Dolly Zoom

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The dolly zoom effect is an unsettling in-camera special effect that appears to undermine normal visual perception in film. In its classic form, the camera is pulled away from a subject while the lens zooms in, or vice-versa.

Thus, during the zoom, there is a continuous perspective distortion, the most directly noticeable feature being that the background appears to change size relative to the subject.

As the human visual system uses both size and perspective cues to judge the relative sizes of objects, seeing a perspective change without a size change is a highly unsettling effect. The visual appearance for the viewer is that either the background suddenly grows in size and detail and overwhelms the foreground, or the foreground becomes immense and dominates its previous setting, depending on which way the dolly zoom is executed.

The effect was first developed by Irmin Roberts, a Paramount second-unit cameraman, and was famously used by Alfred Hitchcock in his film ‘Vertigo.’

The dolly zoom is commonly used by filmmakers to represent the sensation of vertigo, a ‘falling-away-from-oneself feeling’ or a feeling of unreality, or to suggest that a character is undergoing a realization that causes him or her to reassess everything he or she had previously believed. After Hitchcock popularized the effect (he used it again for a climactic revelation in ‘Marnie’), the technique was used by many other filmmakers, and eventually became regarded as a gimmick or cliché. This was especially true after director Steven Spielberg repopularized the effect in his highly regarded film ‘Jaws,’ in a memorable shot of a dolly zoom into Police Chief Brody’s (Roy Scheider) stunned reaction at the climax of a shark attack on a beach (after a suspenseful build-up).

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