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A Matter of Perspective, Part II

Beyond Belief

Tom Flynn

Volume 5.4, December 1995

telephoto

Figure 1. The start of a dolly forward-zoom back shot. Camera with telephoto lens films two persons standing side by side. A telephoto lens captures an image along a narrow angle, so in order to fit both actors into the frame the camera must be placed a moderate distance away. Even so, because the narrow angle the image subtends a narrow slice of the background behind the actors.

Figure 2. The end of the shot. The lens has zoomed from telephoto (narrow angle) to wide angle. Because of the wide angle the camera must move closer to the actors to keep their images filling the frame. But look at the background! In spite of the camera’s forward movement, the image subtends a much broader portion of the background.

Photos A, B, and C illustrate the same process.

Photo a

Photo A. CSICOP Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell stands in profile, pointing. His image fills the frame. This image was made with a telephoto lens (135mm lens on 35mm camera) from a substantial distance away. Note how little background is included, which is why Skeptical Briefs production editor Tom Genoni (out of focus in the background) subtends about a quarter of Joe’s apparent height.

Photo b

Photo B. Made with a 50mm ("normal”) lens. I moved substantially closer to keep Joe the same relative size in the frame. We see a lot more background; Tom has shrunk appreciably.

Photo c

Photo C. Made with a 24mm (wide angle) lens. I’m only a few feet from Joe, and the entire Center for Inquiry stands tiny in the background. Tom is almost invisible.

Imagine a motion picture sequence that moved through this range. The apparent separation between Joe and background objects would increase dramatically. The emotional subtext would suggest Joe being wrenched from his surroundings, or perhaps his environment fleeing from him. Powerful stuff.

Photos D, E, and F show what happens when one zooms in while keeping the background roughly the same size.

Photo d

Photo D. Shot with telephoto lens from about 75’ away. Library windows fill the image from side to side. CSICOP staffers Marsha Carlin and Etienne C. R'os seem to occupy the same plane though Marsha stands about 12’ in front of Etienne. (See where their feet are!)

Photo e

Photo E. Shot with a normal lens. Marsha and Etienne have not moved, yet their apparent separation has ballooned.

Photo f

Photo F. Shot with wide angle lens. I’m only about 2’ from Marsha, too close to hold her in focus! She and Etienne seem to be in different zip codes. Both also seem much more distant from the building.

Last issue, we examined the once-difficult, now-routine motion picture shot in which the camera dollies forward while zooming out at a rate which maintains the foreground subject at a constant size. The eerie result: While the foreground character remains stationary, the background flees outward in all directions. It’s a great way to express sudden isolation or dramatize a character’s response to some shocking revelation. No sooner did I finish writing the last installment than I saw Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. That film uses the dolly forward-zoom out technique for a brief reaction shot of flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) at the moment when the astronauts report their emergency. It’s sound movie-making — and one more indication that this formerly-exotic device has become an accepted part of film grammar.

But what makes it work? Consider the effect of lens length and camera-to-subject distance — in a word, of perspective — on the way a shot “feels.”

By selecting lens length and camera distance wisely, movie and TV directors can control the emotional resonance of their shots — creating subtle impressions of camaraderie or loneliness, enmeshing individuals in their environment, thrusting them into savage isolation, or placing a romantic couple in a “zone of their own” set off from their surroundings. It’s one of the strongest ways to influence audience response to an image, yet few suspect anything — until a director draws attention to the process by means of a bracing dolly in-zoom out shot.

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Tom Flynn is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of its flagship magazine, Free Inquiry. A founding coeditor of the newsletter Secular Humanist Bulletin, he designed and directs the Council's museum at the Dresden, N.Y., birthplace of 19th century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. He is also vice president for media at the Center for Inquiry and director of its audio-visual production arm, Inquiry Media Productions. He has written or edited four books including The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus, 2007). He is executive producer of the Council for Secular Humanism's 2013 video miniseries, American Freethought.