It can be difficult to push your audience to identify with the characters while only using camera movement. But it is possible. Today, we’ll review the dolly shot and learn how you can use them creatively to bring the audience into your characters’ world. We’ll also walk you through the process of planning, scheduling, and shooting your own dolly shots in your next project. Hello, Dolly!
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Dolly shots in film
Dolly shot basics
There are only a handful of equipment options when it comes to camera movement. For the most part, camera movement is achieved with one of the following mechanisms: a handheld shot, a Steadicam shot, a crane shot, or a dolly shot. This fundamental type of camera movement is today's subject.
Let's begin with a dolly shot definition, how it compares to a zoom shot, explain what the heck a dolly zoom shot is, and then share some creative dolly shot examples from movies like Interstellar, Joker, Death Proof.
We'll even look at how Spike Lee took the dolly camera movement and made it his own. We'll end with some practical tips on how you could go about shooting your own dolly shots in your next project.
DOLLY SHOT DEFINITION
What is a dolly shot?
A dolly shot is a specific kind of tracking shot where we follow a subject on an apparatus called a dolly. A dolly is a cart that the camera is mounted on, which rolls along dolly track or on its own wheels. Dolly shots are designed to be smooth and controlled camera movements. Dolly shots can be combined with other camera movements like a pan or tilt to accentuate the theme, or message, of the scene.
What is a dolly shot used for?
- Smooth and precise camera movement
- Dolly in towards a subject to emphasize dialogue, emotions, or a moment of realization
- Dolly out away from a subject to capture the environment around them, or emotionally disconnect
A camera dolly is an essential piece of camera gear and it can often be paired with various other types of camera rigs. Here's a video breakdown of each type of camera rig, how they work, and how they add to the "feel" and look of a shot.
The dolly shot is just one of many types of camera movements in film. Here's a complete breakdown of each type along with their storytelling values and how they have contributed to some iconic moments in cinema history.
We know what dolly camera movement is and we've covered our dolly definition. But what is a dolly shot on-screen and what are some of the various applications filmmakers have used?
Before we can answer those questions completely, we need to take just a moment to highlight a common misconception about dolly shots. Specifically, we need to know the difference between a dolly shot and a zoom shot.
WHAT'S A DOLLY SHOT
How to recognize a dolly vs zoom
Both a dolly shot and a zoom shot make your subject larger in the frame. And this is perhaps where the confusion between them comes from. Let's clear this up as quickly and as simply as we can.
- A dolly shot moves the camera towards or away from the subject.
- A zoom shot adjusts the focal length of the camera lens to "magnify" the image but the camera itself doesn't move.
The differences between these two shots are more than just a matter of process, their effects on the image are also worth noting. This video does a great job at explaining how dolly shots and zoom shots produce two very different types of camera shots.
As the video explains, there is actually a way to combine a dolly shot with a zoom to create a completely different type of shot: the dolly zoom. As you saw, dolly zoom shots are in a class all their own.
OK, now that we have our dolly shot definition out of the way, it is time to see what dolly shots look like. As we'll see, the moment you choose to dolly in or dolly out will have a massive impact on how the audience experiences that moment. Let's dive into some great dolly shots!
dolly shot examples
Creative dolly shot examples
The dolly can be used a multitude of different ways we’ll cover later, but let’s dive in to some of the standard moves. Traditionally, the dolly takes us in or out of a scene. We can push in on a face, like this clip from one of the best Christopher Nolan movies, Interstellar where Anne Hathaway's character explains the power of love.
Notice the barely perceptible dolly in as she explains her position. We're not meant to notice this dolly camera movement, but we are meant to feel it. The increase in our connection and sympathy is meant to match the increase in physical proximity.
Other times you can move out of a scene to reveal the scope of where you left the characters or subject of the narrative. A "dolly in" brings us physically and emotionally closer to the subject. Conversely, a "dolly out" can create physical and emotional distance.
There are a number of reasons why you would want this. Let's look at this early scene from Joker — watch the dolly camera movement as Arthur lays on the ground after the attack. The shot begins at 3:06.
So far, we've seen how to define dolly shots with forward and backward camera movement, but let's not forget about side-to-side. Parallel tracking shots like this excellent example from Moonrise Kingdom require the precision and control of a dolly camera set up.
Watch as Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) makes his way through Camp Ivanhoe. Not only do we get to the various activities and characters present, the dolly tracking shot matches Ward's rigidity. In other words, the dolly camera movement is "motivated" by and paired to the personality of the character.
