It is not uncommon for directors to take inspiration from previous great directors in history. Various techniques and styles are passed on through cinema like a tradition between filmmakers. The Vertigo effect is one of the most distinct examples of this. Films throughout the last sixty years have used the Vertigo effect in a variety of ways for different reasons. But they have all derived from the same origin. What is the Vertigo effect and where did it originate? How have some of cinema’s best directors used it? Let’s dive in. 

Watch: How To Do The Vertigo Effect

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What is the vertigo effect

First, let’s define the Vertigo effect

The Vertigo effect can be used for various reasons. They all are achieved, however, in the same way. Let’s take a look at the definition to learn more about its origin and how it is achieved.

VERTIGO EFFECT DEFINITION

What is the Vertigo effect?

The Vertigo effect is an in-camera visual effect created using a dolly zoom. The effect produces a shot in which the foreground remains in the same position while the background either shrinks or grows depending on the direction of the camera movement. 

The effect was coined after it first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. Since then, the Vertigo effect has been used by a number of iconic directors such as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Martin Scorsese. 

What is the Vertigo effect used for?

  • Establish internal conflict
  • Portray supernatural forces
  • Create a sense of uneasiness

What is the vertigo effect history?

The origin of the Vertigo Effect

In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock released Vertigo, a thriller following an ex-cop who has a paralyzing fear of heights yet is tasked with preventing a friend’s wife from committing suicide. Hitchcock portrayed the conflict of this premise by using an in-camera technique which would later be referred to as the Hitchcock zoom, dolly zoom, or Vertigo effect. 

In this scene, the distance to the ground is accentuated by the Vertigo camera effect to underscore the protagonist’s fear of heights.

The Hitchcock Zoom in Vertigo

Vertigo went on to not only become one of Hitchcock’s best films, but to rank among cinema’s best films of all time. The Vertigo shot became iconic and inspired the work of future directors and cinematographers. Let’s take a look at a few of the most iconic Vertigo shot examples and the various uses of this mind-bending effect.

Camera vertigo effect uses

Portray panic

Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” Cinema is no exception. The technique that Hitchcock introduced to the world can be found in some of the most iconic films of the last fifty years. Cinema’s best directors utilize the effect to serve their stories in different ways. 

In this scene from Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, a very subtle yet effective Vertigo shot is used to portray panic. Spoilers ahead. 

The shot’s use of slow motion combined with the Vertigo shot slow down the attempted murder so that we as the audience feel the sheer panic of the main character, Marta. 

Knives Out  •  In Camera Vertigo Effect Example

Portraying internal conflict and emotions in film is not always easy. It is often left to the actors’ performances to best get the internal turmoil across to the audience. However, the Vertigo effect is a great way to accentuate a great performance with a dynamic camera movement.

What is the vertigo effect in cinematography?

Personify a threat

Moving from the internal to the external, the Vertigo zoom effect has become a mechanism used to portray supernatural forces. Peter Jackson famously used it in The Fellowship of the Ring to capture Frodo’s visceral reaction to the supernatural forces coming for him. 

A similar example of the effect used in this way can be seen in Poltergeist (1982). In this Vertigo shot, the effect is used to show the threat of what lies down the hallway beyond the door.

Poltergeist  •  Hitchcock Vertigo Shot Example

Had this scene been shot regularly without the effect, it would not be as effective at eliciting fear in the audience. The effect animates otherwise stagnant representations of a threat, making them appear more frightening. 

What is the vertigo effect used for?

Capture infatuation

The Vertigo shot isn’t just used to portray negative emotions. Sometimes, the internal state of a character can be positive. The effect can be equally useful at capturing this as well. 

Most typically, this positive emotion can be described as infatuation. 

Infatuation is an intense, but brief moment of passion or admiration for someone or something. This is often romantic infatuation, but not always. It can also be infatuation of admiration or inspiration as we see here in one of the best animated films of all time, Ratatouille.

The artists and animators created the Vertigo camera effect in their animation to capture Remy’s infatuation and admiration for Chef Gusteau.

Ratatouille  •  Vertigo Shot Examples

As you can see, the effect has been used in a variety of ways since its conception. It has become a tool for filmmakers to wield in a way that best fits their story. How is it achieved? Let’s take a look. 

How to vertigo effect

How to do the Vertigo effect

The camera effect is achieved completely in-camera through the dolly zoom effect. The dolly zoom effect is a type of camera movement in which the camera dollies in one direction while zooming toward the other. If you’re wondering how to do the Vertigo effect, get a better visual understanding of how the technique works by checking the video breakdown below. 

The Dolly Zoom: More Than A Cheap Trick

The Vertigo effect is one of the best cinematography techniques that portrays the experience of a character rather than solely capturing that experience. It is a reminder that cinematography is more than just a tool used to create beautiful images. Camera movements, shot sizes, and camera angles all should be chosen to immerse an audience more deeply into a film. 

UP NEXT

What is a dolly zoom?

Although we touched on the zolly, check out our next article in which we dive deeper into how this effect is actually done. We take a look at the equipment needed, great examples of it, and when to use the technique. 

Up Next: Dolly zoom explained →
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