Time has been kind to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Dismissed as dull and lackluster by critics in 1958, “Vertigo” was named the greatest movie of all time by Sight & Sound in 2012. Experimental films can take a while to receive their due accolades, and “Vertigo” is definitely one. one of Hitchcock’s most important films. experimental movies. He even invented a new type of shot for it.
In the film’s opening, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is hanging from a skyscraper and looking stories down into the alley below. When he does, the shot distorts and the buildings on opposite sides of the alley appear to stretch. The effect was achieved by mounting a camera on a dolly and then zooming in on the lens while moving the dolly backwards. As a result, the subject of the shot remained in focus while the background of the frame was distorted. While this camera trick is more accurately called the “dolly zoom,” it is also sometimes called the “vertigo effect” in a nod to its origin.
The shot is used a few more times throughout the film to communicate Scottie’s vertigo to the audience. That’s not to say the shot wasn’t easy to create; it took a bit of creative thinking and a fair amount of money to pull off the Vertigo effect.
Zooming out of the car
In the famous book “Hitchcock/Truffaut” by François Truffaut, the two eponymous directors discuss the origins of the rolling zoom. Hitchcock revealed that he first came up with the idea for the shot while filming “Rebecca.” As Hitchcock explained:
“When Joan Fontaine passed out during the investigation on ‘Rebecca,’ I wanted to show how it felt like everything was slipping away from her before she flipped over. I always remember one night at the Chelsea Arts Ball in London’s Albert Hall when I got terribly drunk. and I had the feeling that everything was moving away from me. I tried to get that into ‘Rebecca,’ but they couldn’t do it. The point of view has to be fixed, you see, while the perspective is changed as it stretches along” .
According to Hitchcock, he clung to the idea of the shot but couldn’t think of a solution until “Vertigo.” In that shoot, second unit cameraman Irmin Roberts came up with the zoom + dolly combo, while Hitchock was able to cut the price from the initial estimated cost. Hitchcock recounted:
“They told me it would cost fifty thousand dollars. When I asked why, they told me: ‘Because to put the camera at the top of the stairs we have to have a big device to lift it, balance it and hold it in space.’ I said, “There are no characters in this scene; it is simply a point of view. Why can’t we just make a miniature of the ladder and turn it on its side, and then take our photo walking away from it? We can use a follow shot and a zoom plane on the ground. That’s how we did it, and it only cost us nineteen thousand dollars.”
Considering how impressive the shot is, that $19,000 was money well spent.
The most famous wrist zoom that followed “Vertigo” is in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Here, it occurs during the film’s second shark attack, when young Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) dies just a few feet from shore. When Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) sees the attack, the scene shows a medium close-up of him sitting down. That’s when Spielberg and his cinematographer Bill Butler hit the dolly zoom.
The effect is even clearer here than in “Vertigo” because there is a human subject (Brody) in the center of the frame, who remains static even as the image around him distorts. Brody may be still, but his mind moves at a mile a minute. All of this is communicated by the contrast between his static face and the blurred background. John Williams’ score complements the moment, jumping from the shark’s “dun dun” theme to a higher string note, in the style of Bernard Herrmann.
Martin Scorsese, who has spoken highly of “Vertigo” many times, used a slower-paced rolling zoom on “Goodfellas.” Near the end of the film, an anxious Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) runs into Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) at a restaurant, while he suspects that his old friend wants to silence him. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus begin with a wide, center-framed medium shot of the two men sitting at opposite ends of the booth, then slowly zoom in as the dolly moves forward inch by inch, creating a subtle “stepping stone” effect. vertigo” that lasts more than 30 seconds. The irony: A film famous for its flashy camera movement and sweeping style takes one of the most audacious and mechanically elaborate shots in history and reproduces it with subtlety.
Hitchcock had a specific use for rolling zoom when he conceived it, but his successors like Spielberg and Scorsese showed that there are different ways to handle it.