The subtle dolly zoom in "Ratatouille". Scroll down for a large, annotated film clip.
Vashi Nedomansky has edited a brilliant 8 1/2 minute montage called "Evolution of the Dolly Zoom", which is a big hit on the internets. Thankfully, Nedomansky did not feel the need to add every single dolly zoom used in the history of cinema, especially since the 1990's the trick shot technique has long since turned into a visual cliche -- a crutch to crudely jackhammer an emotional reaction from the audience. Nedomansky's montage flows extremely well, especially with his soundtrack choice: Bernard Herrmann's haunting music from "Vertigo".
My first exposure to the dolly zoom was Steven Spielberg's "Jaws". I nearly burned out my VHS copy of the film, rewinding its dolly zoom shot over and over again to study the effect. Many years later I saw Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo", which many regard as the origin of the technique in popular cinema.
To sum up the effect of a dolly zoom: the camera moves closer to a subject while at the same time zooming out its field of view. The effect could also be achieved in reverse: the camera dollies away from the subject while zooming in its field of view. The effect is jarring - the world seems to become a foldable accordion; we rarely see these two processes happening at the same time in cinema. One can dive deeper into the mechanics of the dolly zoom here.
The camera move is most often used by directors who want to visually punctuate a dramatic emotional turn; a character's world is being turned upside down, and their relationship with the world has dramatically changed in a single moment. In "Jaws", Spielberg used it at the precise moment Chief Brody's deepest fears came true, as he witnesses a brutal shark attack at the beach. (For "Jaws", Spielberg began the shot with a long lens and the camera far away, then dollied close to Roy Scheider while zooming out.) In "Quiz Show" director Robert Redford applies the technique as Charles Van Doren takes his first step into a world of deceit and fraud inside the game show booth, betraying his values by cheating on a television game show.
In contrast, in"Goodfellas" Martin Scorsese uses the technique to illustrate Henry Hill's increasing pressure and paranoia.. Hill meets with Jimmy Conway, but is fearful that Conway is setting him up for a fall. As they sit down at a restaurant for their discussion, tension fills the screen as the background dramatically increases in size while Conway and Hill remain consistent, visually mirroring the intense, increasing stress these characters are under. (For "Goodfellas", Scorsese does the opposite of Spielberg's "Jaws" example: he begins the shot with the camera close to the actors, slowly dollies backwards while zooming in during the move, collapsing visual depth during the shot.)
And, most dramatically, its use in Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist" is terrifying. Simulating the awful dream-like feeling of running without getting anywhere, with your goal receding into the distance, Hooper (and Spielberg) designed a shot where Diane Freeling, desperately running down a hallway to rescue her children from ghosts, sees her children's bedroom drift into the distance, putting them out of reach. It's a truly nightmarish sequence, visually portraying a loss of control.
However, not included in Nedomansky's cut is the subtle dolly zoom in Brad Bird's "Ratatouille", one of my favorite uses of the technique in the last decade.
Why do I find this use of the dolly zoom in "Ratatouille" so brilliant? For one, most audiences did not even consciously realize the effect was occurring because a critical piece of the emotional core of the film was being delivered to the audience. In the shot, the camera is focused on the television in the background, giving the audience important information about Remy's culinary hero, Chef Gusteau. The chef gives our hero an inspirational speech across space and time (through the television), and reminds Remy of the all-important notion that "Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great." The shot begins with a conventional move; the camera dollies towards Remy, with the television in focus. In the middle of the shot, the camera slows to a stop, and begins to dolly backward just as a zoom-in begins. Remy remains the same size in screen space, but the television screen blows up dramatically. A lovely feature of this effect is not only the collapsing depth (which focuses our attention), but also the ever decreasing depth of field. Remy becomes more out of focus as the shot progresses (since the focal length is getting larger), which is exactly what would happen with real-life camera systems.
(I've written about "Ratatouille" and its thoughtful camera work before; if you're interested, click here and scroll down for other "Ratatouille" articles.)
Director Bird could have simply dollied in toward the television as Gusteau gives his speech, but he chose to execute a dolly zoom. The scene lays groundwork for the emotional themes of the film. The dolly zoom underscores this important, emotional moment.
Although the effect has been done in animated projects before, it is extremely rare to see the technique outside of live-action. Pulling off a flawless dolly zoom in live-action takes repeated rehearsals and intense, precision choreography between the camera operator, camera assistant, grips and actors. The zoom and dolly need to ramp in and out of their curves with grace, and requires the crew to execute the move with nearly a hive-mind. (Just look at all those dolly zooms in Sam Raimi's "The Quick and The Dead" in Nedomansky's supercut. For the most part, the initial starts and ultimate ends of the moves are left on the cutting room floor, but the shots add an additional variable - the animated dutch angle, where the camera rolls during the dolly zoom. Just the thought of the intense choreography that was required to pull off those complicated moves makes my head spin.)
In computer animation, the intense precision required to pull off a flawless dolly zoom in live-action is greatly simplified with curve editors plotted on a computer screen. In the digital realm, where pretty much any camera move is possible, the filmmaker is allowed to express himself with precision nearly impossible within the confines of the real world.
The bonus, super-quick dolly zoom from Ego's bite of Remy's food. For the animated GIF above, I've edited out the flashback, retaining only the start and end of the flashback, which reveals the extremely subtle dolly zoom effect. As a bonus, notice how the lighting on Ego's face is neutral/cool before the flashback, but after the flashback he's bathed in a warmer light on his face, visually underlining his new, warmer perspective.
In fact, Bird sneaked an additional dolly zoom into "Ratatouille", albeit a brief one. In the film's single most dramatic and memorable shot, Anton Ego's first taste of Remy's ratatouille dish throws him into a childhood flashback. The first frames of that flashback, depicted as an extremely fast whoosh with the camera traveling backwards in space (and time), settling on a young Anton Ego at his childhood doorstep, begins with a smash dolly backwards that actually ends up moving through young Ego's pupil and settling on the final composition. The flashback whooshes away, revealing the present, and the camera inverts the action with the reverse of the initial dolly zoom. The effect is disorienting and barely visible, introducing this radical and unexpected flashback, and ultimately enhances the emotional impact of the brilliant shot.
*Before publishing this article, a Google search for "dolly zoom Ratatouille" came up with zero results discussing the Gusteau dolly zoom, which I found quite remarkable.