden zoom-in as it eventually shows up. In Basic Instinct (P. Verhoeven, 1992), Nick Curran spots Catherine Tramell’s car quietly parked by a house after he almost died trying to chase her. In this case, a zoom-in simulates his spotting the car that was out of sight half a second earlier.


What’s up?

So far, we have reviewed descriptive aspects of zoom-ins, showing how they are commonly used to introduce a scene, point to or focus on subjects from different POVs, even casting aside characters. In part 2, we will concentrate on the emotional aspects of zoom-ins.


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