If you’ve ever seen Jaws or Vertigo, you’ve felt that sense of disorientation that comes with a dolly zoom shot. The camera itself tracks directly toward or away from the subject while the lens zooms in. It’s a powerful technique used to create unease and even vague nausea in its viewers. Immerse yourself in the cinematography of the next movie you watch! In the meantime, here are a few famous uses of the dolly zoom technique; which ones have you seen?
Perhaps one of the longest dolly zoom shots in film is in a diner scene in Goodfellas. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) sit across from one another and talk as Henry narrates. He says, “Everything was supposed to be fine,” but he’s clearly shaken and suspicious of Jimmy’s intentions. As they talk, the dolly zooms in and out, creating a wobbly sense of disquiet and paranoia in the audience that mimics Henry’s state of mind.
Another legendary use of the dolly zoom occurs in Steven Spielberg’s iconic film. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) sits in a chair as he watches the shark set upon a gaggle of beachgoers. As the water fills with blood, the camera quickly focuses in on his face; the dolly pulls back while the lens zooms in. The beach around him grows distorted as the scene descends into pandemonium.
Let’s go back to the dolly zoom’s inception. Irmin Roberts was a second-unit camera operator working on Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, tasked with creating a sense of—what else?—vertigo in the viewer. The famous shot occurs near the end of the film, as Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), who suffers from the eponymous vertigo, pursues Judy (Kim Novak) up a spiraling staircase. As he nears the top, he makes the mistake of looking down at all those stairs he’s climbed. The dolly zoom shot creates a sensation, both in the character and in the audience, of very nearly falling.
The dolly zoom shot is effective and immersive. Filmmakers use them to create a sensation of disquiet and uncertainty in the audience. These famous uses of the dolly zoom technique may make you feel like you’re falling into the screen—that’s cinematography in action.