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22 January 2013 @ 03:02 pm
The Zoom in Winter  
Recently I watched The Lion in Winter (1968) for the first time in a long while. Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn's performances are fabulous, of course, and a very young and very sexy Timothy Dalton enlivens the scene no end, but the film is an interesting historical document, in at least three ways.

First, real-world history. We had to pause the DVD several times during the early going to revisit our memories of the historical characters and situation. Were the princes Richard and John the same as Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood's King John respectively? How does this Henry connect with the Henry V we saw in Ashland last summer? Though I haven't looked into it, I'm sure most of the intrigue in the film is entirely historical... but I doubt it all came to a head in one long weekend in real life.

Second, theatre history. This film was a Broadway hit first, and it's a very theatrical film -- the dialogue is delicious and eminently quotable -- and, considered as a play, it's a marvel of concise character development and wickedly twisted power games. But the dialogue is a bit stilted by modern standards; it's brilliant, yes, but people don't really talk that way in real life, and I don't think they talk quite that way on stage any more.

Third, film history, and this is the bit I really wanted to blog about. Although the film is justifiably praised -- it won three Oscars and a pile of other awards -- and very enjoyable, in some ways it has dated badly.

The problems, to the modern eye, begin in the opening credits, superimposed over shots of gargoyles, where the occasional cobweb drifts in a corner. These cobwebs are not deliberate, not atmospheric. There are only one or two of them in the whole sequence and their appearance and motion are nothing but distracting. These are the opening shots of a major motion picture and whatever second unit head shot them couldn't be bothered to use a feather duster.

There are many other such glitches, which would never be accepted today in any film from a major studio. In significant scenes, Hepburn's shadow falls on O'Toole's face for long stretches of his dialog. There's one picturesque stairway which appears again and again, nominally in different parts of the castle. And then there's the zoom.

In many occurrences -- I counted at least five -- there's a shot in which a main character or an important bit of scenery rests at the center of the frame while the camera slowly zooms in (or, in one memorable instance, out) for dramatic effect. These zooms are just a little uneven; you can practically feel the cameraman's hand rotating the lens housing. And I realized that you never see zooms like this in film any more.

I know that when I was an amateur filmmaker in high school (not all that long after The Lion in Winter was released), my camera had a zoom lens and I did sometimes use it while the camera was running. Of course, there was a time before this camera effect was technically possible. But apparently, at some time between then and now, it fell out of favor.

Since watching Lion in Winter, I've been looking carefully for examples of zoom in more recent films. You do occasionally see it, but it is usually much more subtle and/or combined with a pan, a dolly, a change in focus, or some other effect so that the zoom is only part of the camera move and not the dominant note. But, in general, zoom seems to have fallen out of the cinematographer's vocabulary.

If you listen to the later Beatles with headphones, you'll hear numerous examples of stereo being used overtly (e.g. all the guitars in one ear, all the vocals in the other) and it's really distracting. It was early days and they were still figuring out how to use the technology. We're still using stereo today, of course, but it's much more subtle and much more integrated with the other tools in the audio engineer's toolbox. The same seems to have happened with zoom.

I'll be looking out for more examples of this.
Coyote: brakhat! (icon by starlightforest)coyotegoth on January 23rd, 2013 12:11 am (UTC)
I remember seeing a zoom in The Big Lebowski (when the Dude is watching Jackie Treehorn scribble on a pad) and being shocked. (Then again, Sam Peckinpah aside, I miss zooms about as much as I miss the perennial rock focusing that was all the rage in the late '60s.)
David D. Levine: dr. talondavidlevine on January 23rd, 2013 12:29 am (UTC)
By "rock focusing" do you mean a shot in which the focus blurs in and out for a moment before settling in?
Coyotecoyotegoth on January 23rd, 2013 03:06 am (UTC)
I'm sorry; I meant to type "rack" focusing- and yes, that's what it means.
David D. Levine: dr. talondavidlevine on January 23rd, 2013 03:09 am (UTC)
The new Battlestar Galactica used that quite a bit in the early going, when they were using a cinema-verité look for all their space shots. They got away from that after a while.
Luke McGuffholyoutlaw on January 23rd, 2013 02:36 am (UTC)
Nowadays we get shakycam, and I sweartagot I've seen movies where it looks like they reshot scenes because the camera was too steady. Now that I think of it, though, shakycam appears to be on the way out. A tremendous relief!
They Didn't Ask Me: katharine-hepburn-stampdr_phil_physics on January 23rd, 2013 02:48 am (UTC)
It is interesting to see how lenses have changed in both still and film. Zooms have gone from an effect back to being the variable focal length lens that they started as. But... there are some amazing prime lenses today -- what we used to call just lenses in The Olde Days of my youth -- and I think lens selection has come into its own today.

Dr. Phil

Edited at 2013-01-23 02:48 am (UTC)
scarlettinascarlettina on January 23rd, 2013 06:03 am (UTC)
Not about zooming
The Henry in this film is Henry II, not Henry V, he who married the magnificent Eleanor of Aquitaine, a personal heroine of mine. And yes, they were the parents of those two kings.
(Deleted comment)
David D. Levinedavidlevine on January 23rd, 2013 03:20 pm (UTC)
History, it's said, is the secret weapon of science fiction. Some excellent plots can be stolen from actual historical events. The difficult part sometimes is to change the real history so it seems plausible...
richardthe23rdrichardthe23rd on January 23rd, 2013 06:38 am (UTC)
I'd swear I saw the slow-almost-imperceptible-zoom-for-effect in movies from the last decade that I was watching just this week, so I'm fairly certain it didn't go out with Robert Altman.

Edited at 2013-01-23 06:39 am (UTC)
David D. Levine: dr. talondavidlevine on January 23rd, 2013 07:37 am (UTC)
The slow-almost-imperceptible-zoom is still around. I'm talking about a zoom of about 5-10x over a period of 5-10 seconds. It's not that slow and it's pretty darn perceptible.

I tried to find an example clip online, and didn't find one, but I did find this amusing quote: "He [Tony Harvey, director of The Lion in Winter] was highly critical of today's shooting and editing styles, which often consist of fast-moving, blurry images almost impossible to discern. When Hirsch challenged Tony about the fact the he occasionally used the zoom lens in Lion in Winter,Tony elicited a big laugh from the audience by saying the technique was due to the fact that the film's director was an amateur and that 'those scenes should all be cut out!'" (source: http://www.cinemaretro.com/index.php?/archives/3198-ANTHONY-HARVEY-RECALLS-DIRECTING-THE-LION-IN-WINTER-AT-LOEWS-JERSEY-CITY.html). So maybe those obtrusive zoom shots were not so much a 1960s thing as an inexperienced-director thing.
et in Arcadia egobooapostle_of_eris on January 24th, 2013 12:16 am (UTC)
Eleanor was beyond awesome, lived to an amazing age, and never stopped conniving.
I mean, when courtly love and troubadors were being invented, she actually was the little princess in the middle of the court. What an awesome origin story!
paulshandy on January 29th, 2013 05:44 am (UTC)
I had a medieval history professor recommend three movies for understanding the Middle Ages: Lion in Winter, Beckett (the movie set before it), and Python's Search for the Holy Grail.

And yes, Henry II was the father of those kings, even if John was exaggerated. At the time the movie was made, historians really did think Richard the Lion-hearted was gay, but when I was in college they had decided he was just so into violence that he didn't care much about sex.