The dolly zoom is one of the most discussed cinematic techniques. You can use them in many ways, but a great director will find a logical reason and pair them with the correct moments to excite viewers.
In today’s post, we’re going to break down the dolly zoom (vertigo shot) so that you not only understand how to create one but also how to go about identifying the right moment and methods to do it correctly.
Let’s dolly in!
How to Achieve The Dolly Zoom Effect
Dolly zoom basics
In a world plagued by uncertainty, there is still, at the very least, one thing on which we can rely. That when a conversation on filmmaking techniques arises, inevitably someone, somewhere will mention…
The dolly zoom.
So what exactly is a dolly zoom?
DOLLY ZOOM DEFINITION
What is a dolly zoom?
A dolly zoom (known as zolly or vertigo effect) is an in-camera effect where you dolly towards or away from a subject while zooming. This creates a sense of unease in the viewer, simulates a spatial warp, and can either shrink or extend distances based on the choice of direction.
This is commonly referred to as the vertigo shot, or vertigo effect which was made popular by Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo.
What to consider when you use a dolly zoom?
- The direction of your dolly move
- The focal length range of your lens
- The speed at which you both dolly and zoom
So just remember, you can dolly in and zoom out, or dolly out and zoom in.
Each will create a different effect and feeling, so consider which makes the most sense for you story and scene to get the most out of the vertigo effect.
BEST DOLLY ZOOM EXAMPLES
Dolly zoom example: Fellowship of the Ring
This dolly zoom is a perfect example of how a specific film technique could be used as a representation of supernatural forces in your story, and also serves as a visual motif, like it did for The Fellowship of the Ring.
To give you a concrete dolly zoom example, we're going to break down the surrounding shots in a scene from the film, and provide some context for why Jackson used the dolly zoom in this scene.
In this scene, the Hobbits crash land after a big tumble down a hill.
We land with a close-up on Pippen, then steadicam forward to a medium-closeup (MCU) of Mary along with Sam’s fuzzy foot in frame.
The manure, the broken carrot, the dialogue - all tell us that this scene is funny and light hearted.
The viewer can relax… right?
Peter Jackson decides to frame Frodo in a close-up single & uses a shallow focus. The movement here is rounded, rather than perfectly lateral. This helps to enclose him.
Lateral movement wouldn’t get the same result.
Frodo has a separate feeling from his friends, so Jackson isolates him in the frame and adds a shallow focus to generate a sense of claustrophobia.
Then he uses motivated camera movement to push our eyes further down the road toward Frodo, who searches around for danger.
We’re right there with him. We feel the danger…. and the suspense builds.
We see a level change from ground level all the way up to a slight high angle which makes our little hobbit appear even smaller, more vulnerable.
A high angle shot has the benefit of shrinking even the tallest actors down to halfling size. At this point in the film, Frodo’s Hobbit friends are unaware of the danger ahead.
Even Frodo has his doubts.
This is where we see our long awaited vertigo shot.
Peter Jackson elects to dolly backward, and zoom in:
- Motion bears down on Frodo.
- Shrinks the distance of the road.
Danger is moving toward the Hobbits, and it doesn’t have far to go.
This is the first time we get to see Frodo register the seriousness of his situation, and Jackson does this through the use of a dolly zoom.
He uses it to represent the supernatural forces throughout the franchise, again... and again.
When directors use the vertigo shot, they will often leave an actor in frame so that the perspective distortion can represent the emotions within the subject, but Jackson leaves his actor out of frame and instead uses the dolly zoom to establish a visual motif.
Pretty neat, right? This entire analysis was done to show you how the dolly zoom can be used with precision to give viewers a reaction.
Below, we’ve provided you with a storyboard with this entire scene broken down, with the detailed shot specifications.
Be sure to change the layout via the options on the top-right to view it as a shot list, or slideshow:
We now know exactly when dark forces are most near - and we are speaking the same language as the director.
I want you to consider your own project, and ask yourself:
Where in my story would a dolly zoom be most effective?
DOLLY ZOOM GUIDE
Pick the correct moments to zolly
There is something else that makes this scene work so well, besides just the vertigo shot.
Curious what it is?
It’s called a tonal shift.
