Having spent some considerable time writing on filmmaking history, I often come across the “Who was the first” question. Although chronology in history is, of course, important – a blind obsession over who was first without understanding context reduces history into nothing more than a series of trivial factoids – and that does little to really understand history.
One example of this blind obsession comes from the YouTube comments on our lab video on the Mastering the Art of the Dolly Zoom.
In the video we credited Irmin Roberts, a second unit camera man for being the first to use the Dolly Zoom effect in the famously in the film Vertigo:
Since we have published that video (our first course video ever in May of 2013), the Wikipedia entry has been updated to add a caveat to the Dolly Zoom’s conception:
The effect was first conceived by Romanian cinematographer Sergiu Huzum, but was first used by Irmin Roberts, a Paramount second-unit cameraman, in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo 
And since this addition to Wikipedia we have received a few contrarian assholes who say we’ve committed and egregious sin against humanity by taking credit away the Dolly Zoom’s rightful inventor Sergui Huzum. These comments usually come in a snide remark implying that we are lazy and haven’t done enough research.
Okay then… let’s do some REAL research.
First let’s ask…who is this Sergiu Huzum? A cursory google search only produces only circles in regards to the Dolly Zoom. Huzum is cited as one of the key directors of photography in the Romanian film world but in reference to the Dolly Zoom, most sites just parrot what was written on Wikipedia with some going so far as saying he “patented” the effect (though you can’t patent the dolly zoom effect you can patent a device or system that executes the dolly zoom). The only conclusive evidence I found that solidly links Huzum to the dolly zoom was this dolly zoom demonstration film from 1969 hosted by British Pathe.
NEW MOVIE FILM DEVICE DEVISED BY NEWSREEL CAMERAMAN.
Commentary in Romanian.
VS Demonstration of this new form of shooting film with the aid of special zoom lenses. The foreground look like it’s moving when in fact it is still and the back ground is moving. The inventor is Sergiu Huzum.
In the film you see what looks like the cover of a patent listing Sergiu Huzum and the year 1963.
But 1963 is 5 years AFTER Vertigo premiered!
Now let’s judge that to the claim that Irmin Roberts created the dolly zoom effect for the film Vertigo. Unlike the Huzum claim to have conceived it, Wikipedia actually has a citation for the Roberts connection which links to an article on Indiewire about Vertigo.
Few films are important enough to have a particular kind of shot named after them, but “Vertigo” was responsible for the popularization of the so-called “Vertigo effect” — the trademark shot that creates the effect of Scottie’s acrophobia (falling away from yourself).Hitchcock had originally had the idea as far back as “Rebecca,” but couldn’t work how to do it, and it took second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts to crack it. It’s created by adjusting the zoom lens while dollying towards (or sometimes away from) the subject (see the staircase shots in the clip below).
There’s no mention of Huzum in this citation. In fact this article seems to give Hitchcock the credit for “conceiving” the dolly zoom – a tidbit supplied by Hitchcock in his 1967 interview with Francois Truffaut:
When Joan Fontaine fainted at the inquest in Rebecca, I wanted to show how she felt that everything was moving far away from her before she toppled over. I always remember one night at the Chelsea Arts Ball at Albert Hall in London when I got terribly drunk and I had the sensation that everything was going far away from me. I tried to get that into Rebecca, but they couldn’t do it. The viewpoint must be fixed, you see, while the perspective is changed as it stretches lengthwise. I thought about the problem for fifteen years. By the time we got to Vertigo, we solved it by using the dolly and zoom simultaneously.
Hitchcock was already trying to develop the dolly zoom concept when Sergiu Huzum was just 7 years old!
Let’s approach this question from a different tact. We casually mentioned Irmin Roberts as a “2nd Unit Director of Photography” – that sounds kind of unimportant. But the fact is that Irmin Roberts A.S.C was one of the best special effects cameramen working in Hollywood.
Born in 1904 in Los Angeles, Roberts’ work for Paramount spanned decades from working on matte shots and trick photography for directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Billy Wilder, George Stevens, George Pal and of course Alfred Hitchcock.
Considering that this is pre-internet and pre-film forums where filmmakers from around the world could share ideas and concepts, there is very little chance that a special effects camera man living in Hollywood would have communicated with a cinematographer in Romania.
Even so, Hitchcock had tried to accomplish the concept of the dolly zoom 14 years prior to actually succeeding at it. Should Hitchcock be credited with “concieving the dolly zoom”? No – because there’s really no evidence he was only one that had conceived that idea. Surely someone using a zoom lens (which are actually not quite as developed before the 1950s – but that’s another story), may have noticed you could maintain a framing and alter the perspective by physically moving in closer or further away. But thinking of the effect, even imagining it – is an utterly unremarkable thing. What matters is actually bringing the concept to fruition and making it work.
It took an expert special effects camera man to make it work in a feature film – and Roberts did it in what is perennially considered one of the best films ever made.
So why did Huzum get his name inserted in a Wikipedia article? Probably some guy noticed Huzum’s name on a patent somewhere and wanted to use this factoid to show how much smarter he is then the “voices of authority” that credit Roberts. Huzum’s champions don’t really care who Sergei Huzum was or who Irmin Roberts was. They don’t even really care about what the Dolly Zoom is. All they care about is a momentary rush of superiority of knowing something that someone else doesn’t and using that advantage to belittle and ridicule.
Who was the first person to think of the Dolly Zoom? Who gives a shit. It really doesn’t matter whose idea it was. What matters is what was created. Irmin Roberts working under Alfred Hitchcock cracked the technical difficulties of the Dolly Zoom and created an effect that changed the cinematographer’s toolbox forever.
But even that fact is of questionable importance. Nobody works in a vacuum. Roberts would not have been able to achieve the effect without advancements in zoom lens technology happening at the time and probably a hundred other tiny improvements in tech. We stand on the shoulders of giants in a never-ending game of telephone with the human race. Being “first” is interesting but meaningless – but being influential and inspiring is what drives human history forward.