More Than a Cheap Trick: The Dolly Zoom

Exploring the versatility of cinematography’s snazziest technique.

Exploring the versatility of cinematography’s snazziest technique.

The dolly zoom is one of cinematography’s most daring techniques, it’s a shot that seems to warp reality, and it’s caused – very basically speaking – by zooming the lens in or out while simultaneously dollying the camera towards or away from an object. This causes that object to remain the same size at the center of the frame while everything else around it either shrinks or grows.

It was created by director Alfred Hitchcock and his cameraman Irmin Roberts specifically for the Hitch flick Vertigo in 1958, and for a while that’s what it was known as – “the Vertigo shot.” In that film the shot is used five times to represent the physical and cognitive experience of vertigo: we see it once at the very beginning when Scottie (James Stewart) is hanging from the gutter, then twice in the middle during the scene where he’s chasing Madeline (Kim Novak) up the bell tower, and twice again at the very end in the bell tower with Judy (also Kim Novak). This visual is the perfect accompaniment to Scottie’s acrophobia, it recreates the disorientation and reality-altering effects of his condition, and it instantly transports the audience into his altered perspective.

But Vertigo isn’t the only use of the dolly zoom. The other most famous example comes in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws when Brody (Roy Scheider) is sitting on the beach and sees little Alex Kintner getting gobbled up by the shark. In that case, the shot is used to convey informed shock, not just raw fear as Hitch used it. In truth, the dolly zoom can apply to a spectrum of mental perspectives, and this is due in part to its dependence on multiple lenses and the psychological effects they have on an audience.

In the latest video from Jack Nugent’s Now You See It channel on YouTube, the dolly zoom is explored from both a technical and a psychological impact, paying especial attention to where the two overlap. Anyone who doubts the integral influence of cinematography over narrative needs to give this a close watch.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist