Zooming on dolly – The dolly-zoom effect

By zooming out while trucking in on a subject, you get what is called the dolly-zoom (or Vertigo) effect. Image depth seems to stretch out like chewing-gum (i.e. foreground stays put, background recedes). Of course, zooming in while trucking out does the exact opposite, bringing the background towards the camera. So let’s study those effects and see what they are used for.



The dolly-zoom effect was first used in Vertigo (A. Hitchcock, 1958) to make the audience experience Scottie’s chronic feeling of dizziness. Several occurrences of this effect — all subjective shots — have been compiled in the following video. In a nutshell, trucking in while zooming out keeps the foreground relatively still while making the background recede, which distorts our perception of distance — hence a feeling of ‘vertigo’.

Since then, the dolly-zoom effect has been enhanced to break with subjective shots by integrating subjects in the foreground and/or the background while still conveying the same feeling of dizziness. In Poltergeist (T. Hooper & S. Spielberg, 1982), the corridor seems to stretch out in a nightmarish way as Diane races for reaching her children’s room. In Run Lola Run (T. Tykwer, 1998), as Lola starts screaming to influence the roulette wheel, a dolly-zoom effect distorts the image depth like a force field, as though the character could mentally push out the walls around her — a kind of supernatural power. Note: Several cut-aways have been trimmed out from this excerpt to focus on the main camera move.


Size and distance

But apart from dizziness and super-powers, the dolly-zoom effect can be used to accentuate the distance separating subjects and exaggerate their relative sizes. In Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), the effect is used to both accentuate the distance between the characters and dwarf Gabe in the background as he shamefully leaves Jessie behind. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (S. Spielberg, 1982), the dolly-zoom effect is used to dwarf and isolate the suburban housing development where E.T. is hiding, reducing a sprawling mass of houses into a vulnerable community. When the character nicknamed ‘Keys’ and his team enter the frame in the foreground, they aggressively dominate the houses. Then an inverse dolly-zoom brings back the background to its original size without changing Key’s figure size, anticipating his soon ‘invading’ the community.


An emotional perspective on events

The dolly-zoom effect is frequently used to represent a sudden change in a character’s mental state. In Jaws (S. Spielberg, 1975), this effect conveys Brody’s feelings that his world is collapsing as he witnesses a shark attack. The receding background makes the character suddenly lose grasp on the events. In The Return of the Living Dead (D. O’Bannon, 1985), an inverse dolly-zoom effect sucks up the background wall towards the foreground, literally pushing Tina towards the hideous creature she has unexpectedly encountered in the basement. This time, the effect brings out how confined the character suddenly feels in that tiny place. Surprisingly, both effects depict similar ‘surges of awareness’, although moving the background in opposite directions — kind of ‘vertigo versus claustrophobia’.

There are many variations to the dolly-zoom effect. For instance, the camera can tilt up as it trucks in to end up with a character in low angle, as in Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), when Travers — seeking a container full of money — realizes that the path he has followed has lead him to a cute little rabbit wearing a tracking device. The camera can also keep trucking in on a character after fully zooming out, changing the scale of the shot like a regular truck-in for awareness, as in Godzilla (R. Emmerich, 1998), when Nick realizes that the monster is hiding in the sewer right under his feet.


And beyond

Now the dolly-zoom effect is just one among many ways to distort the background dynamically. In this excerpt from Fast and Furious (R. Cohen, 2001), two almost consecutive shots cast the background away with huge computer-generated distortion to convey a feeling of hypersonic acceleration. Read more about image distortion in Image distortion.


What’s up?

The dolly-zoom effect and its inverse have a broad range of uses. By tremendously changing the perspective of a shot, they effectively convey a feeling of vertigo or claustrophobia. At a descriptive level, they exaggerate distances between characters as well as their relative sizes. At emotional level, they effectively depict characters’ sudden change of mental state — their world seems to collapse or cut off their retreat. The dolly-zoom effect has been enhanced in many ways over time, to the point of being replaced by computer-generated visual effects. As always, new approaches and derivatives keep extending our list of storytelling techniques.

In next article, we will come back to editing with our last method for scaling-down: cut-outs.


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