Unless you're planning to emulate Ozu and barely move the camera on your first indie feature, you'd do well to introduce yourself to the world of camera dollies and the dolly grip before shooting. While any director knows he or she has to have a crack first assistant cameraman to ensure that the director of photography's images are in focus, fewer realize how important a trustworthy dolly grip is. What may seem like grunt work - pushing the dolly across the room or along a piece of track - is actually a skilled craft, requiring not only muscles but an intuitive knowledge of camera operation, a sensitivity to actors and their line readings, and a balletic sense of movement.
Zen and the art of dolly gripping
The ability to introduce camera movement into a scene is an important tool that no filmmaker should be denied. Successful dolly moves occur through careful interaction and timing on part of the director, actors, D.P. and the dolly grip. The dolly grip's role is simply to move the camera from point A to point B as smoothly as possible and at the proper speed. Depending on the complexity of the move, there may be more points, or positions, and varying speeds. A relationship of trust between the D.P. and the dolly grip is key to the smooth execution of these moves. Besides focus, the movement of the dolly is the only aspect of the camera that the D.P. does not have direct control over.
If you ever get a chance, watch the dolly grip performing a move. It's a very zen thing - or what some people call "being in the zone." Dolly grips totally tune out everything from distracting noises, the grimaces of an angry producer in overtime hours, or the flirtatious glances of smitten P.A.s while they concentrate on executing the move. Depending on the shot, that could be just the wheel, which they stare at to maintain a constant speed while watching for their marks. Or it could be talent, who they have to track with in order to maintain the framing of the shot.
A dolly move, no matter what the speed, must be eased from a dead stop into the desired speed of the move and then eased back to a complete stop. This slowing down and speeding up process is called "feathering" and is one of the toughest parts of dolly gripping. Another important aspect of maintaining a smooth move is the way in which the force generated by a dolly grip's legs pushing on old mother earth is transmitted to the dolly itself. If you think that's simple, just try it sometime with a really tough D.P. shooting with a 300mm lens.
The intermittent steps and shifting of the grip's weight from one leg to another must be transmitted into the smooth constant movement of the dolly. This understanding of camera movement is one of the reasons it's a good idea to let an experienced dolly grip drive any vehicle that you will be shooting out of (not feathering to a stop in a vehicle really upsets the D.P. and it's important to keep them happy).
A dance-floor move refers to doing dolly moves...on the floor. It doesn't necessarily translate into a cheap setup because if the location's floor isn't level or smooth, a better dance floor must be built.
Doing this kind of move adds flexibility to camera movements - you're not locked into following the track rails. Action doesn't always follow a straight line and can be chaotic, especially when shooting unrehearsed action. For example, a shot requiring a winding move through a crowded party scene is difficult if the track doesn't wind. And even if you can lay down winding track, people may trip over the track or you may see the floor in the shot.
Now, what if the floor isn't level or smooth? You may have to put a floor down. Generally, in Hollywood, a dance floor means laying a double layer of 3/4" plywood with the seams offset, topped with masonite for a smooth ride. This usually means nailing into the floor and clearing the camera side of the set, not just of people but furniture. This can be very time consuming especially if you have a lot of coverage and reversals. It's often easier to move furniture than people (especially executive producers - they tend to stand right where the most work is being done because they like the view). If the floor isn't level, which is a common problem in old buildings with wooden floors, you'll have to build a level floor on top of the existing floor by building a platform called bucks - 2'x4' frames skinned with sheets of plywood (provided of course you have a nice high ceiling). Not always a cost-effective method for the independent production, so choosing a location for its floor can be pretty important if you intend to do any dance-floor moves.
Now even if the floor is in good shape, if it's made of old planks you may have to lay down a dance floor anyway. As soon as you get a dolly with a D.P. and A.C. on it and quiet the set, the creaking begins. Those wonderful sound problems! Laying a plywood dance floor not only gives you a smooth dollying surface, it also spreads the weight of the dolly out across the floor, thereby minimizing these sound problems; it's usually the small areas that cause the creaks. But again, in the independent world, this may not be a choice. One possible solution is to wet down the floor prior to shooting. Moisture causes the wood planks to expand, helping to alleviate creaking.
Track is most often used in dolly shots as it ensures the smoothest move; the dolly grip only has to pay attention to the move itself because the track guides the camera from point A to point B. For the most part, track can be laid anywhere. The rougher and more off-level the terrain, the longer it takes to level the track. Sometimes, you're rushed for a shot and you may ask the dolly grip just to throw down some track and forget about leveling. Not a good idea. Even if there's only a slight upgrade, pushing a dolly, take after take, is hard and exhausting work resulting in unsteady dolly moves. With each step, the dolly isn't coasting, it's trying to move back downhill. As the dolly grip transfers his or her weight while pushing uphill, that brief movement of switching over is going to be seen (or felt) in the move. Remember, an important thing is a bump-free ride. You will rarely be off-level enough to see it, but bumps are always noticed on screen.
It's rare to find a piece of track perfectly straight; it may have been run over or fallen off a truck, been over-torqued, or be suffering from metal fatigue. Though each piece of track may be level end-to-end, the pieces when put together may not come together in a straight line. If two pieces of track are put together but each rail is slightly bent, you'll get a bump. This is why it's important and, ultimately, cost effective to get the best-quality track possible if you plan on shooting a lot of dolly moves. One item that helps, which is becoming more and more common in dolly grip packages, are skateboard wheels. Instead of switching out the dolly wheels for skateboard wheels, the dolly rests on a pair of C-rails that lay horizontally on the track. Each C-rail has a pair of eight skateboard wheels allowing for much smoother moves because instead of having the weight on eight wheels, the weight is now spread out over 32, thus minimizing the effect of any bumps. It's also efficient. The dolly is lifted onto the C-rails and that's it, no assembly required.