That’s when the film tone of a scene changes drastically.
Arbitrary shifts in tone are often unwelcome, and indicate that the director lacks a clear vision, or is cavalier with their storytelling.
What is it about this particular shift in tone that works so well, while others fall flat on their face.
The main reason, and this is almost universally true with anything in filmmaking, is that it enhances the chain of events within the scene.
Because good stories are all about peaks… and valleys.
You think you’ve won…
But you’ve actually lost.
You think it’s a lost cause…
But then the answer presents itself.
Jackson builds a scene with fluffy, low stakes imagery that leads to us to a moment of dread.
The scene begs for comedy…
So Jackson gives us one of the most terrifying scenes in the film.
This tonal shift doesn’t just enhance the story…
It is the story.
This scene takes place right around the beginning of Act II. When our heroes leave their world of safety behind, and have officially become…
Peter Jackson may have been excited to use the dolly zoom in his film, but he took the time to consider how and when he should use them, and in turn, he stumbled onto a great cinematic motif for his films.
It isn’t enough just to do the vertigo shot well from a technical standpoint.
You need to be able to justify it from a narrative standpoint as well.
VERTIGO SHOT EFFECT
Dolly zoom techniques
It’s worth mentioning that while the dolly zoom did much of the heavy lifting - it didn’t go into battle alone.
The filmmakers combine this technique with wind, and tree leaves.
The Fellowship of the Ring had a production budget of 93 million dollars…
Think of the production value the dolly zoom shot gained from a simple leaf blower tossing leaves up in the air.
The reverse shot has a big push forward on Frodo, and the crew shoots up more leaves, which continues the supernatural imagery and motivates the change to eye level.
There are any number of ways to shoot this particular scene, or more broadly, to introduce danger upon your hero.
But with a dolly zoom, you gain an overwhelming effect that is quite unforgettable and makes the scene and imagery associated with it unforgettable as well.
This is why the vertigo shot is one of the riskiest shots in cinema.
High risk = High reward.
Most viewers have seen a dolly zoom shot used correctly.
You can get away with an unmotivated dutch angle, or an indulgent rack focus, or even a questionable fourth wall break…
But you will never outrun a poorly motivated dolly zoom.
When using a dolly zoom, You need to consider:
- Movement Direction
- Dolly Speed
- Variable Focal Length
Each of these will change the way your dolly zoom:
- Generates Unease
- Shrinks or Extends Distances
- And Simulates A Spatial Warp
Don’t forget to make sure your dolly speed and zoom speed are the same so that they can each land at the same time.
DOLLY ZOOM MOVIE LIST
List of dolly zooms in film and TV
Now you know what the vertigo shot is and when to use it for impact. To help you even further, we've put together a list of every film that used the dolly zoom in film and television.
Okay, it's long (we know). But consider this as your go-to resource for checking out even more vertigo shot examples:
- Vertigo (1958) - Alfred Hitchcock
- Jules et Jim (1962) - François Truffaut
- Marnie (1964) - Alfred Hitchcock
- Fahrenheit 451 (1966) - François Truffaut
- Vanishing Point (1971) - Richard C. Sarafian
- The Sugarland Express (1974) - Steven Spielberg
- Jaws (1975) - Steven Spielberg
- La Menace (1977) - Alain Corneau
- Hausu (1977) - Nobuhiko Obayashi
- Le Grande Menace (1978) - Jack Gold
- Raging Bull (1980) - Martin Scorsese
- The Howling (1981) - Joe Dante
- Poltergeist (1982) - Steven Spielberg, Tobe Hooper
- Buddha's Palm (1982) - Taylor Wong
