The "Vertigo Shot": What It Is And What It Does
December 19, 2013
•IADT General, Cinema Production
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As described in Cinema Shock, Alfred Hitchcock's iconic film Vertigo opens with a rooftop chase. Detective Ferguson jumps from one rooftop to another, slips on the roof tiles and slides down to the very edge. Hanging on for dear life, he looks down, and Hitchcock treats us to his point of view—a dizzying multistory drop. But this point of view isn't static. Hitchcock drives home Ferguson's dreadful fear of heights by making the background shrink away while the foreground remains the same in size. You feel what he feels.
Steven Spielberg incorporated the Vertigo technique in his film Jaws. Chief Brody witnesses the horrifying death of a young boy on a raft. After the shark drags the boy down into the ocean through a pool of blood, Brody seems to be pushed toward the audience while the background shrinks away. His worst fear has been realized: His job is to keep the public safe, but he has let people swim in water he knew wasn't safe. He is responsible for the boy's gruesome death.
Spielberg was so enamored with this technique that he used it again in the film Poltergeist. Trying to rescue her two small children from evil spirits, a mother rushes up the stairs of her suburban home. But once there, her children's bedroom doorway seems to shrink away down a hallway that gets longer and longer. No matter how fast she runs, she can't quite seem to reach the door.
This effect is bizarre and unsettling because we're not used to seeing some things in our field of vision grow or shrink while other things remain unchanged.
How do filmmakers accomplish this effect? By dollying—or moving—the camera toward the subject, while varying the focal length of the lens from long telephoto to short wide-angle. The same effect can be created in reverse, by dollying the camera away from the subject while varying the focal length of the lens from short wide-angle to long telephoto.
Here are three skills you'll need to develop to make your own flawless Vertigo effects:
1. Dolly Smoothly
Dolly your camera on a smooth, flat surface, especially at the long telephoto focal length of the zoom lens, when every little camera shake is visible. If a smooth floor or other surface isn't available, use tracks or rails.
As your subject comes closer or moves farther away in the frame, follow-focus with the subject to keep the subject from becoming blurry. This is especially the case in low light, when you're forced to use a wide aperture on the lens to achieve correct exposure. At a wide aperture, depth of field—that is, how many things both near and far are simultaneously in focus—is very shallow and things get blurry very easily.
3. Watch Your Speed
There's a fine art to how fast you should zoom versus how fast you should dolly so that the subject in the center of the frame remains the same size. It's very easy for one to outpace the other. It will no doubt require several takes to find a perfect speed combination, and this is usually determined more by feel than by a technical calculation. But practice will make perfect! With time and patience, you'll learn to achieve this Vertigo effect to stun your audience and make them squirm!
But beware—like any other technique, use the Vertigo technique sparingly or it loses its impact and becomes merely a gimmick.
Photo credit: morgueFile