It is perhaps the most common camera movement of all -- the dolly shot. Used by filmmakers of all calibers, from Hollywood’s most famous to beginners, the dolly shot can aid in telling a richer story, revealing the mind of a character, and taking the audience on a journey through a scene. In fact, some of the most famous shots have been dolly shots. When executed well, this camera movement can add richness to your film and keeps the audience engaged.
What is a Dolly?
A dolly is a cart-mounted with a camera that moves along a set of tracks. There are plenty of dolly hacks for productions lacking the space or budget to build out the tracks, and we will give you a few options later on.
Why use a Dolly?
There are many reasons to use a dolly shot and they should be shot-listed in line with the drama or action of the script. Use dolly shots to draw in the viewer’s attention, reveal a location and create depth. A well-planned camera movement like the dolly shot can reveal details in a setting, show a character’s emotions without a word and heighten the tension in a scene.
Types of Dolly shots
Traditionally, the dolly shot is a push/pull movement that takes the viewer in or out of a scene, however, it has many variations.
The most classic dolly shot is the slow push-in called the dolly in. It invites the audience into the scene, can be used to introduce a character or a setting, and is engaging even when the character is not moving. It focuses attention on the main performance or event.
Dollying out, or pulling the camera away from the scene has the opposite effect. It draws the audience out of the drama or even poses a question. You can see it effectively used in the TV drama, “Mad Men.” The slow speed of the camera pulling away signifies the emotion of the characters as the episode ends. It invites the viewer back next week.
The dolly zoom, also called a zolly, is an in-camera effect that undermines standard visual perception. It’s achieved by dollying in or out while simultaneously zooming the opposite direction. So, as the camera moves in, for example, the lens zooms out. This creates a dizzying, even psychedelic effect.
It’s sometimes called the “Vertigo” effect because of a famous scene in Hitchcock's thriller of the same name. Jimmy Stewart, whose character is afraid of heights, is seen climbing terrifyingly steep stairs in a bell tower. When he looks down, we see what he perceives -- the stairs appear to shift and move as the camera dollies out (up) the stairwell while the lens also zooms in. This dizzying visual effect mirrors his anxiety. The frantic strings and crescendo of horns add a similarly disorienting soundtrack to heighten the tension.
One of the most famous dolly zooms is in “Jaws” when Chief Brody realizes his children are in the water with a killer shark.
Dolly tracking shot
A dolly tracking shot is exactly what it sounds like -- it combines dolly and tracking shots into one. So as the subject moves, the dolly moves alongside it, tracking the character through a setting, whether the character is walking down a city street or running down a dirt road.
The 360 Dolly shot
The 360 dolly shot moves the camera in a full orbit around the subject. It can be employed to show a character entering a tense or unfamiliar setting or to reveal emotion. The easiest way to achieve this shot is with a steadicam or gimbal, but circular dolly tracks can also be used.
Spike Lee Dolly shot
Named after the famous director, the Spike Lee Dolly Shot puts the actor and the camera on the same dolly. The effect is untraditional and disruptive. It causes the audience to become aware of the camera. It became Lee’s signature early on and gives his films a stylistic hallmark.
Dolly with secondary camera movement
Easily add a secondary camera movement during your dolly such as tilting, panning, or rolling the camera. This technique is used to draw attention to something specific or to follow a character’s movements.
The dolly movement is often used for heightened dramatic effect, but not only in classic films. In the 'We Are the Creators' commercial, you can see a dolly in with a tilt-up of the camera for a power shot of the guerilla film crew.
Dolly equipment varies greatly and what you use will depend on your budget, location, and schedule.
The cinema platform dolly is the top of the line for big-budget productions and is the largest piece of equipment.
Next down on the list is the doorway dolly, a flat, stable platform with wheels. It’s a bare-bones dolly that can fit through doorways that can be used in lieu of a cinema platform dolly.
A slider is a small dolly with rails on which you mount your camera directly. The slider can move in/out or left/right depending on the orientation of your camera. It can be used on small sets, outdoors, and is more cost-effective to use than larger dollies on which a camera operator sits.
A tripod dolly simply means adding wheels to your tripod and is another affordable option because you can use existing equipment. The largest drawback is the need for a very smooth surface otherwise the movement will not be smooth
Steadicams have been used for ages in production. It’s a handheld stabilizer on which a camera mounts that employs counterweights, springs, and balancing.
Alternatively, a three-axis gimbal utilizes electronic motors to stabilize the camera, much like a gyroscope. Three-axis gimbals typically operate on a pistol grip and come in various sizes to accommodate DSLRs of different weights. The gimbal can swivel on three axes, allowing for a variety of camera movements with the movement of the operator’s wrist or the joystick button. The motors stabilize the tilt, pan, and roll of the camera.
Don’t have the budget, space, time, or crew to install a dolly track? You don’t have to. Get creative with wheeled transportation to create the smooth camera movements of a dolly.
A two-person operation, the wheelchair is an ideal way to move the camera without having to install a dolly track.
Cars, trucks, and vans have long been used as dollies in both low budget productions and Hollywood blockbusters. The camera can either be mounted to the vehicle or held by a camera operator who films either through the window, from a truck bed, or with the tailgate down to get a lower angle. This works for car scenes and tracking shots.
Roller skates provide the camera operator an agile way to move through a set, especially when following a subject or showing a panorama. They’re great for longer tracking shots where installing dolly rails wouldn’t be practical. Of course, operating a camera on roller skates requires experience on wheels and can be risky, so practice, practice, practice without the camera before you mount up.
Not for the novice skateboarder! Skilled skateboarders have often incorporated gimbals, Gopros and other stabilized cameras to get smooth footage. Just be careful to keep your eyes on the road!
Not a hands-free option, but an electric scooter operated in conjunction with a gimbal can lead to smooth movement. However, t isn’t safe unless you have a separate driver and camera operator. Even then, the balance is tricky!
A onewheel is like an electric skateboard on a balance ball. They have become increasingly popular among filmmakers because they can be operated hands-free and allow for smooth movement when used with a gimbal.
Drones obviously allow for greater freedom than even a traditional dolly because no tracks are required. When operated in tripod mode, the DJI Mavic series moves slow and steady and can be used to move in, out, and around a scene quite easily. Drones can also be programmed to move from point A to point B, allowing for just as much precision as a set of dolly tracks with a camera mount.
Sometimes building something custom is the best way to tailor your equipment, save money and learn something new. Check out the many DIY tutorials around the web.
Always remember Towelie's wise words: Don't forget to bring a towel! If you can't get hold of any of the above-mentioned hacks, just put your camera on a towel and slide it. Watch this tutorial to see exactly how to do it.
Like the handheld shot, the dolly shot can increase your video's production value. You can even do it on a minimal budget and it can add a layer of richness to your film, so don’t be afraid to incorporate it into your script today!
Jessica Peterson is a travel and documentary filmmaker with a background in journalism and marketing. She has 20 years of experience producing content in 114 cities and 25 countries. In 2016, she directed and produced her own documentary about her then-home of Guam. Working under the name Global Girl Travels, her clients include CNN, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Matador Network, and Tastemade.