Tag Archives: alfred hitchcock

What is… a Dolly Zoom?

A dolly zoom is a camera effect that distorts an audience’s regular sense of visual perception. It is created by zooming in or out whilst the camera physically moves (dollies) in the opposite direction. For example, the camera would zoom in whilst dollying away. This keeps the subject of the frame roughly the same size throughout the effect, whilst the background moves closer or further away, depending on the direction of the zoom/dolly.

The invention of the effect has been credited to Irmin Roberts, a second-unit cameraman at Paramount, and was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo. Most film fans will be aware of the moment in Vertigo in which a dolly zoom is used and the effect it creates…

A dolly zoom creates a feeling of disorientation for the viewer. It is not an effect that the human visual system is used to seeing and can therefore be jarring and unsettling. It might be used to create a sense of height, as in Vertigo, unease, a sense of urgency or danger, or may show a sense of dawning realisation in a character. An example of this is in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, where Brody realises that they do indeed have a shark munching on swimmers. See below…

Just some of the alternative names for a dolly zoom include:

  • The “Hitchcock zoom” or the “Vertigo effect”
  • “Hitchcock shot” or “Vertigo shot
  • Triple Reverse Zoom
  • Reverse Tracking Shot
  • Back Zoom Travelling
  • Telescoping
  • Trombone shot
  • Stretch shot
  • Reverse Pull
  • Contra-zoom

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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What is… Chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro, Italian for light-dark, is a lighting technique created by stark contrasts between light and shadow. It is used in almost all forms of art and was popularised by Renaissance painters to give depth to three-dimensional objects in their work. Caravaggio was one of the biggest proponents of the technique, as shown in an example of his work below, Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes is an example of chiaroscuro in Renaissance paintings

Fast-forward a bit from the Renaissance era and chiaroscuro is used to great effect in films, too. Nosferatu, the 1922 vampire flick, uses shadow very effectively, whilst it has become an integral part of some directors’ work, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock to name but two. See below for a couple of examples…

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What is… German Expressionism?

German Expressionism is an artistic movement that came out of Germany in the early 20th century. It was part of a wider expressionist movement throughout Europe but was largely confined to Germany due to the isolation it encountered during World War 1.

During the 1920s many European cultures became excited by what the future held and expressed this through their art, particularly in films. There was an influx of the absurd, with bizarre set design featuring strange geometric angles, with much of the detail, including objects and shadows, painted on. The themes of German Expressionist films tended to explore topics such as insanity, betrayal and others that were considered more intellectual that the films that had been made previously.

The war had a generally stimulating effect on the German film industry. Imports were embargoed and foreign film companies had their property confiscated, leading to a number of German film companies increasing their output and taking advantage of the gap in the film market. To highlight this, in 1914  there were 47 prominent foreign films whilst there were only 25 German films, many of which struggled. However, by 1918 the number of foreign films had dropped to just 10, whilst the number of homegrown films skyrocketed to 310. In 1917, the flagship German film studio, Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA), was formed after meetings between the German Government and a few key film companies. This studio went on to make notable titles such as Dr Mabuse (1922), Metropolis (1927) and The Blue Angel (1930).

However, perhaps the most significant film of the time was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which has since been hailed as one of the first horror films (along with the other expressionist classic horror Nosferatu) and held up as a quintessential example of German Expressionism. Its setting and themes are typical of the movement: set in a fairground and an insane asylum with chases across rooftops, telling the story of the mysterious Dr. Caligari who hypnotises his assistant to kill. It also has an unmistakable aesthetic, with over-the-top costumes and make-up, and fantastically angular sets with stark distinction between light and shadow. See below some examples of the film’s highly stylised art style.


The influence of German Expressionism was huge, particularly on a number of significant directors. In 1924, Alfred Hitchcock was working for Gainsborough Pictures and was sent to work as an assistant director and art director at the UFA Babelsberg Studio in Berlin. The movement’s effect on him was immediate, which can be seen in his set designs for The Blackguard, the film he was working on at the German studio. Following that, it’s easy to see an expressionistic influence in his work, particularly in his themes (madness, paranoia, etc) and use of light and shadow.

Perhaps the most obvious exponent of German Expressionism working today is Tim Burton. There are expressionist ideas and designs throughout a large proportion of Burton’s work, including Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even his more child-orientated films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have expressionist designs in them. Such is Burton’s use of expressionist ideas, that some films, that have nothing to with him, are said to be Burton-esque. Coraline is a prime example of this.

Whilst the German expressionist movement may have been largely localised, it has had a profound effect on the history of cinema around the world. This is only a very brief intro to the subject and entire books have been written on the subject. For those wanting further reading, the books considered essential reading are Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen and Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler.

