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How to Use the Dolly Shot in Films and Commercials

Dolly shots have become a favored technique for many creators — especially those looking to remove the human error out of stabilizing a long tracking shot.

By moving a dolly along a straight or curved track, you can capture any on-screen moment with seamless camera movement. 

Famously used in Hollywood productions, dolly shots allow filmmakers to keep pace with the actors in a scene as they move from one place to the next. 

When paired with suspenseful music and strategic lighting, the dolly technique can also be used to build tension. 

The forward or retreating movement of the camera puts the viewer in a state of unease, simulating that they are physically moving closer or away from whatever or whoever is the central focus on-screen.

The use of a dolly isn’t always apparent to viewers watching a film or video for the first time. Unless a viewer knows the video production process — and is on the lookout for signs of the dolly shot — the technique may be so subtly executed that it goes unnoticed. 

Then again, a dolly shot is easily recognizable because of this subtlety in movement. 

As you fine-tune the shot list for an upcoming project, you may believe that a dolly shot is the best option for achieving a specific on-screen effect. 

This technique is popularly adopted by creators for good reason, but the dolly setup itself isn’t a feasible investment for every production team. 

Whatever your production budget may be, this article takes a look behind the curtain at how other creators capture dolly shots with a traditional setup or innovate to get the same quality shot without breaking their budget.    

 

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Let's Talk About the Dolly Shot

The dolly shot derives its name from the equipment used to capture the shot — namely, a wheeled cart that houses the camera and runs along a track system. 

When this type of camera shot is referenced in conversation, your first instinct might be to recall high end dolly setups commonly used in major Hollywood productions. 

While the dolly moves along a set path, the operator manning the camera can use secondary camera movements such as panning and tilting to capture the action on-screen. Oftentimes, a dolly shot is used as a tracking shot to follow one actor’s movements. 

A signature perk of this technique is that you can set up a dolly track system on sand, grass, snow, or other uneven surfaces and keep the shot steady by making adjustments prior to the shoot. 

Though dolly shots are commonly used in film productions, the technique is by no means exclusively used by filmmakers. Advertisers, videographers, and other creators can adapt (and have adapted) dolly setups for their own projects. 

When operating a dolly system, there are a few different approaches you can take. You can either move the dolly in on the action, away from the action, or around the action by way of a circular track.    

To provide a more well-rounded look into the adoption of this technique, the next sections will spotlight a few specific examples of the dolly shot in films and commercials. 

How Filmmakers Track On-Screen Action with a Dolly Rig

Moonrise Kingdom

 

In this scene from Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012), a dolly rig is used to track Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) as he makes his way from his tent to the dining table. 

As he pauses to greet — or more accurately inspect — the campers, the dolly operator zooms in on specific details like the lanyard or adjusts the shot other ways. 

Near the two minute mark, the dolly camera moves away from the dining table to provide a wider view of the scene. Moments later, the dolly camera moves closer to Scout Master Ward as he checks to see if Sam (Jared Gilman) is in his tent. 

The Book of Eli

 

The dolly shot in this scene from the Hughes Brothers’ The Book of Eli (2010) begins at the 2:17 minute mark. 

Unlike the dolly track system in Moonrise Kingdom, the filmmakers use a circular track to create this 360 dolly shot. The technique heightens the tension in the scene, capturing the fight from all angles and containing the action within the track at the same time. 

The audience watches as people from outside of the frame enter into the shot and attack Eli (Denzel Washington), who is the central focus of the shot. In doing so, the ambush is further dramatized. 

By using this technique, viewers — like Eli — are given mere seconds notice before another character joins in on the attack.

How Advertisers Use the Dolly Shot

On the corporate side of video production, dolly shots are commonly used to emphasize the appeal of an advertised product. 

In lieu of dramatic fight sequences like the one in The Book of Eli, advertisers use dolly setups on straight or circular tracks to add cinematic appeal to their commercials and video advertisements. 

In the video below, cinematographer Jim Ross points out that advertisers and other creators who want to capture a dolly shot might opt to rent rather than buy the equipment at first. 

He goes on to share a main benefit to using a dolly setup for your next commercial, which is that you have the flexibility to build a circular track around the product — regardless of the product’s weight or location.  

Alternative Ways to Capture Steady Footage

There is a reason — well, several reasons — why filmmakers and other creators invest in dolly shot rigs. The equipment allows for a steady, continuous shot without being physically taxing on the camera operator.

But though a dolly setup may be a smart investment for one production team, it might not be for another team. 

The tradeoff for many creators is mobility. 

While a dolly setup takes hours or even days to set up and level, camera operators can be ready on-set with stabilizers like the Steadicam or motorized gimbals like Ronin-SC in minutes. 

Though these alternative types of equipment can take a physical toll on the camera operator after hours of shooting, the gear tends to run at lower price points and result in the same steady shot. 

Ultimately, the gear that provides the best results for one creator might not work for you, and vice versa. 

While a dolly shot rig can offer a big pay-off in the long-term, it’s important to know that you have the option to use alternative gear to capture a seamless shot for your film, commercial, or other upcoming project. 

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