How to Use Dolly Shots in Your Films

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Photo Source: “Malcolm X” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Leaving the camera solely on sticks can result in a boring final cut. But handheld camerawork can come off sloppy and shoddy. So how can a director or cinematographer ensure a film’s dynamism and provide professional movement?

Enter the dolly. Originally invented in 1907 by Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón, the camera dolly is a clean intersection between engineering and artistry that can provide a film project that extra level of invigoration it needs.

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What is a dolly shot?

Dollygnepphoto/Shutterstock

A dolly shot is a filming technique that allows a camera to follow a subject in action.

“If you’re unfamiliar,” with a camera dolly, says director Jacob Reed (“Jimmy Kimmel Live!”), “imagine a small railroad track that a camera platform can move around on.” 

Indeed, a dolly is a wheeled platform that locks into a set of tracks. Thus, if you place the camera atop this wheeled platform, you can create camera movements that read as smooth and controlled. Typically, the dolly shot is conceived by the director and/or DP, and executed by a combination of the DP, camera operator, camera assistant, focus puller, and specialized dolly grip.

There are several types of fundamental shots you can execute with a dolly:

  • Dolly in: This is where a camera dolly pushes forward toward a subject, generally changing the composition from a wide or medium into a close-up.
  • Dolly out: The opposite of a dolly in, where the rig backs up to move from a medium shot or close-up into a wide shot.
  • Dolly zoom: Either dolly the camera in while zooming the lens out, or dolly the camera out while zooming the lens in. This results in a dolly zoom (or “zolly”), an effect wherein the background seems to close in on or expand outward from the subject, who remains in their same focal length.
  • Dolly tracking: Cinematographer Dana Shihadah (“They Want Me Gone”) defines tracking as “following alongside a subject as they move, usually filming profile to the character.” Instead of moving the camera forward or backward, the dolly track follows the subject on a horizontal plane, moving left or right to track the subject’s action.
  • Double dolly: As the title suggests, a double dolly involves placing both the camera and the subject on a dolly track. When executed, this can frame the subject as if they’re floating, displaying “a character’s detachment from the world around them,” says Reed.
  • 360-degree dolly: Place your subject in the center of a circular dolly track, then move the camera dolly in a circle around them. Reed says this can result in a dolly shot that highlights “how epic a character is, or how much they’re up against in the environment around them.”

Sometimes when discussing movement in film, folks can conflate dolly shots with Steadicam, any other kind of tracking shot, or even a traditional zoom. To put it simply, Reed reminds us that “in a dolly shot the camera is actually on a dolly track. Steadicam is a specific kind of rig a DP can operate while moving the camera” to create an effect of stabilized, or steady, movement. “A zoomed shot is when you literally zoom in, changing the focal length on a zoom lens, rather than physically moving the camera.”

When to use a dolly shot

Michael Bay - Ambulance Michael Bay on the set of “Ambulance” Credit: Andrew Cooper/Universal Pictures

“When setting up a dolly shot,” says Shihadah, “the first step is to decide what the mission of the shot is. What are we trying to show [and] tell the audience?” Each specific dolly shot can serve a different dramatic function in your project, but we can broadly define a dolly shot’s purpose as being tracked (no pun intended) to the subject or the environment (or both!) of a film.

  • The subject: If you dolly in to your subject, we literally become closer to them, which translates into a feeling of interior closeness, as well. Conversely, if we dolly out from a subject, we move farther away from them, suggesting a level of psychological remove or concern. If we use a double dolly on our subject, it can suggest they’re so psychologically removed that the world is literally passing them by. Using a dolly zoom can suggest a subject is either more isolated or more crushed by their surroundings than ever before.
  • The environment: When dollying out, tracking from side to side, or spinning around a subject in a circle, previously unseen information about a subject’s environment is revealed in a kinetic, memorable way.
  • Why not both? Oftentimes, the most effective dolly shots will reveal something about both our subject and our environment. A 360-degree dolly or a dolly out can show us both where a subject exists and how we should feel about that subject’s attitude. A dolly in can start as a wide that reveals the environment before closing in on the subject, landing on their emotional state. And a dolly tracking shot can show us the depth of a subject’s journey on both sides of the formula.

Ultimately, it can be counterproductive to use a dolly shot just to show off a fancy camera move. “I think the best dolly shots are the ones that don’t feel like dolly shots because you’re so engrossed in the action, the character, or the story,” says Reed. “Like any shot, I think the most important thing is that it feels motivated by what the audience is seeing and experiencing and amplifies that instead of just being a stylistic flourish.”

Dolly shot tips and considerations

Dolly shotFOTOGRIN/Shutterstock

Beyond the creative implications of using a dolly shot, there are several practical and technical issues to look out for. 

