Today we’re going to talk about a cinematic technique that goes by a few different names. Sometimes people call it the “dolly zoom.” Other times it’s been called the “stretch shot” or the “trombone effect.” It’s also known by a few scary-sounding technical monikers, like the “triple reverse zoom” or the “back zoom traveling.” I was introduced to this technique as the “Vertigo effect” so I’m going to stick with that, but just know that whenever I mention the Vertigo effect, I’m talking about this thing:
Even if most people don’t know it by name, the Vertigo effect is one of the most recognizable devices in the cinematic language. It’s not the kind of thing that turns up in every film, but it’s recognizable to even very casual viewers. Most baby boomers or Gen X’ers were probably introduced to the Vertigo effect in the above clip from Jaws, taken from the scene where Chief Brody realizes that, just as he feared, a shark is present among the swimmers at the beach. For Millennials, The Lion King does an imitation of the Vertigo effect at the start of the stampede sequence, just as Simba sees the wildebeests coming over the cliff side. It isn’t a subtle effect – in fact, it’s well into the realm of anvil dropping when it comes to making a point visually. It’s a loud and ostentatious device, one that drives home a very particular kind of reaction.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – first things first: what is this thing? The Vertigo effect is an optical distortion that is realized in-camera. It comes about when an operator zooms in or out while physically moving his or her camera in the opposite direction (i.e. when you pull back you zoom in or vice versa). There’s a bit more nuance to properly executing this technique than that, but the basic idea is that you’re compensating for a change in the angle of view through a comparable change in the camera’s optics. At the end of the shift you have more or less the same information than you did at the start, but everything looks slightly warped. An object a few feet from the camera might only shift slightly, but its size relative to the objects in the background or its perceived distance to the backdrop might shift radically.
The trick is called (again, among many other things) the Vertigo effect because it was developed for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film. A visual effects technician by the name of Irmin Roberts came up with the optical effect as a way of visually conveying the overpowering vertigo that cripples Jimmy Stewart’s character throughout the film. At various moments in the film, his character finds himself looking down the side of a tall building, or through the middle of a long and rickety spiral staircase. The film cuts into a point of view shot, which is then put through the Vertigo effect. Within the same shot, the distances from the camera to the ground seem to expand, going from reasonable to “Yikes!” in a few seconds. Even better, the distortion of the effect looks pretty similar to the visual swirl that is often associated with dizziness. Mr. Hitchcock had a narrative need, Mr. Roberts had a solution. It was a great fit.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the Vertigo effect found its way into other films and other kinds of scenarios. Hitchcock himself would use it again in 1960’s Psycho and 1964’s Marnie. It’s been used by directors as diverse as Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, and Soderbergh, and it hasn’t been because movies about dizziness went through a mysteriously extensive period of vogue. By now, the number of times that this device has been used to depict visceral bouts of nausea is very much in the minority. So what is it that this device is good for? Why does it keep popping up in filmmaking?
Well, let’s start with the hyper-literal applications. First off, the Vertigo effect is an invaluable tool for fantasy, supernatural, or science fiction films that need to show something akin to the laws of physics being bent or broken. This is the way that Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist uses the effect. When JoBeth Williams tries to enter the room where the ghost is terrorizing her children, the supernatural force stretches out the hallway that separates them. The more she runs, the longer the space looks and the farther away her objective seems. The effect has also been used in various science fiction properties to show the effect of dimension-warping technology, like the faster than light “jumps” in TV’s Battlestar Galactica. So if the story on hand actually involves the physical space around the characters getting distorted or warped, the Vertigo effect is an invaluable tool.
Again, however, those cases are in the minority. Most of the time, the Vertigo effect has been used to convey a subjective reaction in a character. And in the vast majority of the cases, it’s not just any subjective reaction, but specifically the one that stats with, “Oh,” and ends with, “no.” Generally speaking, as with the already mentioned examples in Jaws and The Lion King, the Vertigo effect is a loudspeaker announcement that something very, very bad has just happened, is about to happen, or is happening.
