ratatouille-dolly ratatouille-dolly

The Use of the Dolly Zoom in “Ratatouille”

Todd Vaziri, a compositing supervisor at ILM, has written an enlightening piece about the subtle use of the dolly zoom in a shot during Pixar’s Ratatouille. He highlights director Brad Bird’s application of the dolly zoom as “one of my favorite uses of the technique in the last decade”:

The effect is used in Ratatouille with confidence and elegant subtlety; like previously stated, most viewers do not even realize the perspective is flattening out, which is antithetical to the modern, in-your-face cliche use of the dolly zoom. The technique is generally used as punctuation (usually an exclamation point), screaming “The characters are going through something significant RIGHT NOW!” In this scene from Ratatouille, the dolly zoom is simply part of the mise-en-scène and not the focus of the shot. Like the editing, costumes, and the lighting, the dolly zoom is not meant to be seen, but felt.

An annotated video of the zoom accompanies the write-up:

As a side note, Vaziri mentions that before writing the post, he could not find a single reference posted online about the dolly zoom in Ratatouille. That observation speaks to a broader point about the virtual absence of critical discourse about the cinematic qualities of animation. From the standpoint of filmmaking, what sets apart one animated feature from the other? We’re not talking about story or characters or design, but the creative choices that were made by the director about how to tell the story. Animation directors like Bird are keenly aware of cinematic language and how to use a specific technique to achieve a desired emotional effect. Vaziri’s post serves as a reminder that a great deal of thought and effort is invested into every shot of certain animated films, and a rich viewing experience awaits those of us who pay close attention.

  • Abel Sanchez

    Well, to be fair, Remy is going trough something significant at that very moment. The Dolly Zoom draws our attention to Gusteau’s speech, and we even get to see Remy’s reaction to it, so I think it’s being used in a typical, but more discreet way.

  • Gage

    I actually remember taking notice of that shot the second time I saw Ratatouille, but I never knew what it was actually called. It’s cool to see an analysis of it.

    But Brad Bird definitely always has some awesome cinematography in his films. If anyone hasn’t read through Flooby Nooby’s super in-depth 3-part study of the cinematography in The Incredibles, I highly recommend it! I learned a lot: http://floobynooby.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-cinematography-of-incredibles-part-1.html

    • Tim

      There isn’t really a standardized name for this move, actually. Sometimes people call it a “zolly,” sometimes you’ll hear “contrazoom,” sometimes just “the Vertigo effect”…

  • Ian Failes

    Todd’s the man.

  • Fraser MacLean

    One of my own favourite scenes in “Ratatouille” also involves some of the cleverest – yet subtlest – uses of both camera movement and “character based” lighting: when Remy decides, instead of escaping (at last…) through the window of Chef Gusteau’s kitchen, to go back and “fix” the soup, watch as the camera itself begins to “stir” the carefully chosen ingredients into the mix, circling the giant copper pot as Remy adds one ingredient after another. With help from Michael Giacchino’s magnificent score, the pace picks up, the level of Remy’s own preoccupation with the task in hand increases – and is deliberately reflected in the dimming-down of ALL the ambient light in the surrounding space of kitchen, until everything is in almost complete darkness, save for Remy and the soup itself, within the circle of the copper pot. They even included a “spot” sound effect of a light switch – flicking the lights back on at the moment of realisation – when Linguini and Remy finally notice one another. Brad Bird was kind enough (thanks to your own introduction, Amid) to agree to be interviewed about the geography, the floor plan of the kitchen in this sequence – and the “mantra” of “where’s the window” throughout the chaos of the “chase”, as Remy struggles to get out of the kitchen after falling in from the skylight – for “Setting The Scene” (if you’ll excuse a bit of product placement…). I don’t think there’s a lazy or obvious camera move in the entire movie.

    • Doug

      Wow, thanks for that analysis. I have to watch this scene now!

  • GS

    It’s a neat technique.

    What drives me insane these days, and it’s true of live action just as much as CGI (and let’s face it, the two are blended so much that it’s hard to know one from the other) is the artificial wobbles and hand-held stuff. It makes me sick.

  • Aleksandar Vujovic

    Was conversing with my wife on this yesterday. One of the best films ever made, not just animated.

  • Tony

    I’ve honestly never noticed that shot before. It’s so subtle, but it helps get the viewer into Remy’s state of mind. There’s a flashier use of dolly zoom later when Anton Ego has his flashback, and even there it’s use to make a story point, not to be flashy. Like all great directors, Bird picks his techniques carefully, always in service of the story.

  • Richard Bailey

    I’ve read or heard somewhere before that Pixar often employ professional Cinematographers to advise on their films. It’s often much to the bemusement of the cinematographers who say that you are able to do anything in CGI, but the Pixar directors insist that it helps to add a grounding in reality.
    Just because you can do anything, doesn’t mean you should.
    Another example of this camera subtlety that always impressed me in its attention to detail is from the race scenes in which the stationary camera shudders slightly as the cars go past- it could easily have been left out, but it adds that extra layer of reality.

  • timmyelliot

    The Vertigo shot was done in Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror (1990), when Lisa sees the flying saucer. Brad Bird is credited in that episode.

    The use of that technique in Ratatouille has been blogged years before. Particularly in its (not as subtle) use later in the film when Anton takes a bite of Ratatouille and is transported back to his childhood.

    My favorite use of the dolly zoom was in Lion King when Simba first sees the wildebeest stampede.

  • Daniel

    I think Brad Bird is the exception as well as Wes Anderson.. There isn’t a lot of animated films that have cinematography because a lot of directors just don’t have the eye for it.. And there are a lot of departments in the pipeline that say they do this ( story, pre-vis, animation, editing..etc) but it’s impossible to get a cohesive film language for the film when the director doesn’t have the background or expertise.. What you get is “politically correct homogenized” film language coming from a team of varying skill levels and points of views about when and how they use the camera.. It’s really pointless to even get cinematographers on these movies because you can’t really get their point of view unless they are given a complete solid script to work off.. In the end, this process is less about actually filmmaking and more about politics..