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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.