The dolly zoom is a powerful in-camera cinematic technique that simulates a spatial warp, shrinking or extending distances behind the subject.
Also known as a Hitchcock shot, Vertigo shot, Jaws effect or Zolly shot, the dolly zoom effect is a great way to introduce tension, unease and disorientation.
When performed well, a dolly zoom shot can be cinema’s most powerful visual storytelling tool.
If you’ve seen Jaws, Vertigo, Goodfellas or Lord of the Rings, you’ve already experienced the power of the vertigo effect.
In this guide, we’ll show you exactly how to do one, as well as some examples from popular movies.
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What is a Dolly Zoom?
The dolly zoom is an in-camera effect first used by Alfred Hitchcock and Irmin Roberts in the movie Vertigo in 1958.
The dolly zoom definition states that you need to zoom out or zoom in while you dolly in or dolly out (respectively) at the same speed.
With this technique, the main subject in the foreground stays the same size, but the background appears to move closer or further away from it.
Why is it called ‘Dolly Zoom’?
The dolly zoom effect is called that because it describes the actions needed to create the effect.
(A camera dolly is a wheeled cart or similar device used in filmmaking and television production to create smooth horizontal camera movements.)
To do a dolly zoom, you’re zooming in or out while moving the dolly in the opposite direction. So, you dolly while you zoom – you dolly zoom!
You’ll find that some people refer to this technique with other names, but they are just as easy to explain.
Zolly, for example, is a contraction of the words zoom and dolly; Vertigo effect or Hitchcock shot because it was first used by Alfred Hitchcock on the movie Vertigo and so on.
What is a Dolly Zoom shot used for?
Dolly zoom is a very versatile technique. Here are some of the most common uses:
- Compress or extend distances because the background appears to be getting closer or further away from the foreground.
- Create a sense of unease or impending danger.
- Indicate a relationship between two characters or elements.
How Do You Do a Dolly Zoom?
The right equipment to do a dolly zoom is a camera with a zoom lens, a dolly and a smooth dolly track. Make sure the track is long enough to cover the entire movement you’ll do with your camera.
Aside from the gear, the scene also needs to have specific characteristics. You’ll need to have enough space between the foreground and background objects. The more distance you have, the more pronounced the effect will be.
Once you have everything set up, it’s time to shoot. The idea is that the direction of the movement is opposite to the zoom. In other words, you can zoom in while you dolly out – or you can zoom out while you dolly in.
There are three factors to consider when you’re doing a dolly zoom because they will give a different effect: the direction of the movement, the speed, and the focal length of your zoom lens.
You can, of course, try a handheld zolly – but only if the scene benefits from shake because even with a camera stabilizer, it won’t be as steady as using a dolly.
12 Examples of the Vertigo Effect in Movies
You might not have noticed before, but dolly zooms are very common, and they’re used to create a wide variety of emotions.
The video above shows an awesome compilation of dolly zooms and how they are used to give perspective cues to the viewer.
1. Vertigo – here, Alfred Hitchcock uses dolly zoom to create an optical illusion of the stairs stretching out. This reflects the feeling of vertigo from the character while he looks down.
2. Goodfellas – in the dinner scene, the dolly zoom gives the impression of the outside world closing in on the character as his paranoia grows.
3. Jaws – the dolly zoom goes from a telephoto to a wide-angle shot. This creates a perspective distortion in the character’s face adding to the “freakiness” of the shot.
4. The Lord of the Rings – the dolly zoom here gives a feeling of impending danger as the hole between the trees widens and seems to get closer.
5. Ratatouille – in this animated example, the dolly zoom works as a transition between two worlds: the one where the story takes place and the one from the character’s past.
6. Ratatouille (cont) – within the same film, the director Brad Bird uses a dolly zoom for a different effect. When Remy relates to chef Gusto, the perspective change makes them look as if they were physically getting closer.
7. The Incredibles – thanks to the dolly zoom, the physical distance seems to shorten as Mrs Incredible gets closer to the temptation.
Some other examples:
8. The Quick and the Dead – the director also used the dutch angle to intensify the dolly zoom effect.
9. Poltergeist – the zoom out motion combined with a dolly out expand the distance and create a sense of panic.
10. Apollo 13 – the dolly zoom on this scene communicates how distressful news the character is receiving.
11. The Lion King – another impending danger from an animation film.
12. Quiz Show – by zooming out while the camera dolly in, the background seems further away, isolating the main character.
How Do You Make a Dolly?
To make a dolly shot, you need a dolly (a rolling camera platform) and tracks that allow you to move the camera smoothly to dolly in and dolly out.
A professional dolly can be expensive and challenging to operate, though. Instead, you can do dolly shots with a camera slider which is like a small dolly track that provides a good solution if the movement isn’t very long.
You can also use a cable cam or a drone. If you’re handy enough, you can try a DIY dolly following any of the many tutorials you can find online.
Finally, you can try doing a handheld dolly – it’s better if you have a camera stabilizer like a shoulder rig.
How To Do a Dolly Shot Using an iPhone
When Hitchcock introduced this effect in 1958, it needed great skills, technique and a smoother zoom lens technology. Today, you can make dolly zoom work using non-professional equipment – actually, you don’t even need a camera or zoom lens to achieve this effect.
There are two ways to do dolly zooms on an iPhone. You can use a gimbal with a specific feature such as the Zhiyun Smooth 4 – or you can do it in post-production.
If you’re using a gimbal, you just have to activate the Vertigo effect (the name may change depending on which gear you’re using). Then, walk towards your subject or away from it depending on the effect you want on your scene. That’s it.
Instead, you won’t be zooming or changing the focal length if you’re doing it in post. Just make sure you’re shooting in 4k so you can use the extra resolution to make the zoom digitally. So, you can make a dolly zoom effect on any camera phone that records 4k video and not just an iPhone.
You can either start the video close to your subject and move away from it or start far away and get closer to it. You don’t need a dolly – it can be a handheld shot but make it as steady as possible.
Then, you’ll finish the effect in post-production. The most common app is VN because it’s free and easy to use. However, you can do this on many other apps or programs such as After Effects or its alternatives.
The idea is that you have to select a starting frame and an end frame on your video. Then, adjust the framing so that your subject has the same size in both of them.
If you’re using VN, you can do this by adding a keyframe and zooming in or out by moving two fingers on the screen. Other apps might have different tools to achieve this, but the technique is the same.
I hope you enjoyed the article and you have a better understanding of what dolly zoom is and how it can be used for storytelling in film.
If you have any questions, leave them in the comments section. Also, please share your favourite dolly zoom scenes with us in the comments.