Have you ever watched a movie or video which, at a certain point, made you dizzy and left you wondering how the heck the film or video production crew could have accomplished that? Well, unless you had one too many drinks before watching the film or video, chances are that your response was due to a dolly-zoom.
A dolly-zoom refers to a certain type of camera movement that, when done correctly, can be quite unsettling. So, when you’re trying to make a film or video that makes people feel a little off, then it may be just the move to add to your toolbox. Just remember that, like mentioned above, it must be done right for it to have the desired effect.
So, we thought we’d tell you a bit more about why the dolly-zoom can be so effective and pass along some tips for ensuring that you use it to its full advantage, and more importantly, to ensure that don’t use it at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.
What, exactly, is a dolly-zoom?
While the vertigo-like effect of the dolly-zoom movement is probably pretty clear to most, you may not know what, exactly, is happening with the actual camera and subjects to ultimately result in that feeling. And the truth is, while it’s not that complicated, that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest trick to pull off either.
So, what’s literally happening is that the camera itself is moved either closer to or farther from the subject while, at the same time, the camera operator or another crew member inversely adjusts the zoom on the lens either in or out so that the subject retains the same size throughout the shot. That’s the intention, at least.
In the resulting moving image, the subject appears unchanging in terms of its size within the frame, yet the background and any objects within it change in size. Whether it gets larger, squeezing and closing in on the subject or objects in the foreground, or the background gets smaller, stretching and appearing to move away from the foreground, depends on the way you do it.
It was first made famous by Alfred Hitchcock and his cameraman Irmin Roberts in their 1958 film Vertigo. Why did the pair apply the technique? Yup, you guessed it, to simulate the dizzy feeling of vertigo, and while it is essentially unnatural in that you must manipulate the technology in a contradictory fashion, that’s also precisely why it’s so effective.
It has a way of making the viewer’s head spin, and while that makes it a very useful and important cinematic tool, that’s also what makes it such a big potential distraction if it’s not used for the right reasons.
When should you go for a dolly-zoom?
We know. Trust us, we’ve been in NY & NJ video production for a long time now, so we get how tempting it can be to go for a move like a dolly-zoom simply because it looks so cool, or because you just found out or fully wrapped your head around it. But like any other technique, it should only be used when properly motivated. So, what’s a good motivation for a dolly-zoom?
Well, it helps to look back at some of the famous dolly-zooms to see what motivated them and led to them becoming such stellar examples of the technique. Like mentioned above, Hitchcock utilized it in Vertigo so that the viewer could share the main character’s experience, to feel what he feels, and in that particular case, to feel his fears.
Steven Spielberg applied the dolly-zoom in Jaws to similarly bring the viewer in closer to the main character’s experience and inner state, but he did it in a different way. Rather than using the technique to show viewers the character’s perspective, he used it to isolate him, zeroing in on his reaction to his worst fears being realized.
Then there’s the famous dolly-zoom from the diner scene in Martin Scorsese’s legendary Goodfellas. The scene consists of the main character and another having a conversation during which the main character realizes this “friend” is going to kill him. As the conversation continues, the background out the window beyond them slowly becomes larger, closing in on them.
So, Hitchcock used the dolly-zoom to bring viewers into the first-person perspective of the main character and to simulate the character’s emotional inner state, Spielberg used it to zero in on the subject’s response to a pivotal realization, and Scorsese used it to indicate that the world around the characters on screen was changing and encroaching in on their relationship.
Those are just a few instances of the dolly-zoom being applied at the right time, for the right reasons, and to see them and more examples, check out the video below. But the bottom line is that the way you should use the technique on your project depends on the kind of video content you’re trying to make and the response you’re trying to evoke.
Make sure a dolly-zoom is possible.
Even if you firmly believe that there’s a clear motivation to use a dolly-zoom on your video production, then you still need to make sure it’s realistically possible. Like mentioned at the top, while it’s not too complicated to explain, it’s not the easiest move to actually pull off in production, especially if you’re doing things in-house and don’t specialize in video.
However, even if you’re enlisting the help of a video crew, then you still need to make sure they can do it. If they’ve never done it before or you don’t see any examples in their galleries, then you may want to speak with them about the possibilities of them pulling it off. That is, if you really want it to be a part of your video, of course.
About Us: KVibe Productions, one of the top NJ & NYC video production companies creating video content of all kinds, can handle every aspect of the process. And whether it’s a commercial, a corporate video production, or a feature film, at KVibe, we always create to inspire.