robert-altmanDEAR TECHNOLOGISTS: One of the most beautiful things in cinema, analogous to Paul McCartney’s feel for melody or Bob Dylan’s reach for the perfect word, is Robert Altman’s use of the zoom lens. No one has been able to do it the way he did, and to my knowledge, no one, not even his real-life student Paul Thomas Anderson, ever tried. (The one attempt I know of to coopt the Altman Zoom is in Joe Wright’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE–and the less said about that zoom into a pig trough, the better.) It seems to me–I have small experience in this area, but some, and others may testify with more courage–that we just ain’t got zoom lenses like that any more. The feel of an Altman zoom was like that little net-bottomed scraper you use to scrape the bottom of a fishbowl. He picked up faces or gestures or paintings or props in the pea soup of a usually less-than-crisp image. Half the beauty of the zoom was the way it wafted, seemed to drift through the space like a breeze. It had, in a strange way, as much feel of movement as a camera movement. Now, it seems, this is not possible. The adjustment on a zoom is too calibrated and too precise. The image itself is too crisp. The drifty/floaty/sleepy/silty quality of the Altman Zoom can be no more. The technology improved itself in a way that such a “misuse” of its parts is no longer tenable. Filmmakers, DPs, concerned parties–agree?


  1. Not sure exactly, but I do know that zooms now seem to be computerized, smooting off the edges so that a violent crash zoom like those beloved of Kubrick becomes simply impossible. Altman’s zooms must be a combination of the manual apparatus and the skilled operators, along with his pwn particular sensibility.


  2. I just watched THE LONG GOODBYE a couple days ago, the DVD has a short interview with Vilmos Zsigmond and he spends a couple minutes talking about this. He said they worked to make the zooms not look like zooms, to have the feel of a regular tracking shot. I wonder if that approach, along with the post-flashing they did on the negative, might partially explain the uniqueness of Altman’s zooms.


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