Film 101: Zoom, Dolly, and Zolly!

by | Aug 19th, 2009 | 4:17PM | Filed under: Film 101

Most good filmmakers don't just wildly swing the camera around to show off (though even the best may have gone through a bit of a show-off phase at some point–yeah, I'm looking at you, Coen Brothers and David Fincher). When the camera moves, it's usually done to either draw the viewer's attention to something on screen, or to subtly create and emphasize an emotion or mood.

Now, we're not going to cover all camera movements today–it'd take forever and we've got plenty of future weeks to talk about tracking shots, crane shots, Steadicam, pans, and tilts.

Today let's just talk about when the object in the screen (let's say an actor) becomes larger in the frame (or on the screen).

JawsZolly4 Increasing (or decreasing) the size of an actor on-screen is a pretty simple way for a director or cinematographer to signal the audience that the character and/or what he/she is saying is important. Or, if the person is getting smaller on the screen, it often means the director is pointing out that they are merely a little part of a larger world or situation. An example is when a character suffers a loss and falls to his knees and yells in anguish and the camera pulls back, as Wolverine did about every 15 minutes in the recent X-Men Origins movie.

There was a time when this effect was often done by zooming the camera lens in (or out) on the actor. As you probably know from your own digital cameras, that means the camera itself doesn't move, but the lens' focal length and area of view changes, so things appear nearer or farther. You'll see this a lot in old (and sometimes cheesy) '70s movies or TV shows, when something dramatic happens and the camera zooms in on the actor's face to emphasis the intense moment. You also see it more often in documentary filmmaking, when cameramen are purely trying to get the most important actions on film, not caring how "pretty" or "smooth" it looks.

Today, zooms are rarely used in serious drama–they're more often used as a '70s-style joke, or a winking nod to filmmaking (as Quentin Tarantino often does in the Kill Bill films), or they're used in "faux documentary" films like Blair Witch, Cloverfield, and District 9 (and The Office on TV) to make it seem like you're watching actual amateur footage.

Instead, most directors today prefer to dolly the camera in for moving close-ups. While a tracking shot is when the camera moves alongside the action or follows it forward, a dolly-in or dolly-out shot is when the camera moves directly in or out on the subject (still using an actor as our example). It takes its name from the rolling platform on which the camera is mounted (though in some cases a hand-held Steadicam may be used, or tracking rails).

Dolly-in/out shots are much more common–sometimes they're done rapidly to connote an extreme emotional change, but more often you might not even notice the camera is getting closer to its subject. Those slow dolly-ins are often done very subtly in order to steadily make the speaking actor seem more important. The next time you're watching a drama, pay attention during close-ups of the actors speaking, especially during big, important speeches. Watch the relation of the actors' body and shoulders to the edge of the frame or screen and see if the camera is slowly, barely perceptibly moving in closer on them.

What happens when you zoom and dolly at the same time?! Follow me over the jump to meet the exciting, psychologically dramatic zolly!

Of course, sometimes a director wants you to notice the camera movement in order to create a weird or unsettling effect. First in Spellbound and later in his masterpiece Vertigo, director Alfred Hitchcock introduced what is now sometimes known as the "Vertigo zoom": When Jimmy Stewart's character would look down from great heights, the set would seem to "collapse" away from his point of view, representing a dizzying falling feeling.

Later, Steven Spielberg swiped the effect for the scene in Jaws where Sheriff Brody is sitting on the beach and realizes another shark attack is taking place before his eyes. (As a result, for us film students of a certain age, the effect is also known as the "Jaws zoom.") Peter Jackson–a big fan of emotional camera movements–uses it on the road in Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo senses a Black Rider approaching. Even the current comedy The Goods uses the Vertigo zoom–albeit with tongue in cheek–during a climactic scene. And Martin Scorsese famously used it in the diner scene in Goodfellas,
though–unlike Hitchcock and Spielberg–it's done so slowly you may not
even notice it. Instead you just have a subconscious sense that
"something is off kilter."

Developed by cameraman Irmin Roberts in the '40s, this type of zoom has several other names: telescoping, a push/pull, trans-trav, a trombone shot, or a smash zoom or smash shot. But my favorite term combines what is happening with the camera–a zoom in while dollying out–to create the name "zolly."

What happens in a zolly is simple to describe, easy to do, but hard to pull off smoothly. Basically the cameraman zooms the lens in tighter on the actor while simultaneously dollying the actual camera out away from the actor. The result is that the actor in the foreground of the shot remains the same size, but the background "telescopes" in. (Hitchcock did the reverse, dollying in while zooming out to create a falling away effect.) This because when you zoom in on something the lens change causes the field of view to become shallower and so perspective is distorted. (Wikipedia has a nice animated demonstration of what happens during a zolly.) In order to create a perfect zolly, the cinematographer must carefully calculate just how fast the camera is going to be dollied out while an assistant cameraman slowly and carefully zooms the lens in, so that the actor(s) always appear to be the same size on the screen.

The resulting effect creates an unsettling sense, like falling or like when your stomach drops out of fear or panic–or (in the case of Goodfellas), a slowly growing unease.

The problem these days with the zolly is that since so many young or aspiring filmmakers grew up with Spielberg, Hitchcock, or Scorsese (or Jackson) as their cinematic idols, and because the zolly is a fun trick to try, it gets overused in amateur films and comes off more as a cheap gimmick than a fresh and startling effect.

Any zoom, dolly, or zolly questions? Or famous/favorite examples I didn't mention?

And as always, we'd love to hear other questions or topics you'd like to see addressed in future Film: 101 columns–just shout 'em out in the comments section below!

2 Responses to “Film 101: Zoom, Dolly, and Zolly!”

  1. Lynne
    Posted on August 19, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    Funny I noticed the slow dolly in ….in the Doubt. I thought it was kind of humerous as the nun gets slowly bigger in the frame.

  2. Joe Allen
    Posted on August 19, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Great new feature – keep it going!
    Zooms have traditionally been avoided in narrative film making primarily for two reasons: Aesthetically speaking, changing the focal length of a lens changes it’s depth of field – the distance the subject can be from the lens and remain in focus. This selective focus is a key tool used by the DP and director to manipulate the viewer’s perceived relationship to the action by either separating the subject from the background or “flattening” all the objects in the frame.
    Zooming during a shot can cause practical challenges as well, especially when shooting film, since the amount of light transmitted by the lens changes with the focal length. Depending on the lens used, the shutter speed and the film stock; the effect on exposure can change from minimal to ruinous. While this is generally acceptable on documentary style films, it can be unpleasant and distracting in a narrative film.
    As you pointed out though, this very effect is being employed more often to give a “cinema verite” effect, simulating documentary / news style shooting with great results. Most notably recently in “District 9″.
    Film making is chock full of stylistic “rules”, but the best movies heed Thelonious Monk’s advice for musicians: “Let what works be the measure of what’s right.”