The dolly zoom, also referred to as the Vertigo effect or a Zolly shot, is a technique wherein the camera is dollied either forward or backward while the zoom on the lens is pulled in the opposite direction. When timed correctly, the effect of this technique is one in which the characters in the frame remain the same size while the foreground and background become compressed or de-compressed, depending on which direction the camera is traveling. It's a technique that has been part of the cinematic language for almost 60 years, and as such, it has evolved over time. Our friend Vashi Nedomansky over at Vashi Visuals has put together a comprehensive look at the evolution of the dolly zoom, and it's a fantastic watch, to say the least.
So, without any further ado, here's Vashi's montage of some of the greatest dolly zooms of all time (with a special surprise at the very end):
In film school, I was told on multiple occasions that dolly zooms should be avoided at all costs when trying to photograph serious work. While there is certainly a case to be made for the effect being a cheesy one, especially when used in an overly dramatic fashion, I think that there's an even stronger case that the technique, when used with a strong purpose and a lot of technical precision, can be a highly effective cinematic tool in dramatic filmmaking.
In Vashi's video, there are a few instances in which the technique is used to stunning effect. The one which is most often talked about -- and is often considered the greatest instance of all time -- is from the diner scene in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, in which DeNiro and Liotta remain static in the frame while the exterior of the diner slowly creeps in behind the pair. Another instance that is absolutely fantastic is from Road to Perdition, which was stunningly photographed by Conrad Hall.
In his article, Vashi points out the key element of making a dolly zoom work, "The Dolly Zoom is only effective (and curiously invisible) when it visually amplifies the internal emotional mindset of a character’s critical story moment."
Once you have an understanding of why the dolly zoom is an effective cinematic tool in certain situations, you're ready to put it into practice. In this lesson from Filmmaker IQ, John Hess talks not only about the physics of why a dolly zoom works, but how to start incorporating them into your work.
Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/60047288
What do you guys think about the dolly zoom? Is it a worthwhile technique that should be practiced by younger filmmakers, or is it cheesy and overused? Are there any awesome dolly zoom shots that weren't included in the Vashi video? If so, link to them down in the comments!