To Zoom Or Not to Zoom?

The zoom lens is the most useless gadget in a lazy cinematographer's toolbox. Why hand crank a lens when you can move a camera? So what it you have to hire grips, lay and level track, rehearse the movement, use more lighting instruments to cover the space, and that a dolly shot costs a lot more money to execute? It looks and feels so much more natural because you’re physically moving through space and constantly changing perspective as compared to simply enlarging an image.

Clile C. Allen patented the first true zoom lens, one which held sharp and consistent focus as a twist of the outer ring changed focal length, in 1902. Bell and Howell introduced the Cooke “Varo” 40–120 mm lens for 35mm movie cameras in 1932. The lens didn't catch on until decades later, and it's difficult to pinpoint Hollywood's first recorded telephoto zoom shot. There are a zillion optically printed zooms in Citizen Kane that are easy to spot because of the change in grain pattern. These optical zooms lack a consistency of texture and sharpness that lead me to believe they must have been shot in camera, so to speak.

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In a version of this article published on the late, and lamented Emulsion Compulsion, the first example that came to mind of a shot where a zoom lens was attached to the camera, not an optical printer, was in the Don Siegel directed montage sequences for the 1942 Warner Bros. John Huston picture Across the Pacific. Luckily, a reader reminded me of Rouben Mamoulian’s playful use of the lens in “Love Me Tonight” (1932).

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Zoom shots in Hollywood’s post-war, pre-hippie era are almost harder to find than a married couple sleeping in the same bed. A notable exception occurs in reel five of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train when Robert Burkes zooms-in on Guy’s cigarette lighter underneath the sewer grating. This shot could only be accomplished by a zoom lens…in the hands of an accomplished director. Given the limited space, a dolly movement would have been impossible to execute. Ditto the zoom-in to the Alka Seltzer fizz in Taxi Driver.

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The original Cooke prime lens is about as thick as the heel of a Coke bottle. The first modern day zoom lens for motion picture cameras was developed by French engineer Roger Cuvillier in 1949. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the children of the captured Nazi scientists that invented the nuclear bomb and put a man on the moon were able to perfect the ancient technique of grinding glass, that telephoto lens became the loafing shooter's way of moving the camera.

As the ability to produce films cheaply on location became the norm, the enormous studio soundstages (sitting on expensive real estate) were gradually leveled and replaced by shopping malls, apartment complexes, theme parks and worse. For a mercifully brief period between 1969 and 1973, audiences suffered from more zoom-induced headaches than they would watching 3D without the glasses. Directors and DPs, good ones, too, under the greedy gaze of studio bean counters, brought films in cheaper and faster than even David Selznick could ever imagine.

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Roger Cuvillier

When Peter Fonda was only able to raise a measly $400,000 from his dad’s friends to make Easy Rider (1969), any possibility of securing art direction, set decoration, studio lighting and design went up in smoke faster than their Humboldt County breakfast bowl. Their choice was simple: zoom or face the consequences of the completion bond company.

In Summer of ‘42 (1971), director Robert Mullingan and cinematographer Bob Surtees, both accomplished studio-trained craftsmen, found themselves on-location with a short schedule and a padded script. They opted to “make their day” and secure their paychecks by cheapening potentially good scenes with this violently insane zoom-en-scene process.

Some directors saw the potential of this new technology and used it for what it was: an additional tool, not a solution to all problems. Jerry Lewis understood it. The only time he used a zoom lens was for speed or to call immediate attention to something (i.e. the zoom-in on the prom invitation in The Nutty Professor). Robert Altman misapplied this technique to such an extent that he actually got Oscar nominations. Michael Winner’s shoot now, figure it out never style of filmmaking was perfectly timed to the rise of the zoom. Hollywood loved Michael Winner. Seasoned crews, accustomed to working 17 hour days, were thrilled to work on a Winner show; the “martini shot” arrived before lunch. Studio heads were dazzled with his ability to bring ‘em in under schedule and under budget. Critics were underwhelmed.

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Winner’s effect on audiences was just the opposite. What took so little time to create and produce takes so much to sit through. His endless cycle of unmoving pictures, particularly those featuring Charles Bronson and the word “Death” in their titles, anticipate the feeding frenzy of straight-to-video long before the technology was perfected.

Winner is reported to have caused more cases of neck injury than Odd Job’s metal derby. His abrupt, 20 x 1 breakneck zooms have forced me to uproot armrests. Aside from the audience, Winner’s biggest casualties were the focus-pulling first ACs who suffered from carpel tunnel syndrome decades before the advent of personal computers.

Both mainstream Hollywood and the indie movement have shown a marked disdain for tripods of late. The recent "shaky-cam" trend in storytelling has caused the zoom to have a bit of a resurgance. If a director or cinematographer are too lazy to bother steadying the camera, what chance is there of any time being spent setting up a camera movement? Just point and zoom!

If you must zoom, do it infrequently, and only then as a means of visual punctuation. Zooms should be used the same way one uses a digital effect: when it’s impossible to do it any other way. The lens is best used in combination with a dolly movement, not as a sudden forward assault.

Let's close with something Rick Marks, my brother from another mother taught me. What is a mooz? No, not George Memmoli in Mean Streets, but a little know underground film term that originated on the East Coast in the 1950s, migrated to the Midwest in the 1960s, and made its way to Hollywood in the 1970s where it mercifully died. Remember: Zoom in…mooz out.


