Slip Sliding Away: Working With Dollies


The biggest bang for the buck in DSLR moviemaking is an inexpensive slider. There’s nothing like a smooth-as-butter dolly shot (technical term) to bring a layer of professionalism to even the shoddiest production. I, of course, know nothing of this, but I did once hear of a cinematographer who liked his opening dolly shot so much that he used it in an ad for children’s theatre, then again as the opening shot in his reel. Seriously.

There are two ways to do this; we’ll deal with the other next week. We’re going to talk about wheels for your tripod. You can spend as much on a professional camera dolly as a small car, but you really don’t have to. I shoot with this one (pictured above), the Tripod Track Dolly Hybrid from Glide Gear. It runs about a couple hundred bucks. It rocks, and is so worth it. This unit includes two sets of wheels—the standard swivels allow one to swan about the floor willy-nilly, while the other contains two offset pairs of wheels. These fit over a track, purpose-made or from-the-local-hardware-store PVC pipe. Guess which I use? I loves me some gear, but a cheap version you can buy at the Ag-Way floats my boat even better.

There are many versions of this setup from a variety of manufacturers, as well. Manfrotto, the sleek Italian hardware company, sells one for about the same price, as well as a $400 version, though it doesn’t have the angled wheels for a track. They seem to prefer the slider, which moves the head, certainly a reasonable approach, but a discussion for a different day and blog post.

Manfrotto Variable Spread Basic Dolly

Meanwhile, back on set, we’re slowly sliding the camera, preferably allowing our scene to reveal itself. A sturdy tripod rigged on a dolly with wheels sitting securely on the track lets you run smoothly, with nary a jerk, and reveals your scene dramatically and professionally.

And then, what if, just because, you tried a shot along the length of the track? And what if you simultaneously zoomed, but not just zoomed, zoomed the opposite direction of where your camera is moving. Mind blown? Calm down, bud, Irmin Roberts, working for some guy named Alfred Hitchcock, did that trick, in the freakin’ ’60s, baby! That’s why those shots in Vertigo are so disturbing and the climax of Marnie so intense. Other names for this trick are zido, zolly, a Hitchcock shot, smash zoom or, my favorite, triple reverse zoom. Makes it sound like a figure-skating move—which it very probably is to shoot. But anytime you’re stealing from Hitchcock, you’re stealing from the best. Well played, my friend, well played, indeed.