Chris Thomson

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What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Strangers on a Train?

This is the first ‘What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen…?‘ feature and you may be forgiven for thinking that Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is an odd choice to kick off with. Sure, it may be considered one of Hitchcock’s classics but there are other films I own and haven’t seen that would perhaps be more fitting. Well, the reason I have chosen Strangers on a Train is that whilst I was at university it was one of the films on the list we were required to watch as part of my film studies course. However, due to one thing or another (I was a student after all) I didn’t get round to watching it and was subsequently berated by my lecturer. Therefore, I thought I should right a wrong and actually watch the damn thing.

Spoilers ahead!

Plot: Amateur tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is travelling by train when he bumps into Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), an enigmatic and mildly flamboyant man who invites him to have dinner in his carriage. During dinner it is revealed that Guy wants rid of his adulterous wife Miriam so he can marry the beautiful and sophisticated Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) and that Bruno despises his father. Bruno gives Guy what he believes is the perfect way out of their predicaments – to stage a ‘criss-cross’ murder, so that Guy kills Bruno’s father whilst Bruno kills Guy’s wife. Guy politely tells Bruno that it’s a great idea before leaving. That’s enough for Bruno to keep up his part of the bargain and then pursue Guy to ensure he does the same.

One thing that struck me was how dark the tone of the film was. The topic of murder becomes average dinner party conversation, turning what would be a normal, lighthearted discussion into something much more sinister, almost trivialising it in the process. This could well be a metaphor for Man’s desensitisation to murder and other terrible things, but you’d have to ask Mr Hitchcock on that one. It certainly works as one, anyway. Bruno’s murder of Miriam is probably the most shocking moment in the film. Up until this point, you’re not sure as to whether he’ll actually do it or not but, sure enough, he goes through with it and, whilst relatively tame by today’s standards, it was certainly a lot more graphic than I expected. However, the murder is even more chilling when you consider Miriam was pregnant at the time, therefore making Bruno not just her killer, but also the killer of her unborn child. This is something that is never mentioned in the film, probably in order to get it past the censors, but it certainly adds another dimension to Bruno’s evil actions.

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What is…a MacGuffin?

Hitchcock - famous for using MacGuffinsVery simply put, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is the thing that drives the plot of the film forward. It very often provides the conflict between the protagonists and antagonists but actually has very little, if any, other significance or importance whatsoever.

A MacGuffin may take any form, perhaps something concrete like a briefcase of money or something more abstract like a quest for power or glory. A good test to see whether something is indeed a MacGuffin is whether it is interchangeable with something else. Does it really matter if everyone is searching for some secret blueprints or could it quite conceivably be a cure for a disease? If so then it’s probably a MacGuffin.

The term was invented (or at least popularised) by a certain Mr Alfred Hitchcock (some say it was actually screenwriter and friend of Hitchcock, Angus MacPhail who coined the term) who became renowned for using the technique in his films. In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock described the MacGuffin as follows:

One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers, “Oh, that’s a McGuffin”. The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?” “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”. The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers, “Well, then that’s no McGuffin!” So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

Clearly not one for clear explanation is Mr Hitchcock. Still, nice to hear it in his own words. He has also said that the audience doesn’t actually care what the MacGuffin is, which could explain his rather ambiguous description of it. George Lucas on the other hand said that the audience should very much care about the MacGuffin “almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.”

The theory behind a MacGuffin has been around since before Hitchcock, however. Back when films were told with title cards and over-exaggerated facial expressions, an actress named Pearl White starred in serials that would have MacGuffin-like plot devices, although she would refer to them as ‘weenies’. Not quite as nice sounding as ‘MacGuffin’ is it?

Examples of MacGuffins

  • Rosebud (Citizen Kane) – The search for the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s last word is perhaps the most famous example of a MacGuffin and one that has become engrained in film culture and parodied countless times in popular culture.
  • R2-D2 (Star Wars) – Some may not realise it, but R2-D2 is probably the central character of Episode IV, as it’s the mischievous little droid who carries the Death Star plans the Rebellion need to plan an attack but the Empire is doing its best to track down.
  • Unobtainium (Avatar) – The precious mineral found on the moon of Pandora, unobtainium is the focus of a mining colony who come up against the local Na’vi. This soon becomes secondary to the other events of the film, however, making it an excellent example of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin.
  • British military secrets (The 39 Steps) – Arguably the most famous of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins, the military secrets (and the meaning behind the 39 Steps) are what drive the entire film, but are ultimately not of huge consequence to the story.

These are just a few examples but there are countless more. In fact, most films contain a MacGuffin of sorts, although some are easier to spot than others. Do you have any particular favourites? If so, feel free to leave a comment.

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