And, finally, let's talk about dolly camera movement that goes not forward, backward, or sideways, but around. Camera dolly track can be constructed in either straight or curved setups. In this case, from Tarantino's Death Proof, we have a lunchtime conversation covered by a single circular dolly shot. Warning: NSFW language ahead!
One of the advantages of a circular dolly shot like this is that you can reinforce the camaraderie of the group. Another bonus is that you can avoid shooting coverage of the scene with close-ups and over the shoulder shots and get it all done in a "oner."
EXAMPLE OF DOLLY SHOTS IN FILM
The Spike Lee dolly shot example
Spike Lee burst onto the scene with She’s Gotta Have It, but became part of the mainstream when one of Lee's best movies, Do The Right Thing came out in 1989. Lee employed a completely unique take on the shot to allow us to travel with his characters.
As you can see in this montage from Spike Lee's work, the effect is used in a variety of ways. Some people think that it’s disruptive. It reminds the audience they’re in a movie and he’s giving them a point of view.
He’s letting us know he believes the story on screen. And we should too. The shot completely solidifies the themes and emotions stirring within the story.
Professional Camera Dolly Tips
How to plan and shoot dolly shots
We've reviewed the many ways a dolly shot in film can enhance a shot. And while you might assume that camera dolly movement is basically straightforward (it is), there are a few things to understand. In this section, we'll go through some basic considerations for how to shoot a dolly shot and how to get the most out of them.
Step 1: Storyboarding and Shot Listing
So you have the perfect scene for an elegant dolly shot. Now what? You need to put it in a shot list so your DP can anticipate and prep during the Pre-Production process. These shots take lots of planning.
You want capture all these important details in your shot list. With StudioBinder, these details are already listed as options, so you only need to check them. This allows you to create creative combinations that make your movie come to life.
Step 2: Budgeting
In filmmaking, "time is money" have never been more true. Therefore, the decision to use dolly camera movement in a scene shouldn't be decidedly lightly.
Even using the best gear rental houses, any "extra" gear will add up when crafting a film budget. But the total cost of renting a dolly and dolly track isn't the end of it — don't forget the time requirements.
The setup and striking of a camera dolly rig should be discussed in advance. This is to make sure you can actually afford to include these shots in your project.
You've probably seen elaborate or massive camera dolly rigs on larger Hollywood productions. Sure, they have the budget, so why not? For lower budgets, something like the image below works just as well. A simple tip on how get a Hollywood look without the Hollywood budget.
Step 3: Equipment
If you recall our dolly definition, we know that the camera rides along either straight or curved tracks. Some camera dolly setups can be quite complicated and take a lot of time to construct. Here's a great video on how to set up dolly track.
And specific camera movements matter too. Are you moving forward, backward? Circular? Zooming? What camera lens do you need? Do you need a crane on the dolly? Making sure you have all of your equipment needs planned out ahead of time is essential.
Step 4: Location Scouting and Set Design
After you've planned, budgeted and got the proper equipment lined up, don't forget about where you're planning on shooting. If you're shooting in an existing location, will there be enough room? Maybe the terrain of the exterior location is too unlevel or rocky to successfully level and balance your dolly track.
Of course, scouting a location is much more involved so watch this video to make sure you have everything considered.
There are just some of the questions you should be asking when it comes to locations. You’ll have to scout with our ultimate location scouting checklist for where to lay tracks, and clear the terrain so you get the smoothest shot possible.
Step 5: Scheduling
A crucial element in adding a dolly shot or dolly camera movement to your shot list is time. As we've seen, setting up dolly track, making it smooth and level, takes extra time.
This requires some skill in scheduling a shoot. When do you add your dolly shots to your shooting schedule? There is always a clear hierarchy of scheduling considerations to be mindful of, so make sure you have everything in order. This is where StudioBinder comes in.
One quick tip is to schedule any complicated shot for your first shot of the day. Anytime extra setup or equipment is involved, set the crew's call time earlier on the call sheet so that everything be set up in advance.
Step 6: Shooting
Everything has been planned and scheduled — the only thing left is to actually shoot! Remember, dolly shots in film production add a lot of production value but the can be time-consuming.
Here's a quick video with some behind the scenes footage of dolly shots and dolly camera movement in action.
Explore different camera movements
We've covered the dolly shot but there are many other camera movements to discuss. As you amass your camera movement repertoire, you will be able to amplify your visual storytelling exponentially. You're already on your way but the only question is which camera movement will you dive into next?