A new weekly column thta explains the nuts and bolts of cinema

The basic zoom, arguably the most attention-mongering of cinematographic practices, appears to bring closer an object located at a distance by magnifying its image while preserving the camera's focus on it. In photographic terms, this would mean blowing up an image without the loss of detail that usually accompanies such a process.

How to use it...

The Zoom-In

At its simplest, the zoom-in seeks to direct the audience's attention to a particular character, prop or a location on screen in order to underscore its importance in relation to its surroundings. During the silent era, when the zoom lens was not yet perfected, filmmakers would often use an unexposed ellipse to highlight the item of interest while blacking out the rest of the screen area. The zoom-in achieves a similar effect by relegating relatively insignificant details to off-screen space.

The Zoom-Out

The zoom-out, on the other hand, is largely employed to reveal a character's relationship to her environment and is usually designed to provide an emotional wallop with the increased scope of the canvas. One could say, on a rudimentary level, that zoom-in is to zoom-out what intrigue is to awe.

Why it is special...

What makes the zoom a unique beast is that it is the only technique through which a stationary camera can negotiate space. In a sense, it is a lazy gesture in the way it attempts to get closer to an object without actually moving towards it at all!

When it is deployed...

It is because of this property of not conforming to normal human perception that contemporary commercial filmmaking, which has long relied on mimicking human experience in order to provide a seamless illusion of reality, is loath to deploy the zoom in any form. As a result, the technique has been passed on to, ironically, cheesy television serials and experimental films.

Where to find it...

Michael Snow's seminal avant-garde film Wavelength (1967) consists of a seemingly unbroken zoom-in shot lasting 45 minutes. The camera starts with a wide view of a room shot at a skewed angle from a loft and very gradually zooms into a photograph of ocean waves hung on a wall. It is an interesting paradox, for the ‘static' photograph tries to represent the movement of the tides: an apt metaphor for the zoom shot itself.