Within numerous films, camera techniques are used to denote a change in tone or focus the attention on a character or scene. However, there are some movements of the camera that not only make an entire scene memorable but cause the audience to question how that clip was shot. Enter the dolly zoom. One of the best examples of a dolly zoom can be found within Jaws. Before the shot is introduced, the audience is introduced to police chief Martin Brody. In a scene at the beach, it seems to be an average day, but Brody is on edge. On cue, the iconic underwater shark camera lurks towards a pair of feet in the water. We see quick jerky camera movements in the water as if we were there. Shots of the crowd reacting to this terrifying experience. Then the camera pans back to Brody.
To understand how we interpret a dolly zoom, we first need to learn how it works behind the camera. This effect is done by the lens of the camera zooming in or out and the camera dollies (moves) backwards or forwards generally the opposite way of the zoom. This creates the illusion that the background changes its size relative to the subject in focus.
When the camera gets to Brody, a few things are very noticeable at first. He’s centered on screen making him the obvious center of attention. More specifically, his face is at the center. It isn’t directly centered, but it is apparent that this is our focal point. Besides, his navy-blue shirt can easily fall out of focus since it is only one color and doesn’t have any outgoing designs. The camera starts to pan forward. The dolly zoom is in full effect.
The background starts creeping forward as we get a wider shot of the horizon. When the camera is first on Brody, it is a nice sunny day and we can see that with the beach and sand behind him. Yet, when the camera moves closer, a shed or shack on the left of Brody comes into view and it seemingly casts a shadow over him. At the same time, the sand that was directly behind him upon first notice appears to go much further back. This seems to baffle the audience because it goes too far back at the speed the camera is panning towards Brody. However, the movement of the sand causes us to look directly where intended: Brody’s face.
Still in the middle of the screen is Brody’s face. Once the dolly zoom starts, we see his facial expressions warp from a look that’s both reluctant and deep in thought, to shock and realization, and finally to concern and panic. There is even a subtle blink in there, which is literally his eyes trying to process what they just saw. It seems to be a completely natural response as expected by audiences after seeing a shark attack. We can even see him start to move forward in his chair as a call to immediate action (probably from him being the police chief). With both the movement of the camera and the concentration on his face, this three second clip is able to convey how natural our reactions really can be.
This dolly zoom was not only able to completely make history when it comes to camera direction, but it captures human nature and character development in a mere three seconds. Without the dolly zoom effect being present in this scene, there would be no sense of primal fear and urgency. Instead it would look unprofessional if the camera was to move closer to his face or just zoom in. Ultimately, the use of both of these elements adds for an unforgettable movie scene.
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