  • Schedule: “Dolly shots can require huge amounts of time to execute properly,” warns Shihadah, “so it is vital that the team plans out the shots as much as possible before shooting.” 
  • Additional blocking: Shihadah also suggests making a list of what you’re dealing with in your dolly shot: “Are we involving character movement? Where is our starting and ending point? What is the trajectory of the camera? What gear needs to be out of the way? What needs to be seen and when?”
  • Space: Dolly tracks can take up a lot of room on a set, so Reed suggests considering “how much space is needed for the track and how big the location or set is.” 
  • Budget: Dolly tracks can be an expensive and roomy investment, so consider renting via services such as ShareGrid instead of going out and buying one sight unseen. Or, consider no-budget options such as strapping a camera to a wheelchair or, as Shihadah did on the set of feature film “Pet Names,” using a car: “We decided a shot of a character running needed movement, and since we did not have a dolly on…the ultra-low budget set I jumped in my car and had someone drive as I filmed alongside the character and accomplished the movement of a ‘traditional’ dolly tracking shot.”

Dolly shot examples

Dollygnepphoto/Shutterstock

Dolly in

“Citizen Kane”

Director Orson Welles and DP Gregg Toland cover this scene with a slow dolly in, capturing their subject’s power first with his ornate office, then with exacting detail on his face.

“Full Metal Jacket”

While Gunnery Sergeant Hartman berates his cadets, director Stanley Kubrick and DP Douglas Milsome slowly dolly in, revealing both the sheer number of soldiers and an impending sense of dread.

“Breaking Bad,” Season 5, Episode 16: “Felina”

The series finale of Breaking Bad, directed by Vince Gilligan with DPs Arthur Albert and Michael Slovis, features a favorite dolly in of Reed: “The scene where Walt says goodbye to Skyler has a beautifully simple reveal where Skyler appears to be on the phone alone but as the dolly tracks through the room, our perspective shifts revealing Walt has been with her the whole time, standing behind a column that obscured our view. In my opinion, this kind of dolly shot has become a trademark of Gilligan’s directing style, where meticulously thought-out staging is combined with a relatively simple camera movement to create a huge reveal.”

Dolly out

“Submarine”

“Submarine” is a favorite film of Shihadah’s for its use of “all kinds of dolly shots,” she says. “Each use is deliberate and charming without going overboard, utilizing editing to add creative flair to some otherwise tired tropes.” Here, director Richard Ayoade and DP Erik Wilson dolly out to suggest anxiety in their subject.

Kanye West, “Power”

Director Marco Brambilla crafted this music video around a single-shot, CGI-assisted dolly out, as we slowly reveal the magnitude of the artist’s, well, power.

Dolly zoom

“Vertigo”

Perhaps the most famous use of a dolly zoom, director Alfred Hitchcock and DP Robert Burks use the effect to convey Scottie Ferguson’s paralyzing fear of heights.

“Jaws”

As police chief Martin Brody realizes a killer shark has attacked, director Steven Spielberg and DP Bill Butler pull off a razor sharp, quickly paced dolly zoom—accompanied by John Williams’ spooky strings to match.

“Goodfellas”

In this longer-paced, subtler dolly zoom, director Martin Scorsese and DP Michael Ballhaus slowly crash the world in on mobsters James Conway and Henry Hill to communicate their ever-growing paranoia. 

Dolly tracking

“Oldboy”

In this iconic, one-take fight scene, Oh Dae-su desperately wards off a group of gangsters as director Park Chan-wook and DP Chung-hoon Chung simply track left and right.

“Moonrise Kingdom”

“A champion of classic dolly movements is Wes Anderson,” says Shihadah, “who utilizes basic dolly setups to emphasize dialogue or action at specific moments, hiding and revealing what we as the audience sees.” 

Here, as scout master Randy Ward inspects Camp Ivanhoe, Anderson and DP Robert Yeoman constantly dolly track on a horizontal plane, revealing Randy’s fastidious attention to detail and the immaculately composed world of the camp.

Double dolly

“BlacKkKlansman”

Director Spike Lee is known for his double dolly shots. In 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee and DP Chayse Irvin use it to disrupt any sense of finality or victory in their lead characters’ world.

Philip Labes, “Something to Believe”

In this music video directed by Reed with DP Carissa Dorson, the filmmaking team “faked a double dolly using rear projection and then pulled out at the end of the video to pull the rug out from the illusion.” (Watch a making-of video here.)

360-degree dolly

“Bad Boys II”

The 36-degree dolly is a signature shot of director Michael Bay. Here, Bay and DP Amir Mokri heighten the 360-degree dolly to an almost self-parodic level, using the dolly move combined with CGI to create a constantly encircling shootout.

“The Avengers”

In this landmark MCU moment, director Joss Whedon and DP Seamus McGarvey show all of the titular heroes in the same shot for the first time, circling around them to highlight their awe-striking visages.

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