What is a Dolly Zoom?

You may not know exactly what is, but you’ve probably seen it a couple of times in movies. It is sometimes overwhelming but always unforgettable. 

The dolly zoom shot, otherwise known as a zolly, is a zoom shot taken from a moving dolly or during dollying. That could be toward or away from the subject. Usually, the filmmaker adjusts the camera’s focal length so that the zoom counters the direction of motion.

For example, when dollying into or toward the subject, the camera zooms out to oppose this motion. Alternatively, when dollying out, the camera zooms into the dolly shot. The effect is that the background alters depending on the direction of movement such that it gets bigger or smaller. 

Meanwhile, the foreground and subject of interest remain relatively the same.

In some circles, the dolly zoom is referred to as the Hitchcock shot or the vertigo effect. That’s down to the way the auteur director used the technique for his 1958 hit Vertigo, which featured its first-ever use in cinema. Hitchcock implores the camera tactic to get us into the protagonist’s frame of mind at various points in the film. 

It was actually the brainchild of one of the films’ camera crew, namely Irmin Roberts. The special effects artists came up with the idea in a bid to create a more immersive experience for audiences so that they could truly understand how the character must’ve felt in instances of extreme fear. 

Steven Spielberg also aided the popularity of the dolly zoom with the way he used it for his statement monster film Jaws. That’s why you might come across terms such as the Jaws effect when referring to the dolly zoom. 

Here’s a notable one from the movie Jaws:

Traditionally, dolly zooms occurred on a track-moving apparatus with a mounted camera. These days, modern filmmakers are using drones as well to achieve the same effect.  In certain instances, software, as opposed to reshooting certain scenes, conjures dolly zooms when filmmakers feel specific scenes will benefit more from the vertigo effect in post-production. 

One moment of genius resulted in the dolly zoom over 22 years ago, and it has inspired more than 60 movies since then. Its uses have evolved over the decades as filmmakers experiment and get more creative with its effects. That leads us to the next chapter of the dolly zoom and that’s how the shot benefits film. 

The dolly zoom has become one of the staple shots in a cinematographer’s tool box.

Why use a dolly zoom?

The dolly effect can portray internal conflict

Most of the time, it’s up to an actor’s abilities to depict the internal conflict eating up a character. Skilled actors show us a character’s state of mind by pacing about, fidgeting uncomfortably, looking around nervously, among other gestures and little details that hint at unrest and tension. Their abilities to harness emotion in body language and facial expressions play a crucial part in audience perceptions of the characters. 

These days though, modern cinematography tactics are alleviating the burden on the actor. DoPs are throwing in the dolly zoom to show how stressful situations affect characters and the restless thoughts going on within a character.

When filmmakers zoom out of a zolly, it tends to make the person onscreen feel lonely or isolated. The space around the character expands significantly and they feel small and powerless in empty backdrops. It’s perfect for illustrating points of tragedy, specifically abandonment, when characters feel they are alone in the world. 

Or the world is against them, and they feel trapped.

A dolly zoom in the aftermath of a long-term breakup or death can let us in on how the character’s grief leaves him isolated. 

Alternatively, filmmakers can use a dolly zoom for the opposite effect. A zoom-in zolly that dollies away crowds the frame and consequently makes the character feel suffocated or eclipsed. That may come in hand in overwhelming situations, e.g. a character being surprised by paparazzi or a shy character stifled by a public speaking scenario, etc.

To show disorientation or fear

Suppose a character is terrified of heights. He can’t stand places high above the ground, and panics even after a few stairs. 

How would you get the audience into his shoes so that they go through the anxiety of those moments with him? 

How would you capture those heart-throbbing instances when a character feels overwhelmed by his surroundings? 

The answer is the dolly zoom. It can expand the background to enhance depth and distance, making a place look much more terrifying than it really is. And that’s exactly what Hitchcock does for his film Vertigo, which features a protagonist with a severe case of acrophobia.

Here’s a review of that famous scene:

Vertigo refers to a situation when you experience a spinning sensation or disorientation. Like the dizziness we feel after turning around really fast. The director aptly names his movie as such because the villain constantly plays on the hero’s fear of heights to get the better of him. We get a taste of acrophobia through Scottie’s POV disorientated shots. This was the first instance of the Zolly and a revolutionary one that redefined zoom shots in cinema. 

When Scottie chases Madeleine up the bell tower, he pauses briefly to look down the flight of stairs. A point-of-view dolly zoom allows viewers to experience his fears with him in that moment. The camera dollies in while zooming out. Hence the distance to the ground looks a lot scarier than it should and imitates a sensation of falling. His acrophobia holds him back and he is unable to prevent her “suicide.”

The zolly can also signify an instance of realization

When characters uncover a piece of previously unknown and crucial information, a zolly can capture the eureka moment. The zoom-in magnifies the swivel of emotion, either good but mostly bad, as the breakthrough writes itself on the character’s face. 

An example of a good instance to use the dolly zoom would be a detective figuring out who the killer is after a series of dead ends. His perspective becomes clearer and larger in line with the background and the dolly zoom can be a recurring theme for moments of enlightenment.

