*Updated January 2022
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.
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.
A preview of what's to come
- Let’s talk about the dolly shot
- Common misconceptions about the dolly setup
- How filmmakers track on-screen action with a dolly rig
- How advertisers use the dolly shot (and stay within budget)
- Alternative ways to capture steady footage
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.
Each type of camera shot serves a different purpose, but when we mention "dolly shot," 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 dolly shot steady by making adjustments prior to the shoot.
When operating a dolly cart, 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.
Two popular variations of the traditional dolly shot are the Spike Lee dolly shot and the dolly zoom shot.
The Spike Lee dolly shot
The Spike Lee dolly shot, also known as the double dolly shot, is a classic example of how modern filmmakers take a classic technique and give it a new angle.
It’s just like how director Steven Spielberg popularized the shot-reverse-shot technique (i.e., a style inspired by the Kuleshov effect).
Even if you haven’t used the double dolly shot in your own productions, odds are that you can spot it. And that’s because the technique creates a really unique visual effect.
Notice how the two characters in this scene from BlacKkKlansman (2018) glide down the hallway, guns drawn.
In this scene, both actors are standing on the dolly platform with the camera and camera operator. The technique gives the scene a surrealistic feel because the two characters remain stationary even as they’re physically moved forward.
Filmmakers can also get this effect by using a second dolly platform (hence the name “double dolly”).
While Spike Lee is a huge proponent for this shot type, other creators have continued to adapt this shot for their projects as well.
The dolly zoom shot
There’s a big difference between dolly movement and zoom movement, technically speaking. And the difference is that zooming in or out is achieved by adjusting the focal length and camera settings instead of physically moving the camera forward or backward.
The dolly zoom shot (or zolly shot, if you will) is a hybrid shot that combines both techniques. It’s often used by cinematographers to add drama or suspense to a scene.
If you thought there could be no more Spielberg references in this blog, think again. Because, as luck would have it, Spielberg uses a dolly zoom shot in one of the most memorable scenes in film history:
The tension in this scene from Jaws (1975) builds and subsides several times before reaching a climax when the shark attacks.
One moment there’s a shot of the bloody attack, and in the next, the dolly zoom shot focuses on the police chief (Roy Scheider) to emphasize the panic in his reaction.
This is just one example of how focal length adjustments and specific camera movements matter when transforming the mood of an on-screen moment in a significant way.
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) camera dollies 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 dolly shot examples in films and commercials.
How filmmakers track on-screen action with a dolly rig
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 camera dollies 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.
In the next two sections, we’ll break down how our Soundstripe creative team uses dollies to capture steady and cinematic footage for commercial projects.
Shooting cinematic b-roll for video ads
When it comes to using handheld or dolly setups, you can still walk away with steady footage either way. The only caveat is that the camera operator is under a lot more pressure to stabilize the shot when using a handheld, and that’s something we discuss in the video above.
To capture the specific b-roll shot we wanted, we knew that relying on a handheld could create an unpleasant “herky-jerky” (i.e., shaky) effect on the footage. Our solution was to use a Dana Dolly setup so that we could remove the human error out of the equation.
By doing this, we made sure that the motion in the shot was smooth all the way through.
Shooting a commercial
One of the main challenges for shooting the video above was filming the entire car commercial in the same studio location. To create visual appeal and intrigue, we relied on two things: strategic lighting and smooth camera shots.
Even though the car couldn’t be in motion during this shoot because of the location, we were able to give off the illusion of movement by using specific camera techniques and atmospheric elements (i.e., haze through a fan, water, etc.).
To showcase the car in the best way and add to that feeling of movement, we positioned a Dana Dolly setup at headlight level and moved the camera dolly toward the car. This dolly shot became our hero shot, and the central focus of the commercial.
Whether you want to capture smooth b-roll or main footage, you can rely on a dolly setup to get the look you want in less time and with less human error.
Misconceptions about the dolly setup
When the dolly shot is referenced in conversation, your first instinct might be to recall high end dolly setups commonly used in major Hollywood productions.
While camera dollies are a staple for many filmmakers during major productions, that’s not the case for everyone.
Before production starts, you really have to weigh the pros and cons of investing in different types of filming equipment.
You might decide that it’s not in your team’s best interest to spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on new gear. And let’s face it: if there’s a better and more affordable alternative, you probably want to go with that option.
But, even if you don’t end up using a dolly setup to stabilize your footage, try not to rule it out immediately.
If your hesitation stems from any of the following misconceptions, it might be worthwhile to reconsider using a dolly setup for your next project.
"Dolly rigs take hours to set up."
There’s definitely truth to this statement, so much so that your first instinct might be to say, “Why, yes, it does take hours to set up.”
But while it’s often the case, it’s not always the case.
The set up and take down time varies depending on the type of dolly equipment you’re using and how familiar your team is with the gear.
If you’re working with a lightweight tripod dolly, all you have to do is position the gear and start filming. If you need to build a circular dolly track with dozens of pieces, the process is more complex and time-consuming.
So if not having enough time is a major concern for you, you can always use dolly rigs that are small-scale and ready to use as soon as you take them out of the box.
"Other camera stabilizers are way cheaper."
Not every dolly setup is the same. And you have plenty of options when it comes to the type of dolly, the size, and the price point.
If you’re looking for a doorway dolly or another large dolly setup — we’re talking rail system, skater dolly, and the works — then the statement above will be true most of the time.
And in that case, it’s probably more affordable to use a handheld stabilizer or a vest stabilizer, especially if you need a lot of mobility during a shoot.
But you can also save money by opting for a tripod dolly or slider dolly, which are significantly cheaper than the bigger rigs and easier to move from location-to-location.
"They're really only used in filmmaking."
Though dolly shots are commonly used in film production, the gear is by no means exclusively used by filmmakers. Advertisers, videographers, and other creators can adapt (and have adapted) dolly setups for their own projects.
Anytime video production and shot lists are involved, it’s always an option to use dolly shots. So take the time to check out your options and see what fellow creators have to say about the camera dollies they’ve used in the past.
To prove just how versatile this technique is, the next section will shed light on a few alternative ways to get great dolly shots and tracking shots even if you don't have an expensive camera dolly or circular rail track.
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, the crew can be ready on-set with stabilizers like the Steadicam or motorized gimbals like Ronin-SC in minutes.
And if budget bandwidth is a concern, you could try capturing a smooth tracking shot by holding the camera while on roller skates, a skateboard, or a DIY dolly cart.
Though these alternative types of equipment can take a physical toll on the crew after hours of shooting, the gear tends to run at lower price points and result in the same steady shot.
Ultimately, the camera 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.
Hopefully, this article has inspired you to try out different variations of the dolly shot and just have fun with the entire production process — whether you’re working in film production or not.
If you’re looking for even more production-related resources, these articles from the Soundstripe blog cover a wide range of topics from lighting tips to pre-production preparation:
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