- E.T. the Etra Terrestrial (1982) - Steven Spielberg
- The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (1983) - Nobuhiko Obayashi
- Scarface (1983) - Brian De Palma
- Mishima A Life in Four Chapters (1985) - Paul Schrader
- Better Off Dead (1985) - Savage Steven Holland
- The Return of the Living Dead (1985) - Dan O’Bannon
- Night of the Creeps (1986) - Fred Dekker
- The Mission (1986) - Roland Joffe
- Night of the Demons (1988) - Kevin Tenney
- How I Got to College (1989) - Savage Steve Holland
- Sex, Lies, Videotape (1989) - Steven Soderbergh
- Communion (1989) - Philippe Mora
- Shocker (1989) - Wes Craven
- Tremors (1990) - Ron Underwood
- The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) - Brian De Palma
- Goodfellas (1990) - Martin Scorsese
- Hardware (1990) - Richard Stanley
- New Jack City (1991) - Mario Van Peebles
- Curly Sue (1991) - John Hughes
- The People Under The Stairs (1991) - Wes Craven
- God of Gamblers II - Back to Shanghai (1991) - Jing Wong
- Toys (1992) - Barry Levinson
- Braindead (1992) - Peter Jackson
- 1942: Conquest of Paradise (1992) - Ridley Scott
- The Evil Cult (1993) - S. Kam-Bo Hung, Jing Wong
- Posse (1993) - Mario Van Peebles
- Cliffhanger (1993) - Renny Harlin
- New Nightmare (1994) - Wes Craven
- Quiz Show (1994) - Robert Redford
- The Mask (1994) - Chuck Russell
- Love on Delivery (1994) - Lik-Chi Lee
- Angels in the Outfield (1994) - William Dear
- Safe (1995) - Todd Haynes
- The Quick and the Dead (1995) - Sam Raimi
- La Haine (1995) - Mathieu Kassovitz
- Chinese Feast (1995) - Tsui Hark
- Mortal Kombat (1995) - Paul W.S. Anderson
- Apollo 13 (1995) - Ron Howard
- The Blade (1995) - Tsui Hark
- Peace Hotel (1995) - Ka-Fai Wai
- Beyond Hypothermia (1996) - Patrick Leung
- The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) - J. Frankenheimer, R. Stanley
- The God of Cookery (1996) - Stephen Chow, Lik-Chi Lee
- Bernie (1996) - Albert Dupontel
- Jingle All The Way (1996) - Brian Levant
- Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997) - S. Kam-Bo Hung
- Event Horizon (1997) - Paul W.S. Anderson
- Lawyer Lawyer (1997) - Joe MA
- Double Team (1997) - Tsui Hark
- The Peacemaker (1997) - Mimi Leder
- Assassin(s) (1997) - Matthieu Kassovitz
- Anaconda (1997) - Luis Llosa
- Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998) - Andy Tennant
- Godzilla (1998) - Roland Emmerich
- Mighty Joe Young (1998) - Ron Underwood
- Knock Off (1998) - Tsui Hark
- Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) - Guy Ritchie
- Run Lola Run (1998) - Tom Tykwer
- Three Kings (1999) - David O Russell
- The Green Mile (1999) - Frank Darabont
- The 13th Warrior (1999) - John McTiernan
- Le Createur (1999) - Albert Dupontel
- King of Comedy (1999) - Stephen Chow, Lik-Chi Lee
- Charlie’s Angels (2000) - McG
- L’extra-Terrestre (2000) - Didier Bourdon
- Me, Myself, & Irene (2000) - Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
- LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) - Peter Jackson
- Josie and the Pussycats (2001) - Harry Elfont, Deborah Kaplan
- My Sassy Girl (2001) - Jae-Young Kwak
- Spy Game (2001) - Tony Scott
- Behind Enemy Lines (2001) - John Moore
- Not Another Teen Movie (2001) - Joel Gallen
- Shaolin Soccer (2001) - Stephen Chow
- Road To Perdition (2002) - Sam Mendes
- The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) - Ron Underwood
- Panic Room (2002) - David Fincher
- Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) - George Clooney
- The Tuxedo (2002) - Kevin Donovan
- LOTR: The Return of the King (2003) - Peter Jackson
- House of 1000 Corpses (2003) - Rob Zombie
- Crash (2004) - Paul Haggis
- Taking Lives (2004) - D.J. Caruso
- Torque (2004) - Joseph Kahn
- Shaun of the Dead (2004) - Edgar Wright
- Brick (2005) - Rian Johnson
- The Descent (2005) - Neil Marshall
- Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) - Jean-Francois Richet
- Kingdom of Heaven (2005) - Ridley Scott
- Cursed (2005) - Wes Craven
- Enfermes Dehors (2006) - Albert Dupontel
- Lady in the Water (2006) - M. Night Shyamalan
- Strawberry Shortcakes (2006) - Hitoshi Yazaki
- Deja Vu (2006) - Tony Scott
- Like Stars on Earth (2007) - Aamir Khan, Amole Gupte
- Death Sentence (2007) - James Wan
- 99 Francs (2007) - Jan Kounen
- 1408 (2007) - Mikael Hafstrom
- The Storming of Soraya M. (2008) - Cyrus Nowrasteh
- Tropic Thunder (2008) - Ben Stiller
- Paris (2008) - Cedric Klapisch
- The Brothers Bloom (2008) - Rian Johnson
- The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) - Jee-Woon Kim
- The Incredible Hulk (2008) - Ang Lee
- A Wednesday (2008) - Neeraj Pandey
- Semi-Pro (2008) - Kent Alterman
- The Rocker (2008) - Peter Cattaneo
- CJ7 (2008) - Stephen Chow
- Suck (2009) - Rob Stefaniuk
- The Lodger (2009) - David Ondaatje
- My Bloody Valentine (2009) - Patrick Lussier
- Les Herbes Folles (2009) - Alain Resnais
- The Lovely Bones (2009) - Peter Jackson
- Push (2009) - Paul McGuigan
- The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) - Tony Scott
- Insidious (2010) - James Wan
- Unstoppable (2010) - Tony Scott
- L’age de Raison (2010) - Yann Samuell
- Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) - Edgar Wright
- Misterios de Lisbona (2010) - Raul Ruiz
- The Tortured (2010) - Robert Lieberman
- Piranha 3D (2010) - Alexandre Aja
- Little Fockers (2010) - Paul Weitz
- Ip Man 2 (2010) - Wilson Yip
- Karthik Calling Karthik (2010) - Vijay Lalwani
- World Invasion: Battle of Los Angeles (2011) - Jonathan Liebesman
- Paul (2011) - Greg Mottola
- The Muppets (2011) - James Bobin
- Hugo (2011) - Martin Scorsese
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) - Peter Jackson
- Tai Chi Zero (2012) - Stephen Fung
- Tai Chi Hero (2012) - Stephen Fung
- Life of Pi (2012) - Ang Lee
- Pirhana 3D (2012) - John Gulager
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D (2013) - John Lussenhop
- 9 Mois Ferme (2013) - Albert Dupontel
- Evil Dead (2013) - Fede Alvarez
- The Last Days (2013) - David Pastor, Alex Pastor
- Grand Piano (2013) - Eugenio Mira
- The Conjuring (2013) - James Wan
- Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) - James Wan
- Need for Speed (2014) - Scott Waugh
- Muppets Most Wanted (2014) - James Bobin
- The Crossing (2014) - John Woo
- Ablations (2014) - Arnold de Parscau
- Every Thing Will Be Fine (2015) - Wim Wenders
- Broken Horses (2015) - Vidhu Vinod Chopra
- Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe (2015) - Chuan Lu
- Furious 7 (2015) - James Wan
- Hitman: Agent 47 (2015) - Aleksander Bach
- Endless Poetry (2016) - Alejandro Jodorowsky
- The Fits (2015) - Anna Rose Holmer
- Inside Men (2015) - Min-Ho Woo
- Skiptrace (2016) - Renny Harlin
- The Mermaid (2016) - Stephen Chow
- Don’t Breathe (2016) - Fede Alvarez
- Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016) - Nicholas Stoller
- Arrival (2016) - Denis Villeneuve
- Split (2016) - M. Night Shyamalan
- My Beloved Bodyguard (2016) - Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
- Mechanic: Resurrection (2016) - Dennis Gansel
- Lijia Zhang (2017) - Bleeding Steel
- Kong: Skull Island (2017) - Jordan Vogt-Roberts
- Annabelle: Creation (2017) - David F. Sandberg
- It (2017) - Andy Muschietti
- Cult of Chucky (2017) - Don Mancini
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) - James Gunn
- The Commuter (2018) - Jaume Collet-Serra
Add more camera movement
Now that you understand zolly, it’s time for you to learn about other camera movements you can use to tell better stories.
In episode 4 of our filmmaking techniques masterclass, we break down 9 camera movements to improve your visual storytelling.