Most video cameras have lenses capable of silky-smooth zooms. So why is zooming so scarcely included in professional video production? The answer lies in the human experience.
With the occasional exception of superheroes, human beings are incapable of zooming with their eyes. Since it’s not a human experience, a zoom shines a light on the trickery happening behind the video production curtain and snaps the audience from make-believe to reality. Filmmakers want their audience to stay engaged with the story and not become distracted by the technical choices made to create the production.
Here we’ll explore the equipment and techniques used to produce smooth camera movements that seem natural to an audience. Recognizing that most filmmakers lack a Hollywood-sized budget, we’ll look at affordable and simple ways to create stable, yet fluid, camera movement.
Translating human experience
Almost all camera movements and visual transitions used in video production mimic the human experience. This makes film seem more like real life and less like the two-dimensional digital deception that it really is.
For example, panning a camera on a horizontal plane — left to right or right to left — imitates the turning of the human head. Similarly, pivoting a head vertically — up and down — is expressed visually as a camera “tilt.” In the language of visual storytelling, the cut, as a visual transition, is like the blink of an eye. The fade to/from black effect is like falling asleep and waking up. All of these are natural human experiences.
If a human wants to get a closer look at an object, they simply move closer. Zoom lenses use optical trickery to make distant objects look closer, but they don’t mimic the human experience. What’s the solution? A dolly shot.
Dolly shot 101
Powerful, extended-length shots that mimic the human experience of moving about an environment become possible with a dolly. A typical dolly shot spans one long take without any editing. The long take presents logistical challenges, but the cinematic payoff of the dolly shot is huge.
A video production dolly is a device that lets a camera glide about freely. A dolly allows a camera to move towards or away from an object — just like a human. In its most rudimentary form, a dolly consists of wheels attached to the bottom of each leg of a tripod. The result is a rolling platform that is essentially the same as placing a tripod on a flatbed furniture dolly.
A high-end professional dolly offers silky-smooth hydraulic lifts to raise and lower the camera, various steering modes, a place for a camera operator to sit and a steering handle for an assistant called a “dolly grip” to push and steer the dolly.
Limitations and solutions
The dolly works great on perfectly smooth studio floors, but one cannot expect a glass-like surface outside a studio. Walkways have bumps, houses have uneven transitions from hard flooring to carpet, and it’s impossible to smoothly roll a dolly on a baseball field.
What’s the solution? Place a dolly on a specially designed track, somewhat like a roller coaster. With this, the audience could assume the point of view of a student walking down a high school hallway, experiencing the view as if it is through the student’s eyes. Or, you can take your audience gliding along with two skateboarders as they skate on a bumpy, wooden beach-front boardwalk. If the camera’s angle is perpendicular to the movement of the skateboarders, showing them in profile, it’s technically a tracking shot, rather than a dolly shot. Either way, the tracks make smooth camera work possible.
Dolly shot elevated
A few distinguished filmmakers have elevated the use of the dolly shot to the next level. Particularly noteworthy are two techniques: the dolly zoom and the double dolly.
The dolly zoom effect involves zooming while simultaneously using a dolly to move the camera. The result is a dizzying effect pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock in the church tower scene in “Vertigo” (1958). The audience actually experiences the fear of heights as if through the protagonist’s eyes.
The dolly zoom effect was also used to express Chief Brody’s utter horror when he witnesses a shark attack in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975).
Spike Lee used his signature double dolly, where the talent and camera are both on a dolly, in “BlacKkKlansman” (2018). This gives the appearance that the actors are moving down a hallway, yet they appear motionless as the hallway eerily glides past them.
Getting your own dolly
Does a track system sound interesting but undoubtedly outside your production budget? Owning a professional dolly built by a legendary company like Chapman is well beyond the financial reach of most filmmakers. Most choose to rent this type of highly specialized equipment.
Let’s look at low-cost — and even no-cost — alternatives. There are many YouTube tutorials that describe how to build low-cost, do-it-yourself track systems using inexpensive materials like plastic tubing and skateboard wheels.
An office chair with smooth wheels can act as a dolly. The camera operator sits in the chair while an assistant pushes and steers. Other items with wheels can function as a dolly, like carts, rollerblades, wheelchairs or a child’s wagon.
There are other methods to get affordable, smooth camera motion. Specialized handheld, stabilized cameras produced by companies like DJI provide a way to capture footage that can mimic a dolly shot. The mechanical stabilization system smooths out the bumps and can produce steady, fluid camera movement.
You may already have a drone in your filmmaker’s toolbox. If so, a carefully planned drone shot could produce results like a dolly as it tracks along with a bike race. Some drones even have an auto-follow feature that is perfect for tracking a person or object in motion.
Maybe you don’t even need wheels. Have you ever noticed tennis balls placed on the back legs of a walker? Those are to help the legs slide on smooth surfaces. The same idea will work on a tripod, allowing you to glide it on a smooth, slippery hardwood floor.
The Steadicam is another device that produces smooth camera movement like the dolly shot. It allows a camera operator to walk when shooting while the Steadicam works its mechanical magic of suppressing harsh camera movements. The film “Nomadland,” which won an Oscar for best picture and directing at the 2021 Academy Awards, used a Steadicam to capture long walking shots that artfully followed the protagonist as they explored locations.
A crane operates like a dolly on steroids by mounting a camera at the end of a long hydraulic boom arm. Like the cherry picker used to maintain power lines, the camera operator is at the top. The crane gets its mobility by attachment to a special truck. In the stunning opening of the classic “Touch of Evil” (1958), Orson Welles chose a crane to capture over three minutes of meticulously choreographed action.
When to use a dolly shot
Dollies help filmmakers show their audience the depth and size of a location in a very natural way. But, successfully pulling off the shot in one long take requires precise planning. Filmmakers usually use dolly shots sparingly for a few critical shots. Examples might be an intensely emotional scene, an establishing shot at the beginning of a production or the story’s climax.
It may be hard to resist using that variable-speed power zoom lens. That lens offers a great means to set up framing before you record. But remember, the dolly shot offers a much more powerful cinematic expression because it translates to a more human experience.