The Timeless Craft of Dolly Zoom in Film – How to Execute It

February 16th, 2024 Jump to Comment Section
The Timeless Craft of Dolly Zoom in Film – How to Execute It

Dolly Zoom, Zolly, Vertigo shot… This unusual technique, invented by Alfred Hitchcock in 1958, has what feels like a thousand names. Call it what you want, even 65 years later, it still creates a distinct dramatic impact on the viewers. Undoubtedly, you’ve witnessed the Vertigo effect in action on numerous occasions. However, we won’t just limit ourselves to analyzing movie examples here. We’re going to talk about how to correctly execute the dolly zoom in film, and we will take a look at new ways modern films acquire and develop this cinematic tool.

Being an experimenter at heart and a widely-known master of suspense, Hitchcock is said to have first thought of a Dolly Zoom shot during the filming of his “Rebecca” in 1940. Yet, at that time, he couldn’t quite get the hang of the technical side. So, the marvelous invention came to life only 18 years later, in the hands of Irmin Roberts, a Paramount second-unit cameraman. The tale goes that the Director approached him at a party and asked his help in creating a shot that could transfer a feeling of being drunk. True or not, the brainchild of Hitchcock brought a completely new tool to the cinematographic table and will forever carry his name.

Starting with a dolly

However, before we dive into tricks on how to create a powerful Hitchcock shot and when to use it, let’s take a step back. Every complicated camera motion (and this one is definitely among the hard nuts to crack) consists of simple, basic movements. Hence, in case you’re just starting your filmmaking career, please read our thorough guide on them first.

So, as the name suggests, the Dolly Zoom includes a dolly and a zoom. Normally, under “dolly” we understand a device that is either on tracks or on wheels and allows the camera to move in different directions (left to right, forward-backward, or a combination of those). In the Vertigo shot, though, you will only use the so-called push-in or pull-out. The former means that the camera closes in toward an object, which causes our field of view to narrow. The latter implies a reverse process. Sometimes, incorporating both in a sequence results in a meaningful combination.

A push-in on one object in one location, followed by a pull-out on an identical or similar object in another location is a staple technique. Often it is just done as an effect, to get in and out of locations. But it can also be used for dramatic purposes – one of which is comparison.

A quote from the book “Cinematic storytelling”

In this example from “Fargo”, we see two drastically different couples watching TV late at night: reckless thugs, and lovers expecting a baby. Using a TV as an object that connects both shots also sets the needed contrast between the environments and characters.

Zoom as the second basic movement

The second basic element you will need for a Zolly is a zoom. Here’s a brief definition of this motion from our MZed course “Fundamentals of Directing”:

Image source: MZed

Do you see what this means? Zooming in or out, we change the field of view and get closer or farther away from an object, just like on a dolly. However, zoom is a singular lens movement, so the camera’s position stays the same throughout the shot.

Although these two movements might have similar purposes, their impact differs a lot. In classic film theory books, you will find that a zoom creates less visual intensity than a dolly in or out. Why? Because a zoom lens enlarges or shrinks all objects in the frame at exactly the same rate.

There are no relative size or speed changes between foreground and background objects in a zoom shot. A dolly, especially with a wide lens, produces more visual intensity because it generates changes in the relative size and speed of objects.

A quote from the book “The Visual Story”

Of course, this is not always true. An exception to this rule would be a snap zoom (or a crash zoom, as some call it), which can feel really intense. Do you know what I’m talking about? If not, let’s give a word to a renowned master of crash zooms – Quentin Tarantino – with his humble collection:

Another example of a zoom variation for high-intensity shots would be – guess what? A Dolly Zoom.

What is a dolly zoom in film?

That’s probably exactly what Hitchcock thought: “If dolly and zoom have similar purposes but provide different intensities, what will happen when we combine them?” I am only speculating though. In any case, his achieved in-camera effect alters a normal visual perception and creates a dizzying and disorienting effect.

The idea behind this technique is zooming in on an object or character while the camera simultaneously dollies out, or vice versa. In the classic form of this shot, the cinematographer maintains the subject’s size and keeps it in focus throughout the entire motion. This creates a perspective distortion and gives us the feeling that the background changes size and suddenly appears closer or farther away – just like in the famous stairs scene in “Vertigo“:

If we have a character in front of the lens, then Dolly Zoom will create the feeling that they are being pushed through space while remaining still at the same time. You probably know the famous example from Spielberg’s “Jaws”, where Zolly emphasizes the reaction of police chief Martin Brody to the shark attack:

In this case, the camera closes in on his desperate face while the background appears to be squashed in on him. Typically, for this effect, filmmakers use a telephoto lens above 50mm that can zoom in or out without losing focus to create a more major perspective change.

Dramatic value of this technique

Since “Vertigo”, we’ve seen Dolly Zoom in numerous films: from old to modern ones. Why, though? When is its use most effective?

As you probably noticed in the example above, this technique creates a very specific dizzying and unsettling feeling. Our eyes normally use both size and perspective cues (which we also talk about here) to orientate ourselves in space. When suddenly the perspective shifts, while object size stays the same, it’s so unfamiliar and unreal to us that it provokes a strong emotional reaction.

