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Arts & Entertainment

How to Use Dolly Shots to Transform Your Film

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: May 14, 2020 • 5 min read

A dolly shot is a television and filmmaking technique that helps directors and cinematographers add depth to a scene. A camera dolly system makes it possible to achieve smooth camera movements and create cinematic effects that can bring a whole new layer to your movie.

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What Is a Dolly Shot?

To create a dolly shot, a camera is mounted to a dolly, which is a platform on four wheels that travels along a set of rail tracks. The camera operator moves the camera dolly either toward the subject (dolly in), away from the subject (dolly out), or side to side across the scene (dolly tracking) to capture smooth, controlled footage. Camera dollies are usually controlled by the camera operator, the camera assistant, and the dolly grip in most film productions.

Another way filmmakers can shoot a dolly shot is with a dolly cart, which moves on a set of wheels rather than on a track. However, dolly carts require a smooth surface on which to roll the dolly wheels, otherwise, the wheels may catch on an uneven surface and compromise the steadiness of the shot.

5 Types of Dolly Shots

There are a few types of dolly shots that are used in filmmaking.

  1. Dolly in: To dolly in, the camera dolly moves toward the subject, producing a close-up camera shot. As the dolly pushes in on the subject, the camera operator may need to manually adjust the focus during this shot.
  2. Dolly out: To dolly out, the camera operator moves the dolly away from the subject. Just as in a dolly in, as the dolly moves away from the subject in this shot, the camera operator may need to manually keep the subject in focus.
  3. Dolly zoom: The camera zooms out as the dolly pushes the camera toward the subject in this type of shot. The dolly zoom shot can bring the background closer or make it seem farther away while the subject on-screen remains the same size, creating an optical illusion. This is different from a standard zoom shot, which merely magnifies the whole image.
  4. Dolly tracking: The dolly tracking shot allows the camera to track a character as they travel across the frame. In this type of dolly shot, the camera moves left and right on a dolly track rather than forward and backward, revealing the scope of the world as the character moves through it.
  5. Double dolly: The double dolly shot was made popular by legendary director Spike Lee. A double dolly shot involves a traditional dolly set up with the camera and camera operator on one dolly, with the addition of an actor placed directly across from the camera either on the same dolly platform or a separate dolly.
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How to Use a Dolly Shot

Dolly shots can create an array of effects that can transform your film.

  1. Reveal the environment. Filmmakers can use dolly shots to give viewers a true scope of the film’s setting and where the character exists within it. An example of this is when a scene starts close-in on a subject then gradually pulls out, the subject stays in the frame while the dolly movement slowly exposes more of the environment.
  2. Create intimacy. Slowly dollying in on a subject closes the distance between them and the audience, bringing us closer to the character, and creating a sense of emotional connection and intimacy.
  3. Create isolation. When you dolly in and the camera zooms out, the dolly moves forward as the background appears to extend behind the subject, keeping the subject the same size on-screen. This can have an isolating effect, as everything moves away from the character, amplifying how alone they are. You can also achieve this feeling by moving the camera and zoom in the opposite direction. By moving the camera back while zooming in on the frame, the background inches closer, closing in around the subjects until they’re the only ones in the scene.
  4. Introduce obstacles. Dolly shots are also good for introducing obstacles, like characters facing a physical challenge. The dolly shot can create a feeling of doom or despair as the real world stretches and warps beyond them, suddenly seeming much more out of reach or dangerous for the character.
  5. Produce psychological effects. Dolly shots can make the environment appear to bend and narrow, creating a dizzying or surreal feeling. These shots are sometimes used to portray drug use, paranoia, or mental illness in a film.

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5 Examples of Dolly Shots

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From Poltergeist to Malcolm X, there are a variety of examples of great dolly shots throughout movie history.

  1. Vertigo (1958). Alfred Hitchcock made the dolly shot famous in this feature film, where he portrays two characters climbing up the stairs to dizzying heights, enhancing this feeling by showing the stairwell stretch with a dolly zoom when one of the characters looks down.
  2. Malcolm X (1992). Spike Lee’s double dolly is used in the lead-up to the film’s climax. Malcolm X (played by Denzel Washington) is shown moving down the street leading to his eventual assassination. The double dolly shot is used to capture Malcolm X’s stoicism in the face of death and the plodding inevitability of his demise.
  3. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001). Director Peter Jackson uses a dolly zoom shot to represent dark forces in a shot where points the camera into a forest and dollies backward as he zooms the camera in. This creates a distorted effect that makes it look like the forest is closing in on the character, Frodo.
  4. Poltergeist (1982). As the mother runs up the stairs, rushing to her daughter’s room to save her, she finds herself in a never-ending hallway. The director uses a dolly zoom to create this effect by zooming out of the background while dollying in toward the subject.
  5. Goodfellas (1990). Martin Scorsese’s infamous diner scene shows the background slowly creeping in around Henry Hill and James Conway, as a warning from one mob “friend” to another starts to take on a different tone.

What Is the Difference Between a Dolly Shot and a Tracking Shot?

In a dolly shot, the camera can move forward, backward, or alongside a subject. A tracking shot is a shot that follows alongside a subject throughout a scene, keeping them in the frame. While some types of dolly shots are tracking shots, not all tracking shots are shot on a dolly.

What Is the Difference Between a Dolly System and a Steadicam?

A Steadicam is a portable, wearable device that allows the camera operator to move freely with the camera, while also isolating the camera to make the shot look smooth and controlled. A dolly system works by mounting the camera to a cart and wheeling it along a track. Both achieve a smooth shot, though a dolly system is more limited in movement than a Steadicam.

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