Production: How To Do the Hitchcock Effect

In the world of film production, there was one director who stood out from the rest. His name was Alfred Hitchcock, and he may have been the greatest director to have ever lived. He made high quality movies that were innovative and ahead of their time. He also pioneered cinematic effects, one of the most famous being the dolly-zoom effect, made popular in the film 'Vertigo' (actually the technique was developed by Irmin Roberts, but 'Vertigo' was the first major film to use it).

How It Works

The dolly-zoom effect works fairly simple. The camera is given a zoom lens and is mounted onto a dolly that is perpendicular to the action of the scene. The camera either dollies away from the scene while zooming in, or it can dolly in while zooming away. The effect is somewhat unsettling when played back. The actors remain the same size while the background changes in scale. 

In 'Vertigo,' this effect was used to demonstrate Jimmy Stewart's crippling fear of heights.  In 'Jaws,' it was used to show Police Chief Brody's shocking reaction to a shark attack on the beach. It has been used in other films like 'Goodfellas,' 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Matrix Reloaded.'

What You Need to Do It

Aside from your actors and standard film equipment, you will also need a zoom lens, a dolly, dolly track, and wedges and shims for leveling the track. You will also need a dolly grip to pull the dolly, and a camera assistant to either perform the zoom or maintain focus along with the camera operator.

Setting It Up

Block and light the scene. Then, determine from what angle you wish the camera to view the scene. Lay down the dolly track, and over-estimate the amount of track you need so that if you want to make the shot longer you can. After the track is laid, you're going to level it from the highest point on the floor. You also want to fill in any gaps on the track because you'll feel and see the depression on camera.

When the track is ready, you'll add the dolly to it. Then, you mount the camera to the dolly and level it. You'll probably add the zoom lens at this point because it's very large. Once the dolly is camera ready, it's time to rehearse and make start and end marks along with zoom and focus marks. Once that is all set, you can shoot the scene with the effect.

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