Wednesday, 10 January 2018

From "Vertigo" to "Jaws" to "Kong: Skull Island" - the history of the perspective-distorting "dolly zoom"

We were watching Kong: Skull Island the other night when my son pointed out "one of those shots" where the people/objects in the foreground stay the same size (or get slightly bigger) while something weird happens to the background - it gets...wider? Or closer? Further away? Anyway...something disconcerting happens up there on the screen to ratchet up the tension by suggesting the world has somehow shifted on its axis. I knew the technique had been used in Jaws. I was convinced Spielberg had deployed it during the scene where Roy Scheider is spooning fish guts into the water from the stern of Quint's boat - but my memory was at fault, as I discovered while watching a brilliant new documentary about Stephen Spielberg on Sky Atlantic earlier today. The famous "dolly zoom" appears at 2'01" in this scene:

Here's the relevant shot in its entirety, without sound. Considering it lasts a mere four seconds, its impact is extraordinary:

The effect was invented by Irmin Roberts, a second-unit cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) -  among its many names, it's known as the "Vertigo Effect", the "Vertigo Zoom" and the "Hitchcock Zoom". Here's an excellent visual history of the effect which even turned up on the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller":
And here, for the cinematic train-spotters among us, is an explanation of how it works:
As for Kong: Skull Island - well, it was mindlessly entertaining, and the CGI effects were utterly spiffing - even my son, who sees far more modern films than I do, was impressed by the convincing heft of the big ape as he stomps around his island (another member of my family rather hurtfully remarked that Kong's general demeanour reminded them of me on a bad day). Here, a peckish Kong treats himself to a yummy seafood snack:
I get bored with whiny-voiced smart-arses posting videos attacking big Hollywood superhero/monster movies for being, like, really stoooppppiddd! They're meant to be! Nevertheless, it does seem odd to lavish so much time, attention, money and special effects wizardry on a film, only to end up with such chronically clichéd characters, everyone doing very dumb things, such a tired collection of weary, liberal messages (Man is Bad, War is Bad, the Military is Bad...and Stupid, etc), such a miscast action-hero main character (Tom Hiddleston has a weak jawline and a wet voice - I wouldn't be surprised if this underwhelming, decafeinated performance cost him the Bond role), and an absolutely dreadful turn by Samuel L. Jackson as a crazy US Army officer (aren't they all, dear!) determined to refight - and win - the Vietnam War by defeating Kong, whose name sounds like, you know, Cong, yeah? Like, the Viet Cong? Oh wow! Deep!) As for the rest of the cast, it's almost impossible not to be able to predict who will and won't survive. Pity - because it could have been terrific.

I'll leave you with the best actor in the film - who also happens to be playing the most believable character - up against a Skull-crawler:


  1. The trouble is that however brilliant it might be on first viewing, it diminishes in impact on further exposure, like the wah wah pedal on late 60s guitar tracks. And when you see the miniature camera train track up the beach to explain how it was done, the mystery is lost. Some things are best left unrevealed.

    1. I agree that over-use has lessened its impact (and let's face it, none of the directors splurging it on CGI blockbusters and the like is even remotely in Spielberg or Hitchcock's league). But I strongly disagree that knowing how something was done somehow spoils one's enjoyment - the opposite, in fact. Did the close textual analysis of poems really spoil them for you? It didn't for me - just as breaking down classic pop records in order to understand why they work so well has done nothing but my heighten my appreciation (I only wish I could "understand" classical music in the same way). Ditto finding out how great painters achieved their effects. I only started taking a real interest in film-making techniques a little over a year ago - and, if anything, it enhances the magic.