How the Dolly Zoom changed cinema

The “Jaws Shot” is one cinema’s most iconic images. When Chief Brody spots a shark, the camera swiftly zooms into his face as the background shifts around him. This is called a dolly zoom, a cinematic tool to visually express the internal emotions or mental state of a character during a significant point in their narrative. The shot distorts our perspective by zooming in or out with the camera lens while tracking on a dolly in the opposite direction. This must be carried out at the same speed so that the foreground of the frame stays constant. Directors often employ this technique during a moment of realisation—the moment a character realises they messed up, their plan is thwarted, or they see the thing they want. In novels, the language to describe this sensation might be “his world came crashing down,” “suddenly, it all became clear” or “it felt like time stopped.”

In cinema, the background moves while the face and body stays more or less in the same place. The characters stand still but their world is careened by a groundbreaking moment where everything they assumed to be stable is no longer. Characters are thunderstruck by an unforeseen event, such as the reigning champion in Quiz Show giving a wrong answer, a twist in Robert Redford’s dangerous mission in Spy Game, or the discovery of a flying object in Apollo 13. In the case of Brick, the dolly zoom literally knocks a character off their feet with a punch.

Another name for it the camera technique is the Hitchcock Zoom or the Vertigo Zoom because it was first used in Alfred Hitchock’s 1958 film Vertigo. Credit really belongs to Irmin Roberts (the second-unit director of photography) for inventing this shot, even though he doesn’t have an on-screen acknowledgement. The technology wasn’t available to make this challenging shot happen before Vertigo, and it was crucial in enabling the audience to see Scottie’s phobia from his point of view; we truly experience how difficult it is for him to climb those stairs. Hitchcock uses the dolly zoom in his other film Marine to convey the power of her repressed traumatic memories. The dolly zoom’s use in Vertigo is a cardinal example of how Hitchcock’s films have gone on to influence decades of film-making. Since then, it has become one of cinema’s most unforgettable visual effects.

Sometimes the dolly zoom shows a character’s view of an object or person that they really want—the zoom motivates their desire. The dolly zoom in Scarface embodies Tony’s excitement and lust for the Cadillac and Elvira, both material symbols of wealth, status and power. Like the blimp in one of the film’s early scenes, the dolly zoom seems to tell him: “The world is yours.” In Jules et Jim, the statue calls to the boys because it resembles their love Catherine. Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull has a different kind of desired object—someone the main character wants to defeat. The shot puts you in the mind of boxer Jake LaMotta as he quiets his rage and focuses on the task at hand: beating Sugar Ray Robinson.

Scorsese frequently uses the dolly zoom, most notably in Goodfellas. The warped background of the diner window symbolises Henry Hill’s anxiety, paranoia and fear that Jimmy Conway is going to try to kill him. This scene demonstrates how the dolly zoom, like in Vertigo, can place the audience in a character’s heightened or altered mental state. Scorsese takes this to the extreme in The Wolf of Wall Street when Jordan takes a dangerous amount of Quaaludes. The dolly zoom absurdly illustrates how the psychotropic drugs make him feel as if he’ll never reach the phone. Tarantino uses it in Pulp Fiction to show the effect of the cocaine that causes Mia to overdose. On the other hand, the technique works in A Series of Unfortunate Events to portray Klaus leaving an altered mental state when he becomes “un”-hypnotised.

The dolly zoom not only lets audiences inhabit an audience’s mind, it can also re-imagine settings as a mythical space, one infused with a sense of dread or a hypnotic and captivating power. In E.T., the camera pulls the California city closer to the scientists because they know the alien they’re looking for lurks inside one of the tranquil suburban homes. The dolly zoom in Road to Perdition conveys Harlen Maguire’s control over the Chicago criminal underworld and augments his eeriness. The exquisite horizon of Paris pushes towards the street-smart rebels of La Haine it holds either the possibility of raucous nighttime escapades or more of the same oppressive police scrutiny they experience in their tumultuous hometown.

A film genre can also transform the use of a dolly zoom. In horror, the effect embodies a character’s fear or exposes a supernatural presence in their world. The dolly zoom in Poltergeist makes the haunted room seem farther away than it really is for the mother trying to save her child. In Event Horizon, the camera technique infinitely stretches the ship’s hallway after the lights ominously turn off one by one; we feel Dr. Weir’s dread of what awaits him in the dark. Even though The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy film, it uses the dolly zoom for a moment of sheer terror; the forest seems to open up and lead the frightening Nazgul straight towards Frodo and the Ring.

The comedy genre employs the dolly zoom to amplify a scene’s humour, such as in Neighbors 2 when the couple first walks in and realises there’s a sorority next door, or in Sex and the City when Aidan suggests to Carrie that she clean out her beloved closet. The audience knows how important shoes are to Carrie and the dolly zoom makes Aidan’s transgression seem even more ludicrous. The dolly zoom in Shaun of the Dead enables the hit of a punchline. It underpins Shaun’s triumphant declaration that the pub is closed only to unfold his failure like a lead balloon when the gun doesn’t work. Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, a parody of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, uses the camera trick in an asinine way—repetitively and in an extremely fast pace. In such excess, it becomes comical.

The dolly zoom provides directors an exhilarating and unforgettable way to visually interpret a character’s state of mind. As an audience, we are swept away by the shot’s effective portrayal of a character’s fear, confusion, terror, awe or desire. We feel as they feel. This captivating visual can also heighten a moment of horror, humour or drama. It is difficult to imagine the world of film without this small but significant effect. There’s a reason this shot is attributed to the most iconic and beloved scenes in cinema history.

by Caroline Madden

Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. She has an infinite and ever-expanding list of favorite films, but her top three will always be Dog Day AfternoonRaging Bull, and The Lord of the Rings. Caroline loves cheesy 1980s teen comedies, Mad Men, young Al Pacino, and films with moving musical sequences. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies and writes for her blog acinematicvision.com. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins

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