Scaling up – Zoom in (Part 2)

With all the pinpointing and focusing of zoom-ins we came across in part 1, it almost seems that we have forgotten about the emotional aspect of magnifying subjects on screen. Let’s get into the thick of things.


Accentuating a subject’s presence

Zooming in on characters can be an alternative to letting them walk to the foreground and take over the frame. In My Name is Nobody (T. Valerii, 1973), the very first time Nobody appears on the screen, a zoom-in makes the audience focus on his face as he suddenly comes out of the water, with the added effect of letting him literally fill the frame. In Battle Royale (K. Fukasaku, 2000), the camera zooms in on young Mitsuko after she killed a pedophile in the stairs. Although the character is a child, her menacing figure literally takes over the screen as the camera zooms in on her.

Zooming in on subjects to let them fill the frame is not reserved to characters. In Once Upon a Time in the West (S. Leone, 1968), McBain screams with horror as he realizes his daughter Maureen has been shot by an unseen gunman. By narrowing the frame to an Extreme Close Shot (ECS) of his mouth, McBain’s feelings seem to take over the screen as they take over the character himself. Now even objects can take the frame over, as in Godzilla (R. Emmerich, 1998), when a subjective zoom-in on a dark manhole brings out that the gigantic creature is hiding under the pavement. Having the aperture fill the screen emphasizes Godzilla’s dangerous presence and warns the audience that she’s about to take action.


Entering a character’s mind

Quite paradoxically, zoom-ins offer the audience the opportunity to study characters’ faces without feeling too close physically, for the camera doesn’t actually move towards them. In The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980), a zoom-in lets us assess Jack’s impenetrable mental state with the (relatively) secure feeling of staying out of reach. In Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987), two zoom-ins on Pyle’s face have us witness insanity increasingly plaguing the character, yet without feeling too close to him (the two shots stitched together here are actually occurring at different times in the film). In both cases, we feel as though we were using goggles to have a closer sight on characters from a distance.

Because Close Shots (CS) are mental shot scales, tight zoom-ins give us the feeling that we are able to enter characters’ minds. In Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), this is all the more true since we can hear the character think in voice over. No wonder why zoom-ins and montage sequences of photographs commonly go hand in hand so as to make the audience feel closer to their subjects, as in Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978), when Billy is reunited with his family. The emotional effect is similar to zooming in on onstage characters (i.e. in the flesh).


Sudden awareness

Because we identify with characters, we unconsciously cast our own feelings on them. Hence, when characters gain awareness of something (e.g. a situation, a clue, a memory), zooming in on their faces makes us become aware of that change of state ourselves. In a nutshell, we are made to experience the characters’ sudden awareness. In Once Upon a Time in the West (S. Leone, 1968), McBain — reading a letter from the woman his son is to fetch at the station — remembers the day he met her. Because the character goes from a Mid Shot (MS) (i.e. a crossover between a physical and a mental shot scale) to a Close Shot (CS) (i.e. a strict mental scale), we feel ‘in synch’ with his sudden reminiscing state. In Valmont (M. Forman, 1989), the growing interest in the character we are made to have conveys his own growing awareness of the outcome of the duel.

Many times, this feeling of sudden awareness is conveyed by an almost invisible zoom-in, as in The Man Who Would Be King (J. Huston, 1975), when Danny is bitten by the woman he has forced to marry him. This emotional aspect of zoom-ins is so important to storytelling that editors sometimes incorporate it as a post-processing effect — at the cost of making the shot ‘grainier’ — as in TV series episode The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Avaricious Actuary (I. J. Moore, 1968), when West realizes he has been surrounded by three henchmen.

In case you wonder, here’s what Vashi Nedomansky writes about rescaling a shot on the editboard:

With DSLRs I find you can scale a shot up to 40% and still have adequate sharpness if you need to reframe or make a medium shot a close up.


What’s up?

Zooming in on characters and having them walk to the foreground have much in common, like reinforcing their presence on screen, letting them share their emotions with the audience or take over the frame. However, zoom-ins allow us to enter characters’ minds while keeping our distance. In next part, we will move up another gear with whip zoom-ins and shot design.


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