About the Zoom Lens History Project

“Hollywood cinematography and the ‘zoom boom’: technical innovation and aesthetic change, 1946-1974”

This doctoral project analyses shifts in film style and aesthetics in relation to the development of the zoom lens, focusing on the three decades from the introduction of the Zoomar lens in 1946 to the development of the Steadicam in the late 1970s.

To date there have been few detailed scholarly accounts of the development of the zoom lens, and no major film history textbook includes a chapter on the subject. This is despite the great deal of discussion of the technology – and controversy surrounding its use – in trade periodicals and other areas of professional discourse.

The existing scholarship presents a partial account, highlighting selected technological ‘breakthroughs’ and suggesting a uncomplicated transplanting of expressive zoom lens usage from European New Wave cinemas to Hollywood. A great deal of the existing criticism and analysis on the zoom lens discusses the technology within a ‘use/abuse’ context, limiting analysis by foregrounding aesthetic judgments and auteurist notions at the expense of commercial, technological, and economic considerations.

This project will provide the first detailed account of the development and use of the Zoomar television zoom lens, developed and promoted by Frank Back and Jerry Fairbanks in the mid-1940s. The project combines information from various sources to advance a detailed understanding of the context of the Zoomar’s introduction, to show how early investors in the technology helped to promote it amongst broadcasters and other trade professionals. The project will examine early industrial reactions to the ‘new’ technology, as well as examples of its use in programming – not only in sporting contexts but also in drama, children’s programming, and live news coverage.

This project will demonstrate that the interaction between zoom lens technology and film style is far more complex than has previously been suggested. This will be achieved through close analysis of the ways in which the zoom is discussed in trade periodicals and other trade literature. In addition, the project will also scrutinise a sample of ‘Golden Age’ American television drama in order to assess the extent to which Hollywood’s later adoption of the zoom shot can be traced to televisual sources.

The research project is fully funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council via the University of Exeter. A further grant awarded via the AHRC provided for an archival visit to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the special collections library at UC San Diego, and the Film and Television Archive at UCLA. This took place during May and June 2011.

The project was completed in September 2012 and the viva successfully defended in December 2012.