Posted on Thursday, September 24th, 2015 by Ethan Anderton
Though you may not know it by name, you’ve undoubtedly seen the dolly zoom (or push pull) shot used in countless movies. It’s the shot that looks like it’s zooming in on something while everything else in the background seems to be getting farther away.
Don’t worry if you can’t picture what this shot looks like on screen, because a new video essay from Vashi Visuals takes a look at 23 versions of the shot throughout the history of cinema. And thankfully, he begins with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the film that made the dolly zoom shot famous.
The creator of the video explains the origin and use of the dolly zoom:
It was invented by cameraman Irmin Roberts to visually convey the feeling and effects of acrophobia by zooming in with the lens while simultaneously dollying the camera backwards…or vice versa. Since 1958 it has been used hundreds of times in motion pictures…sadly most of the time only as a trick shot. Filmmakers often use it because it looks cool, has direct cinema lineage to Hitchcock and they love to point out it’s in their film. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
You won’t hear any arguments from me against the claim that this shot has been used far too often in contemporary cinema, usually when the character realizes something drastic is happening (or has happened) or just before he begins a chase after something or someone. But as the video’s editor says:
The Dolly Zoom is only effective (and curiously invisible) when it visually amplifies the internal emotional mindset of a character’s critical story moment.
When Scottie (James Stewart) battles his fear of heights and looks down the staircase in Vertigo…the viewer sees a visual representation of his mental fragility and shares his POV. It’s unsettling, disturbing and true to the moment. Hitchcock uses it not as a gimmick shot…but as pure cinema. You FEEL what the character feels and understand how difficult it is for him to climb those stairs…all by proxy of a perfectly choreographed camera shot.
Actually, that’s true of every single shot in the movie. A shot shouldn’t be used simply because it looks cool. Each shot should have meaning by doing something subtle with regards to the narrative or conveying the feeling of any given character or moment. And the 23 versions of the dolly zoom chosen, including the above iconic shot from Jaws, are pretty perfect examples of how to use this specific shot effectively.