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Hitchcock’s ‘vertigo’ shot remembered

March 1, 2010
OXFORD TOWN – Ole Miss professor Jack Barbera is well known for his expertise in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo shot, but as often as I had heard from him on the subject, I had never had the opportunity to listen to his lecture as a whole. Barbera served as a judge at the Magnolia Film Festival in Starkville this weekend and lectured on the shot at the festival.
Although early vertigo shots were tied to psychological negative reactions, the image was born out of Hitchcock becoming intoxicated at a party and loving the idea of capturing that feeling of elastic space. While he tried to get the shot for Rebecca in 1940, the effect was not what he intended due to a lack of proper technology.
But the dolly shot along with a zoom focus  in opposite directions was the key to creating one of the most cinematic effects in history.
“He wanted it in ‘Rebecca’ but he had to have it in ‘Vertigo’,” Barbera said.
The elongating of space effect is captured by having the dolly camera go backwards as the zoom goes in (or the opposite for a flattening effect).
Barbera called it one of the most artificial shots as the image can not be seen in reality, yet it provides the biggest impact. You only see the shot because it is a major moment in the character’s life. It is not to be taken lightly in its usage.
Barbera noted that some of the most effective uses of the shot after Hitchcock have been in films such as “Jaws,” “EveAfter,” “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Goodfellas,” and “Poltergeist.”
He also notes that there are no rules for the vertigo shot and that it would be foolish to assume the shot should be used only for psychological impact when other films have since made it about love (ex. Charlie’s Angels when Luke Wilson’s character falls in love with one of the angels) joy (ex. “Angels in the Outfield” when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character begins to believe in the hope for the future) or just a dawning realization on the main character on how life will be forever different (ex. Roy Schneider in “Jaws”).
But even without rules, there are still some that have broken the idea of the effect. Keep it simple, don’t pile on other effects along with the shot like in the 2001 “Antitrust,” where Ryan Phillippe has a dawning realization about Tim Robbin’s character and flashbacks and slo-mo shots are layered with close up mouth and eye shots as the vertigo shot is being deployed. The overall impact is ridiculous and assumes the viewer is too dumb to understand what is happening.
Barbera noted that the shot continues to be used in a variety of films, TV shows and even commercials. He noted a recent effective use of the shot was from local filmmaker, Matthew Graves, in his short film “Footsteps,” that played at this year’s Oxford Film Festival.
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