That queasy feeling

The triple reverse zoom camera move is a brilliant trick shot that has been used to convey a variety of emotions in cinema over the years. It is one that everyone has seen, many would recognise, but fewer know how it was created.

It is a shot that conveys the feeling of motion, although the camera frame appears to remain static. It is the perspective that changes, achieved by the camera physically moving forward or backwards on a dolly track, while the camera lens zooms in or out in perfect counterbalancing synch with the movement. Therefore a flattened image can suddenly extend outwards, or a deep image shockingly flatten.

It is often credited to Alfred Hitchcock inventing it for his 1958 masterpiece Vertigo, to create that titular feeling, although it was actually down to the lo-fi genius of his second unit visual effect maestro Irmin Roberts. When Jimmy Stewart looks down we view the world through his agoraphobic eyes, the ground rushing away beneath him, the rapid movement increasing his fear of falling. The Master of Suspense utilised the effect again in his 1964 melodrama Marnie, although here it is for a flashback scene, as Tippi Hedren revisits a childhood trauma, the result now akin to peering into a crystal ball.

Steven Spielberg popularised the move in his 1975 blockbuster Jaws, after a lengthy tension building scene of Chief Brody anxiously monitoring the water from his beach seat, the shark takes a boy in a fountain of blood. The camera holds on the policeman, but the lurching change of perspective of the background expresses his sheer horror. It is that shot most people identify the effect with. Focusing on a single character’s face while the exterior lurches away, or crashes into them, is the most common homage, revealing an interior emotion.

When John Landis used it in his video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1984) it was the surprise moment of a girl realising her boyfriend was now a zombie, so she flys backwards into the alley wall. Shock, followed by the rushing horror of the dolly zoom. Throughout the 80s it was overused in a maelstrom of cheap horrors, and then teen comedies. That moment where our young heroes scream in mock horror? Bring out the dolly zoom, and make a great idea jaded with derivative overkill.

However, it can be used in a myriad of different and far more subtly skilful ways. In Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), as Jake La Motta is on the ropes, we see his leering opponent appear to move closer without actually stepping forward through his punch drunk eyes. Ten years later, Scorsese again used it brilliantly in Goodfellas (1990), this time to show the growing unease of Harry Hill during a supposedly friendly meeting with Jimmy Conway in a diner. The view out the window menacingly flattens, the world closing in on the gangsters. In Poltergeist (1982) a mother running to rescue her children finds the corridor extending out before her, while in Pulp Fiction (1994) it is the moment that Uma Thurman overdoses. In La Haine (1995) the teens are placed in front a bold Parisian cityscape, which then falls out of focus.

There are far too many examples to list here. Besides, the real joy of the shot comes not with expecting it, but that moment of recognition when it’s spotted. In this digital age of CGI so often being used to cheat the audience, it feels brilliantly refreshing that some film-makers still use an old fashioned mechanical trick to stir an emotion.

Back to the old school, where the great artists reside.

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