Occasionally, even with track, you'll run into that old floor creaking problem. A real problem because moving the track is usually not an option. The trick is to add a lot of wedges so the weight that was centered on that noisy spot is now spread out.
Why a Peewee today and a Fisher 10 tomorrow
How does a dolly grip pick the right dolly for the job? Dolly grips choose the biggest dolly they can get into a location. If you think of it as a car, the bigger and heavier, the smoother and more comfortable the ride. Another advantage of using a larger dolly is its larger boom arm, allowing for a greater boom range, larger weight capacity and ability to handle larger jib arms.
Most grips consider the Chapman Super Peewee to be the most versatile location dolly. It has a variety of leg configurations for increased maneuverability. This means you can get it into a lot of hard-to-get-into places. If you can have only one dolly, pick the Peewee. It is not as heavy as other dollies and has a smaller wheel base. The only drawback is that the Peewee is not ideal for big exterior tracking shots.
The next size up of popular dollies are the Fisher 10 and the Chapman Hybrid. The Hybrid is pretty much a larger, heavier version of the Super Peewee with a longer and higher boom range. The Fisher, on the other hand, is quite a different animal. Weighing in at 420 pounds, it is considered the Cadillac of dollies. Unique features exclusive to the Fisher are the square track it rides on, ice skates and roundie-round mode. In the roundie-round position the wheels are positioned in a circle, allowing the dolly to spin on its own center and permitting the camera to be spun in a tight circle about four feet in diameter. Grips either love or loathe the square track, especially when using curves. Fisher curve track does have one thing going for it either way. The widest diameter circle that can be laid with standard curve track is 20 feet (outside diameter using eight sections of 45-degree track) while a seventy-foot diameter circle is possible with Fisher's thirty-degree curve track (12 sections complete a circle).
An often overlooked dolly that can be valuable on set is the Elemack Cricket dolly. The Elemack is great for dance-floor moves. Conventional dollies are steel rectangles with four wheels and a hydraulic boom arm where the camera is mounted on one end. The Elemack on the other hand, is a hydraulic column center mounted on four legs in the shape of an X. Having the camera center mounted means the operator can easily pan 360 around the dolly. Center mounting also gives a better ride on dance floors because the weight is evenly distributed over the wheels. The sacrifice? Minimum lens height, because the telescoping column can only go so low. A Z-bar can be used to lower the camera height, but it defeats the purpose of centering the weight and is hard to operate. If the need arises, the Elemack can be put on rails by switching out the wheels for bogie wheels designed for track operation.
The Doorway Dolly and The Western
Talk about your unsung heroes. On the majority of sets, this dolly is left to the back breaking task of hauling sand bags and feeder cable. Once in a while it makes the grade and gets to actually carry the camera for a shot. The doorway dolly and western (a larger version of the doorway) are generally used for camera moves on jobs when the man power and money just aren't there to handle a full-fledged dolly and its track.
The doorway dolly is good for interior shots on smooth floors. Make sure the wheels are fully inflated and if they squeak, a little baby powder on the floor and wheels should do the trick. If the floor is a problem, Matthews now makes skateboard wheels that pop right into the doorway dolly and can run on regular track or on PVC. Yes, PVC pipe.
Another popular dolly that you've used quite a bit if you've shot anything in film school is the pipe dolly. PVC pipe makes up the rails and a piece of plywood with skateboard wheels makes the platform. They actually work fine though leveling can be a problem. The lack of boom capabilities can be made up for with a small jib arm on sticks. A number of models are available for rental as the video world uses these highly portable rigs all the time. Media Logic of N.Y., Trovoto MFG and Cinikinetic are a few of the companies that make these products. Some people may feel that using such non-big-boy type dollies may be below them but the idea is to get the shot and when you're on a budget, sometimes you have to swallow a little pride. As long as their limitations are understood, these products can give you the shot you need.
For exteriors, these dollies can perform a number of uses. For those long tracking shots on streets, sidewalks or other rough terrain when you can't afford a steadicam, the western dolly, given that it's larger, wider and heavier than the doorway dolly (the big car effect again) will give you a smoother ride. One trick that helps on these shots, besides making sure the wheels are fully inflated, is to fill the cracks and crevices in the street or sidewalk with the finest sand know to man: fish tank side. If you can't find an aquarium shop, bags of sugar will work in a pinch. A western or doorway dolly can also be used in conjunction with a location dolly like the Peewee when working on terrain too rough for conventional dollies where boom capabilities are required. Basically, the Peewee is placed in its smallest wheel mode and ratchet strapped to the western or doorway dolly. Great for boom shots out on a sandy beach.
The dolly grip always has his or her eye on flexibility, picking the dolly and equipment that will allow the D.P. and director to get the shots they need. You may think you're saving money on equipment by renting cheaper equipment but you may be limiting flexibility. Not having the right dolly for the right job may take longer to rig. Also, on many independent jobs, you often have a D.P. and director working together for the first time and having no idea how to work together. Getting the right shot may mean moving and resetting the dolly track several times. Any equipment that limits the dolly grip's flexibility will hamper this process. Knowing what the frame is as soon as possible will speed up any shot as one of the biggest wastes of time is lighting and manipulating what the camera never sees.
Thanks go out to Paul Nickason for assistance on this article. A dolly grip with over ten years experience, Paul is well known for his unique solutions to many common problems grips have run into on set. He's dolly gripped on numerous features, including Where The Rivers Flow North, White Lies, Search and Destroy, Kama Sutra and Amateur.
Frank Dellario is a key grip working in New York and the publisher/editor of FilmCrew Magazine.