The Zoom: Cinematic Black Sheep

Note: Contains spoilers for Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and Brad Bird’s The Incredibles.

I have noticed in my years of watching English-language cinema that the technique of the zoom is very rarely used. Why would filmmakers deliberately ignore employing a particular technique?

ZOOM vs MOVEMENT

The primary reason, probably the sole reason in fact, the zoom isn’t used is because it isn’t dynamic. A zoom is a magnification of part of the frame that doesn’t involve the movement of the camera through space. Though the zoom gives an impression of movement, it lacks the dynamic nature of camera movement since, in a zoom, objects don’t move in relation to each other. For example, here are two photographs, one before and the other after a zoom in:

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Note that in both photographs the ketchup, shampoo, mug and radiator all remain in the shot, they look as if they’re not far apart from each other, and although they look blown up, they haven’t changed size in relation to each other (compare the mug against the radiator in both examples).

By comparison, here’s two photos, one before and the other after a move forward:

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Note that the ketchup and shampoo have moved out of frame, and that the mug now appears farther away from the radiator, and much larger compared it.

This is why filmmakers tend to prefer camera movement over a zoom. But if zooms aren’t dynamic, what can they be used for?

DOCUMENTARY FEEL

The most common use of the zoom in modern cinema is in the action film. The zoom is typically associated with newsreel footage and documentaries, since camera crews will often zoom in on an event from a distance in the interest of safety. Modern action directors have used this association with documentary to try and generate a realistic, urgent aesthetic for their films. JJ Abrams is such a director, whose use of hand-held camera, lens flares and the zoom all generate a documentary-like style, as seen in this example from Star Trek (2009), with a quick zoom from 0:59 – 1:00.

ALL-SEEING EYE
The zoom is also associated with surveillance cameras, and directors will often exploit it to give the impression of an omniscient presence watching everything going on, such as in the opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which fittingly tells the story of a surveillance expert who may have found out more than he needs to know (This entire clip is one shot, mostly taken up by a slow zoom from 0:00 – 2:30).

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
In my opinion, one of the masters of the zoom technique is director Jonathan Demme (whose mastery of the close-up has been the subject of numerous articles). Demme is well aware the zoom is like blowing up a photograph, so he will often place all the important information of a shot within the frame, and use a zoom to either reveal it or emphasise it. For instance, the zoom from 1:11 – 1:15 reveals the pen nib Lecter will use to free himself was in the shot the entire time, and the zoom out from 3:20 – 3:26 (finishing with a pull-back), reveals Lecter’s emotional distance from the carnage he has wreaked. Demme’s control over the revelation of information is partly what makes The Silence of the Lambs so haunting.

NEW SHOT, NO MOVEMENT

Demme is also aware of the non-dynamic nature of the zoom, and he often uses it to his advantage. His masterful concert film Stop Making Sense is renowned for Talking Heads’ excellent music and showmanship, the unique lighting, and for taking a more restrained attitude towards the concert film style, by minimising camera movement and cutting. Demme also employs the zoom to great effect by subtly changing shot size, without the audience being aware of the change since the zoom doesn’t draw attention to itself, such as the zoom from a long shot to a medium shot at 3:09 – 3:18 and medium-close-up to long shot at 3:49 – 4:05.

THE VERTIGO EFFECT

A variation of the zoom that has become a mainstay of modern cinema is what is known as the dolly-zoom, warp-o-vision, or simply the Vertigo Effect (invented for the film Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock). This technique involves the camera zooming forwards and moving backwards at the same time, or vice versa. This results in foreground elements staying the same size while the background increases or decreases in distance. Typically, as in Vertigo or in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws below, the Vertigo Effect is used to create a dizzying sensation in the audience, or to highlight a character’s emotion or changing awareness of a scene.

NEW RELATIONS

Though still effective if used right, the Vertigo Effect has been used so often in this way it’s almost become a parody of itself. However, director Brad Bird has used the Vertigo Effect in a completely original way in his Pixar masterpieces The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Much like Demme, Bird will place all the important elements of a shot within the frame, but rather than emphasise one of them, he will use the shortening of the distance from background to foreground to emphasise the relation between those elements.

For instance, in this scene from The Incredibles, Bob Parr has stumbled on the details of the villain’s master plan; at the same time, Helen Parr, who has talked to her friend Edna Mode about her suspicions regarding Bob’s absences, finds out he’s been lying to her after calling his office. Edna reminds her that Bob’s suit has a homing device inside it, and the Vertigo Effect at 1:21 – 1:31 highlights the new relation between Helen and the homing device: the homing device is the only thing that can confirm the truth she fears (and, unknowingly, that the homing device may expose Bob’s presence to the villains).

Similarly, in this scene from Ratatouille, Remy and his brother Emil are stealing some spice from an old woman’s kitchen, until Remy is distracted from the task by the appearance of his hero Gusteau on television. Bird’s use of the Vertigo Effect from 0:13 – 0:28 (broken by a close up from 0:19 – 0:23) not only emphasises Gusteau’s words, but also visually represents the new relation between Remy and the television: he is magnetised by his hero’s presence and feels as if Gusteau is talking to him alone.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

As we can see from the above examples, the possibilities of the zoom, indeed any technique, are endless, provided they are used with skill and creativity. And to filmmakers: there is no cinematic technique without it’s drawbacks or advantages, so learn both of them, and opportunities for new techniques and new styles will emerge.

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