Without dynamic moving shots, videos can look, well, old-fashioned. Hand-holding is fine, but without a Steadicam, the results lack the creamy smoothness of dolly shots. Professional dollies (like the Microdolly Hollywood system) are affordable for small enterprises, but you can also make fluid moving shots with just about anything that rolls on wheels.
The classic guerrilla dollies are wheelchairs and shopping carts. Shopping carts are usually no good, because, face it, you have to steal one to use it. Furthermore, after banging around in a supermarket parking lot, the cart wheels are rarely good enough for smooth moves. The four swiveling wheels are tough to control on any kind of slant and one of the four is sure to rattle. Let’s just forget about shopping carts, but it does illustrate an important point: potential dollies are everywhere.
Another option is an industrial cart. They’re great because they’re sturdy, have push bars and large, often pneumatic wheels for smooth rolling. Some examples of industrial cards include food service carts, library carts, factory parts carts, warehouse carts; a great many commercial environments have suitable rolling stock just waiting for you to use.
If you’re an entry-level professional, you might want to invest in a cart of your own. When not rolling along making shots, they’re invaluable for hauling equipment around a location. When buying a cart, look for these essentials:
- Collapsibility: unless you’re working out of a maxivan, you’ll need to fold it for travel.
- Strength: fold-up equipment must be stronger, to maintain rigidity.
- Versatility: look for a model with a removable top shelf/platform, so you can stand on the lower one as you shoot.
- Two-wheel steer: Swivel-front and fixed-rear casters make controlling the unit much easier.
While industrial carts are almost always better than shopping carts, they do have small hard wheels that work best only on really smooth surfaces. Even with a large cart, a tripod may be impractical, so bone up on your hand-holding techniques. Skate, snow and surf boards might be other options, but they can definitely be dangerous, to you and your camcorder.
Wheelchairs are a truly remarkable shooting platform. Besides having huge wheels to minimize small pavement irregularities, they collapse to fit a car trunk or back seat and have a built-in operator’s seat. The safe and stable platform is ideal for the videographer, who can leave the pushing, guiding, and watching-out to a dolly grip. While new wheel chairs are outrageously expensive, second-hand chairs are surprisingly easy to find.
In the old days, wheelchairs allowed only low camera angles because the eye of the seated operator was no more than 48 inches off the deck. The external LCD screens found on all modern camcorders change all that. By swinging and rotating the screen, you can hold the camera at any height your arms can reach.
Wheelchair shooting can work well with a monopod as an accessory. For a higher angle, place the foot on the seat between your legs, extend the column to taste, tilt the view screen to see what you’re shooting and twist the monopod to pan. You can even tilt enough to make running composition corrections, although the “tilt” is technically a shallow arc. By reversing the setup, you can make rolling shots with the lens just inches off the ground. If we could have only one moving platform, a wheelchair would be our choice.
More Exotic Transportation
On an industrial shoot, you can sometimes use big rolling stock like electric carts or working ATVs. I once pulled off a spiffy crane shot from a pallet on the prongs of a forklift (secured to the machine with a war-surplus web belt). Units like cherry pickers and such can be useful for bird’s eye angles, but their motion is usually too jerky for crane shots.
People movers, on the other hand, are smooth as a butter pat on a hot griddle. All you need is good hand-held technique. Escalators are great for massive crane shots and you can find them in many locations, such as in hotels, malls, department stores, terminals and garages. The only downside to escalators is that you are limited by location and the fact that they are very slow. You can use the same gag with airport-style beltways for dollies. Still, you are probably going to have a hard time hiding the fact that you are in an airport.
Glass elevators can be very dramatic, whether in multi-story atriums or on the outside of tall buildings. Because the windows use very thick glass, you can minimize the appearance of scratches and dirt by keeping your camera lens as close as possible without touching. If you have manual focus, set it to infinity to minimize imperfections. A circular polarizer can also help by dialing out reflections.
Shooting from Vehicles
Taping in a vehicle means either shooting outside it or inside it. The most common inside setup is the driver from the passenger’s POV. This is simple to pull off, as long as you don’t brace yourself on a firm surface like the windowsill or dashboard. The big problem is matching backgrounds from one shot to the next or from interiors to exteriors. To minimize background importance, you might try these techniques:
- Shoot from a slightly low angle to get as much sky (and as little street or road) as possible.
- Frame off the windshield. Scenery is more blurred when whizzing by the side.
- Use a neutral density filter, which will let you widen the aperture, which ultimately helps to throw the background out of focus.
For a reverse angle on the front seat passenger, you must put the camcorder near where the driver should be. Check the sidebar for a safe way to do this.
When shooting the world through a vehicle window, the big problem is reflections. This is especially true in a train or tour bus with fixed windows. Again, a circular polarizer will help tame reflections. For tinted windows, set the white balance through the window if you can. When you can open a window or sunroof, just follow good hand-holding practice and don’t touch vibrating surfaces (which is just about anything in a moving vehicle).
A monopod rig is good for safely moving the camcorder outside the car, most often to avoid including the car in the shot. You can also get closeups of the front wheels steering madly on corkscrew roads and similar dramatic effects. To preserve your camcorder, it’s absolutely essential to fit a clear glass filter on your lens. If you’ve ever had a stone hit your windshield, you’ll understand why.
Finally, forget about stunts like shooting from the bed of a pickup truck at all but the slowest speeds. It’s very unsafe unless you’ve been secured with a professional restraining belt and even then, most police officers take a dim view of these hijinks. If you need more flexibility than you can achieve from inside the car, consider getting a car camera mount system.
Contributing Editor Jim Stinson is the author of the book Video Communication and Production.
Sidebar: An Improvised Jib
With a monopod and an LCD monitor, you can position your camcorder where it would be otherwise unsafe. You can also extend your reach up to six feet for all kinds of other difficult setups. If your vision is good enough, you might be able to get by on many shots using your camcorders included LCD. For a more professional setup, you can buy a separate little LCD monitor with input jacks for remote monitoring. Inexpensive models are available and some portable DVD players even have input jacks.
Sidebar: Shooting Tips
Whatever your transportation you use, you’ll often be hand-holding your shot. Here’s a recipe for smooth shots:
- Set the lens to extreme wide angle, to minimize jiggles.
- Use lens stabilization if you have it.
- Turn your arms into shock absorbers by holding elbows relaxed and away from your sides.
- Use the external LCD view screen, for flexibility and to keep your forehead from bonking into the camcorder.
- When tracking subjects at a fixed distance, get a focus and lock it, to prevent passing objects from grabbing the autofocus away from your subject.