So, in most cases, the visual distortion underlines the same sense of defamiliarization that the on-screen character is experiencing. It might be a sudden shocking realization, like in the “Jaws” example, or an intense moment of fear and anxiety. When the depth of field shrinks drastically, closing in on the character, it may also convey a claustrophobic feeling of not being able to escape someone or something.

Playing with the audience’s emotions, this shot can be used for pure suspense, just to foreshadow something evil or mark a tonal shift. A great example here is how Peter Jackson uses Dolly Zoom in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” to signal that Black Riders Nazgûls are coming:

On a side note, the Vertigo effect can also be very subtle, almost invisible. Implemented at a gradual pace or with minimal adjustments to focus, it can evoke a dreamy and surreal sensation without being overly conspicuous. For instance, Tarantino uses a small Dolly Zoom at the end of the following “Pulp Fiction” scene (at 03:11) to communicate how Mia’s perspective changes when drugs take full effect on her:

How to execute a Dolly Zoom in film correctly?

Although a Dolly Zoom might seem like a great idea for your upcoming projects, beware: this one is definitely not a piece of cake. In the course “Vincent Laforet’s Directing Motion” on, you can find a step-by-step demonstration on how to execute it properly and what mistakes to avoid.

Renowned director and photographer Vincent Laforet explains that the most important step in this process is to achieve correct alignment. Your dolly path and camera direction should line up perfectly and be absolutely straight on the object or the character you want to keep in focus. Now try the motion. If you have to tilt or pan, then go back and reset. In the best-case scenario, you shouldn’t move the camera during the movement at all.

Got it? Now center your object perfectly in the frame and go for the widest possible focal length. This will be your Position A. Mark it for the dolly grip and the focus puller. Take a grease pencil (or something similar) and make some marks on the monitors as well. Vincent shows that if you have a person in front of the camera, the trick is to mark their shoulder width:

The next step is to set the finish point. After checking that your marks and alignment are correct, zoom all the way in, then pull the dolly back until the person’s shoulders end up exactly within those two marks. Easy, right? Now comes the hardest part.

To execute a Zolly seamlessly, you will need constant movement and everyone working in sync. While the dolly grip pulls out as steadily as they can, DP zooms in, keeping the camera straight and the actor’s shoulders on the marks the whole time. The first AC pulls the focus to keep the subject sharp. It’s tricky, so make sure you practice a lot: at half-speed first, and then faster and faster. What can help, according to Vincent Laforet, is when the dolly stays constant – no matter what – and lets the DP take care of needed corrections. Another thing that makes the shot significantly smoother is to put a motor on your zoom as well, rather than a follow focus.

Modern examples of Zolly

Nowadays, a Dolly Zoom is not a very frequent guest in motion pictures, but you will see it from time to time in different films and videos all the same. Even series like “The Witcher” or “Peaky Blinders” don’t mind an occasional Zolly to mark a special moment.

Sometimes it is used in a rather classic way. Let’s take a look at the example from “Squid Game”, wherein the main character discovers that he has been assigned one of the most challenging tasks and faces a significant risk of imminent death:

What’s interesting here is that the camera zooms in more than the dolly pushes out. This is a smooth way to change from a middle shot to a close-up, emphasizing the character’s face and his emotions.

A further modern example that uses Dolly Zooms rather unconventionally is Ben Stiller’s “Severance” series. Creators apply this effect each time someone is in an elevator to mark a transition between two severed worlds:

Due to the focal length change in a close-up, it seems like the character’s face also alters its form during the elevator ride. A very smart way of storytelling, in my opinion. It doesn’t exactly convey the feeling of anxiety that vertigo normally does, but we know for sure that something is happening here. Filmmakers also found a curiously modern way to execute this shot, making it a half-human, half-automated operation:

Thinking out of the box

My last example comes from “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, an Oscar-winning bizarre comedic drama by Daniels – more specifically, from their stylized transitions between the different verses, like in the official trailer at 00:29:

But Mascha, you may say, it’s not a Dolly-Zoom, it’s a green screen! – and you won’t be wrong. Yet, these shots look inspired by Zolly and the visual distortion of the background it normally creates. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” goes beyond the old technique, letting Michelle Yeoh’s character literally fly through the space. Isn’t it a cool twist on a traditional cinema tool?

I hope this will inspire you as well to take a fresh look at some traditional camera movements, and maybe find an approach no one has ever thought of before. Or just have fun creating Dolly Zooms for your projects. Have you already executed one? What tips and tricks can you share with beginners? Are there any other examples from films you really adore? Let’s talk in the comments below!

Full disclosure: MZed is owned by CineD

Additional sources: 

  • “The Visual Story” by Bruce Block, second edition, 2008;
  • “Cinematic Storytelling” by Jennifer Van Sijll, 2005.

Feature image source: film stills from „Jaws” by Steven Spielberg, 1975, and from “Severance” by Ben Stiller, 2022

Leave a reply

Notify of

Sort by:
Sort by:

Take part in the CineD community experience