While I would agree that the zoom is overused, you're way off base suggesting that directors only use it out of laziness. The zoom is, as you point out in referencing Jerry Lewis, just another tool, and a very different one from the dolly or Steadicam. The change in perspective (or rather, lack of change in perspective) is completely different from what one gets when moving the camera, and has a different psychological effect. When Kubrick uses zooms in BARRY LYNDON, for example (and yes, I know you think Kubrick is overrated - and you're entitled to your opinion even if your opinion is wrong), it's not to move in closer; it's to enlarge certain elements of the frame while locking the characters in position in relation to their surroundings. This is a completely legitimate aesthetic choice, and Altman does something similar in MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, not because he's lazy - after all, the man has done some of the most elaborate long takes in the history of cinema - but because it alters the composition in a different, and for his purposes preferable, manner than moving the camera. To use Winner as your main argument against the zoom is stacking the deck - it's like saying anamorphic lenses suck and then backing up the argument with an essay on J.J. Abrams instead of Tashlin.

How can you suggest that the majority of Hollywood filmmakers, too lazy to move the camera, don't rely on the zoom as a crutch? You've been watching too much "Glee." For every intelligent use of the lens there are hundreds, if not thousands of examples of its misapplication.

"The Long Goodbye" is one of the few examples of the gimmick working, and it joins "McCabe" as Altman's best use of the lens. Sadly, everything Altman directed after "Secret Honor" is flawed. They are not without their moments of brilliance, but structurally speaking the man lost his way and the "psychological effect" to which you refer became progressively dull and mechanical. If Scorsese is God, Altman was a false prophet.

As for stacking the deck, I saw to it that apart from Winner, a few respectable directors, who knew how to use the zoom, were also referenced. Winner is simply the prime offender.

As for "Boring Lyndon," Kubrick went out of his way to capture the spirit of Thackery's novel, even going so far as shooting everything in natural light. Sorry if I think the inclusion of zoom shots violate his scary "vision." Then again, I'm the one who thinks "Chinatown" should have been shot flat and in black-and-white.

If you were writing this column in 1971 as opposed to 2011, I might be inclined to agree with some of your arguments, but I honestly don't see the zoom being used as a substitute for camera movement to a noticeable degree - not even on TV shows like GLEE, where they move the camera plenty and virtually never use a zoom except for an exaggerated comic effect. Who, since Altman died, has been using the zoom with any kind of regularity?

P.S. There are about a hundred terrific films noir in 1.33 and black and white - what's wrong with Polanski giving us one great one in 'scope and color? Or with Kubrick using natural light and zooms in the same film? You slam filmmakers for being lazy and relying on crutches, but then when they try audacious approaches you criticize them for violating the old, sedentary rules. You're as contradictory as Kubrick!

Have you had the good fortune to avoid the recent wave of mumblecore films where the dartboard zoom is being used to death? The rise of the shaky-cam also saw a resurgence in zoom shots. And if memory serves, I smell a few too many zooms in the Paul Greengrass oeuvre. If they aren't going to bother with a tripod, do you honestly think they'll waste time setting up a dolly shot?

I have nothing against Technicolor, 'Scope noirs. I just revisited "Slightly Scarlet" a few weeks ago. If anything, what you say proves my argument. Shooting a film in 1.33:1 and black-and-white in 1973 would hardly qualify as sedentary. If anything, it would have been refreshingly audacious, not to mention frustrating when none of the second-run houses could track down the proper lenses.

Oh. I forgot that you watched "Glee." I now understand why you so admire the Kubrick touch.

Disagree on the zooms in Barry Lyndon. Kubrick's zoom use is annoying. Altman was the best user of zooms. I've always considered them cheap dollies, but it is just a tool. If you use it well, there's nothin' wrong with it. But it certainly shouldn't be a substitute if you use it only for convenience.

Funny coincidence... I was just yesterday reading about the gun Charles Bronson uses in Death Wish 3, the one in the photo above.

You see, a lot of dog walkers in the neighborhood have been letting their mutts poop on my and my neighors' lawns. I've asked them to stop... but they only laugh at me. I've talked to the other neighbors, but they're all scared of the Dog Poop Gang.

"They own this neighborhood," one frightened old guy told me, "It ain't right, but it's the way things are. Once I asked them politely to pick up their dog crap. Instead, they rubbed my face in it. You'd better not challenge them, Joaquin."

"F#$k that," I said. "I don't take dog s#!t from nobody."

So I went inside and googled "most powerful handgun." Turns out it's the Wildey .475 magnum, the very same gang-busting powerhouse that Bronson used to shoot up tat gang in DW3.

Next dog that craps on my lawn gets wasted!

I'm remembering some terrific zoom shots at the beginning of DIRTY HARRY - Scorpio taking aim from rooftop to swimming pool. If I remember right both zoom in and zoom out?

Yeah, it's an exception that proves the rule, but I always loved those, especially with that music over it.

Speaking of Dirty Harry, that dude's a liar. The .44 magnum is not the most powerful handgun ever made.

It's the Wildey .475 that Charles Bronson uses in Death Wish 3. See the photo and my blog comment above.

Bronson rules!

Siegel is indeed another master of the zoom. The zooms in DIRTY HARRY are impeccable.

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