What is a Dolly Zoom? Definition and Notable Examples from Film

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The dolly zoom, also known as the ‘Vertigo effect’ or ‘zolly,’ is a cinematic technique that distorts the perspective throughout a shot. It is achieved by combining a dolly shot with a simultaneous change in zooming the lens to keep the subject at a constant size in the frame. This results in a dramatic shift in the background, which appears to either expand or contract, creating a disorienting effect.

The dolly zoom is often used to represent a character’s psychological state visually. For example, it can illustrate a moment of realization, a sudden shock, or an overwhelming sense of dread. The effect’s disorienting nature makes it ideal for scenes where you want to show a dramatic shift in perception.

Notable Movie Examples

The dolly zoom has been used in numerous films to great effect and for various reasons. For it to be the most effective, it has to be there for a good reason; it has to be a motivated camera movement and effect.

Here are a few notable examples of movies that have done this well:

Jaws (1975): Just as famous as Hitchcock’s original use is Steven Spielberg’s use of the dolly zoom during the beach scene where Chief Brody realizes a shark attack is imminent. The background rapidly shifts, mirroring Brody’s sudden realization and panic:

Type: Dolly In+Zoom Out

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): Peter Jackson uses the dolly out/zoom in when Frodo senses the presence of the Ringwraiths. The background distortion enhances the sense of impending danger and the weight of Frodo’s burden:

Type: Dolly Out+Zoom In

Poltergeist (1982): Tobe Hooper utilizes the dolly zoom when the mother realizes something is wrong with the house. The background distortion emphasizes her dread and the supernatural forces at play, creating an immediate sense of danger.

Type: Dolly In+Zoom Out

Ratatouille (2007): Dolly zooms aren’t confined to live-action movies but have also made their way into animation. A good example is my favorite Pixar movie, Ratatouille, where the effect is used several times.

The first time we see it is in this scene, where Remy dreamingly watches a clip on television with his hero, Chef Gusteau. It’s a great way of showing how Remy daydreams and is drawn to his call as a chef while foreshadowing that he’ll get to work at Gusteau’s restaurant later:

Type: Dolly Out+Zoom In

A more obvious example happens when Remy melds Anton Ego’s stone-cold critics’ hearts with his ratatouille dish. Here, the dolly zoom is a transition that takes him back to his loving and caring mom’s cooking in his childhood (we can only guess what happened in between, causing him to turn so sour).

Type: Dolly Out+Zoom In

Camera Movement and the Dolly Zoom

Traditionally, the camera was often mounted on a dolly, although it can be mounted on anything that lets you move the camera forward or backward, such as gimbals and drones.

As the camera moves towards or away from the subject, the lens’s focal length is adjusted (zoomed in or out) to maintain the subject’s size within the frame. The coordination between the dolly movement speed and adjusting the focal length (zooming) is key for achieving the desired effect.

Basically, there are two kinds of dolly-zooms: the Dolly In+Zoom Out and the Dolly Out, Zoom In.

Dolly In, Zoom Out

When the camera moves closer to the subject, and the lens zooms out, the background appears to expand. This can create a feeling of unease or disorientation.

Example: Vertigo (1958): Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the dolly in/zoom out in Vertigo is one of the most iconic examples and the first time the effect was used in film. This is also why it’s sometimes called the Vertigo effect. In this scene, it is used to show the protagonist’s acrophobia, creating a sense of vertigo that is both visually and emotionally impactful.

Dolly Out, Zoom In

Conversely, the background compresses when the camera moves away from the subject and the lens zooms in. This effect can convey a sense of entrapment or claustrophobia.

Example: Goodfellas (1990): Martin Scorsese uses the dolly out/zoom in to heighten the tension when Henry Hill feels the pressure of the FBI closing in. The effect underscores his paranoia and the overwhelming stress he is experiencing.

How to Manipulated the Dolly Zoom Effect: Focal Length and Depth of Field

The choice of focal length changes how the dolly zoom looks.

Longer focal lengths (i.e., telephoto lenses) compress space, which can enhance or collapse the depth of field in the shot.

Conversely, shorter focal lengths (i.e., wide-angle lenses) can exaggerate the spatial distortion, making the background shift more pronounced.

By adjusting the aperture, distance, and focal length, you can also manipulate how much of the background remains in focus during the zoom.

Creating a Dolly Zoom in Post

If you need to create a dolly zoom but can also do a smooth dolly and zoom in-camera, you can do so using your software of choice. Note that for this to work, you need either a clip that zooms in or out or a clip that dollies in or out.

Here’s a quick video that shows you how to create the effect in Premiere Pro (but the same principle applies to any video editing software) when you have a clip where you’re zooming in:

And here’s a brief video that shows you how to create it if you have a shot where the camera moves forward:

Summing Up

Alfred Hitchcock first popularized the dolly zoom effect in Vertigo (1958), and it has since become a technique every camera operator and director needs to know. The effect visually distorts the background while keeping the subject focused, making it perfect for illustrating moments of realization, fear, or vertigo.

Many filmmakers have since used this technique to convey a character’s psychological state, from Jaws to Raging Bull (1980). It has even been used for comedic effects in Shaun of the Dead (2004).

With the advent of consumer video cameras, the Vertigo effect has also become stable in many vloggers’ arsenals – especially when combined with drone shots of beautiful landscapes.

Author

  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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