Movies

“Powers of Ten” and Dolly-Zooms

One of the grad students I’m working with pitched a thesis project that opened with a giant tracking shot that moves from Earth orbit down to a child’s ice cream cone and then down to virus scale. I sighed silently inside and quietly passed him a link to the original Charles and Ray Eames “Powers of Ten” short film:

I mentioned to him that these kinds of shots are:
      A. Very difficult to pull off.
      B. Common enough to have a name.

I was able to rattle off a few examples off the top of my head: Contact, The Burbs, Men in Black, Space Cowboys, Aeon Flux, and Fight Club. I realized it’s probably time to start collecting them officially, just like I’ve been collecting other shots in an effort to shame students into not doing them.

It started with dolly-zooms (AKA Vertigo shots or trombone shots). A student came to me all excited about this cool thing he learned about in film class where you dolly a camera and zoom in the opposite direction. Of course, he wanted to put one in his visual effects thesis project. In an effort to discourage him (and future students with the same “original” idea), I started a Stickies file on my PowerBook to record the movies (and tv shows, and video games) that had them, and I updated it when I saw new ones in the wild. The list of titles turned into a list of titles with a note as to when exactly the dolly-zoom happened. And it also got really long.

By then, I had the technology and drive space to start collecting the shots themselves instead of a list of them. So now when students mention this amazing thing they have “discovered” I can bust out a Keynote presentation with 70+ examples.

Yes, it started out as a passive-aggressive way to use a single type of shot to show students that there are a huge number of films out there that they have never seen. Yes, it’s kind of a dick move. But it’s also really fun to watch 70+ dolly-zooms that have been plucked from a huge range of sources.

And then something happened to me and the way I thought about dolly-zoom shots.

My original feeling (shared by many) was that dolly-zooms are cliché, smack of film school, and should be avoided. That was the whole point of my little project: “Look at all of these! Don’t add another one!”

But when I saw such a diverse group of filmmakers using dolly-zooms in so many different contexts, I eventually started seeing them as part of the normal, visual grammar of film, along with the whip pan, the dutch angle and POV shots with binocular-shaped masks around them.

So, last week, as I’m trying to convince a student not to use a “Powers of Ten” shot because they are cliché, I started getting a sense of déjà vu. Now I have to go through the whole process again to see if I will have the same change of heart.

Now, one of the things that make dolly-zoom shots so common in films (and in student films) is that they are relatively easy to do and happen in-camera. If you have a dolly (or a wheelchair, or a shopping cart) and a zoom lens, you can do it. This is not true of “Powers of Ten” shots. Until recently, you needed an ILM or Sony Imageworks to pull one off. So, I don’t expect to find 70+ “Powers of Ten” shots, but I bet I find a bunch.

Wish me luck and let me know if you see any “Powers of Ten” shots…or dolly-zooms, for that matter. I want to break 100!

By the way, there is a super interactive version of “Powers of Ten” on the web, sponsored by IBM, who funded the original short.

3 comments on ““Powers of Ten” and Dolly-Zooms

  1. I did a really quick and cheesy one using screen captures of Google Maps.
    [video src="http://sastudios.com/video/The_Real_Happy_Hour_Video_Sample.mp4" /]

  2. Tad, I miss your brain. You are one of the wonders of the Universe !!

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