Why has this become the function de riguer for the Vertigo effect? There are a few theories to account for that, but some stand out as particularly appealing. For starters, the Vertigo effect is a very eloquent way of visually representing what is happening inside a character’s head. If you’re trying to show a character thinking that the world is one way only to realize that it’s something else entirely, there are worse ways of getting that across than having the world around them suddenly shift and look completely different.
But there’s also just something about the Vertigo effect that feels viscerally unsettling, the way that Dutch angles just tend to feel uncomfortable. It may have something to do with the fact that this is a device that gives us an optical experience that cannot be replicated by our eyes. Film cameras share a lot in common with our own visual sensory equipment, but there are some features of cameras that our eyes can’t match. This is the reason why zooms tend to draw more attention to themselves than tracking movements – the former is something that is inherently alien, inherently inaccessible, to the way that we view the non-recorded world. The Vertigo effect has this feeling of divorcement taken to the nth degree. Instead of feeling the change within the optical device it’s been moved out into the world. Perhaps what makes it such a great trigger of something going horribly wrong is that it just looks like such stark departure from what’s familiar.
However, just because the Vertigo effect has been closely tied to a specific kind of narrative turn it doesn’t mean that there’s no variety to the way that it’s been developed over the years. It can be used as the climax of a suspenseful scene, signifying that a horrible event that the audience has been anticipating has come to pass. That’s the way Jaws uses the device, or the way that Quentin Tarantino uses it in Pulp Fiction for the shot when Uma Thurman accidentally snorts the heroin she finds in John Travolta’s coat. We see something teetering on the edge of a cliff, wait for it, wait for it, … and when it finally hits the ground, the impact is made all the stronger by the perspective-bending effect.
But what if instead of placing the Vertigo effect at the end of the sequence, we put it at the start? Then, instead of capping off an anticipated conclusion, it can become the signal that something wicked this way comes. Consider the hobbits’ first encounter with the ringwraith in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Sam, Pippin, and Merry are on the side of the road having an argument, and the camera finds Frodo by himself, staring down the forest road. When the film cuts to his point of view shot, we see the path through the distortion of the Vertigo effect, and we immediately know that something bad is on the way. Other elements help to establish the sense of ominous threat, but we receive a gigantic signpost about how we’re supposed to receive the following scene when one of its first shots goes wibbly-wobbly.
What if instead of putting the effect at the start or the end of a scene, we actually have it happening throughout an entire scene from beginning to end? Can we slow down the tracking and the zooming enough to fit an entire conversation in there? That’s what Martin Scorsese did in Goodfellas, for an endgame conversation between Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro. By that point in the film, Liotta has strong suspicions that DeNiro intends to “whack” him, but isn’t completely sure of what’s going on inside the other man’s mind. Scorsese shoots the conversation through a very slow track and zoom, adding an extremely subtle Vertigo effect to the scene. It’s so subtle that you don’t consciously notice it unless you’re looking for it, but it adds an undeniable sense of distortion and strangeness to the scene. Once again, it works because it’s such a clever illustration of what’s happening inside the character’s head. Much like Liotta, we’re looking at something but can’t quite get a complete grasp on it because it’s changing and shifting ever so slightly. The rug-pull of emotional shock is slowed down into the slow warp of paranoia. Content dictates form.
There’s an infinite number of possibilities to be explored with the Vertigo effect. It’s an adaptive tool that can be used to show everything from distortions in physical reality to evolutions in a character’s psychology. It has been made everything from a crashing jolt to a simmering note of doubt, been adapted, recontextualized, slowed down, and shifted to fit all kinds of stories. The evolution that has eluded this device, however, is the one that lets it break out of the realm of the negative emotions and into something more varied. Can something that was designed to convey such a viscerally unsettling emotion be used to convey a positive subjective reaction? Is this a device that can be pushed and stretched farther than it has in its many uses so far? Innovators of the future, take note.