In Jaws, Spielberg borrows Hitchcock’s shot from Vertigo and makes it his own with what has come to be called the jaws effect. It occurs when the shark mauls a young boy in full view of a crowded beach. The attack confirms police chief Brody’s suspicion of a murderous shark on the loose in Amity Island. His revelation and fears are compounded by a dolly zoom. 

Before the incident, the mayor and coroner had brushed off a previous shark attack victim as a boating accident. Brody unwillingly accepted the verdict to keep the beach open in order not to affect the summer economy. As all doubt goes out the window, the dolly zoom emphasizes the truth of the scene and how Brody realizes he was right all along. 

Examples of the dolly zoom in movie history 

The dolly zoom and impending doom in The Lord of the Rings

The zolly can also prove handy for filmmakers when showing that a previously unseen threat is about to strike. The dolly-out, zoom-in shot captures the urgency and panic of such a scene. It also draws attention to the threat that’s just about to emerge out of the shadows. 

Alternatively, and more harmlessly, dolly zooms may also highlight a character’s paranoia when they think they are being followed when in reality, they are not. That can pull off moments of comedic relief in film. For example, an anxious character who double-checks his way home after winning the lottery, believing everyone is out to get him.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the filmmakers use the vertigo effect to perfection in the forest scene to show that danger is in the offing. An evil presence lurks in the woods, trailing the characters who are unaware that something’s watching until the very last moment. 

When that realization dawns on Frodo, a dolly zoom accentuates the moment of affirmation and dread as he senses a pending attack. 

Here’s a re-creation of that shot:

Frodo has been suspicious of the forest throughout and the dolly zoom sees his horrors come to life. The camera is dollying away from the end of the path which seems to be rushing forward at a much faster rate. That gives viewers the feeling that we’re running away from something but not fast enough and it’s about to catch up. 

The forest appears to be closing in on him and is about to give away. The zolly is followed up by a Dutch tilt to illustrate how the protagonist is feeling that something is amiss. A combination of the zolly and the Dutch angle highlights the twist of mood as calm takes a turn for the sinister. The director continually utilizes this effect throughout the franchise, and it becomes a motif for tonal shifts. 

Showing exhaustion through a dolly zoom in Raging Bull 

The Martin Scorsese sports drama sees Robert De Niro take on the role of the protagonist in Raging Bull. A young Italian-American, middleweight boxer fights his way up while juggling the personal life pressures of his character and job. 

The title reflects what to expect of the hot-tempered lead, and the dolly zoom surfaces in fights to show us the toll of physical exertion on boxers. It is especially memorable for one particular intense showdown between De Niro’s character Jake and his opposite number, Sugar Ray Robison.  

Robison dominates the fight completely and, in this scene, the burden of the fight is starting to take its toll on both boxers. Over-the-shoulder shots and other important camera angles bring viewers into the action leading up to the stalemate. The over cinematography, including slow motion to heighten powerful impacts, in the boxing battles is a show of technical prowess and creativity on Scorsese and his team’s part.

Here’s the scene:

With Jake goading Ray to come at him, the dolly zoom expands the ring as the fatigue consumes them. They’ve been going at it for quite a while, and Robison has very little left in him. The enlargement of his background replicates how he must’ve been feeling in the ring, which looked a lot bigger than usual as he struggles to catch a breath. The zolly puts us in the mind of both boxers. 

Ray must have been wondering what his opponent was up to, leaving himself so open and seemingly vulnerable. Is he accepting defeat or was this some sort of trick? Jake, on the other hand, has been on the receiving end of a beatdown. 

He is a little woozy and has to lean on the ropes for support, with the dolly zoom replicating his dizziness. It’s the 13th round and he is spent as well. The zoom-out as the camera dollies in brings more of the crowd into the background, capturing their collective bemusement at Jake’s unusual tactic.

Road to Perdition uses the dolly zoom to paint the mind of a psychopathic killer

DoP Conrad Hall and director Sam Mendes followed up their 1999 success, American beauty with another epic collaboration in Road to Perdition barely a year later. Halls signs out from his cinematography career with it, spicing up the narrative with comprehensive “oners,” leading lines, and, of course, dolly zooms.

Here’s the trailer to the film:

The director had a vision for a film that showed more than it told, and the result is the beautiful imagery masterpiece crime thriller. In this scene, leading lines direct us in the way of the most important subject of the frame, Harlen Maguire.

He is a cold-blooded assassin that John Rooney, an Irish mob boss, has hired to take out a loved one. Maguire has considerable influence in the criminal underworld. He is not one to mess about with and the vertigo shot makes him appear eerier.  

The dolly zoom of him walking under the railway bridge in a seemingly endless path of pillars is a cool trick that isolates Maguire’s twisted psyche. In its entirety, the scene lasts for about 30 seconds before he gets to the front. The long zolly take is symbolic of the hard decision John Rooney had to make as well. 

The mobster boss was stuck between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between his biological son and an orphaned boy who he raised into a man he loved like a son. He eventually allows Frank Nitti to hire Maguire for the job of killing his adopted son. 

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