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Idea Lab: The Dolly Shot

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This article is another in a series exploring film making techniques that inspire us to think outside of the box in our own work. Makers of major motion pictures obviously have the resources and the budget to do all sorts of amazing things. As technology becomes more available and accessible, its easy for anyone to make a film of their own. Just because you don’t own a ton of expensive equipment and have a crew of hundreds of trained experts at your disposal does not mean that your creative output is limited. A big vision and a little resourcefulness can go a long way.


In cinematography, the camera is frequently mounted on a wheeled platform to allow for steady movement and a dynamic shot. This technique is called a dolly (or tracking) shot. This is not to be confused with a shot wherein the camera is stationary and the zoom lens creates the effect of moving closer or further from the central action. Basically, every time the camera moves within a single take, you are looking at a dolly shot. And that would be often…dolly shots are standard fare in all genres and levels of cinema. There are some directors out there however, who explored new ways of using this type of shot to achieve revolutionary results.


dolly shot


Spike Lee has made a signature move of placing his actors on the same dolly as the camera. For Lee, and others, the technique is typically used to signify an altered state of one kind or another. One of Lee’s most notable uses of this shot is in his 1992 biopic Malcolm X. Denzel Washington, as Malcolm X, is filmed standing on the dolly as it tracks backward, approaching the site of Malcolm X’s assassination. The scene is very affective; viewer is led to understand that perhaps Malcolm X knows he is about to be assassinated, or at the very least that this moment is pivotal. Lee uses the technique again and again in his films. It must be said that the effect can seem heavy handed if not used appropriately or sparingly. In my opinion, Spike Lee does it pretty well. Lee is one of my favorite auteurs…but, I happen to have a weakness for stylized cinema.


Another offshoot of the traditional dolly shot was pioneered by Martin Scorsese in his first major feature film, Mean Streets (1973). The shot is amazing. The scene takes place in the neighborhood bar featured prominently in the film. There is a private party, and Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel) gets quite drunk. Rather than tracking the camera with Keitel as he walks across the set, Scorsese straps a camera to the actor’s chest. As Keitel walks through the bar, he is framed centrally and his surroundings sway and pitch with his steps creating a visual cue: intoxication. Almost twenty years later, Darren Aronofsky makes use of the same technique throughout his 2000 epic Requiem for a Dream.





Side note: Requiem contains a number of nods and allusions. The recurring dream sequence featuring Harry (Jared Leto) and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) that takes place on a Coney Island pier glowing with bright white, diffuse light is undeniably similar to a sequence at the end of Alex Proyas’ film of 1998, Dark City. In Dark City, it is Rufus Sewell who runs down a pier toward the ever unattainable Jennifer Connelly, although this sequence is slightly less dismal seeming, if my memory serves. Also, Aronofsky allegedly purchased the remake rights to Satoshi Kon’s 1998 anime film Perfect Blue in order to stage a live action shot-for-shot recreation of one scene in Requiem for a Dream.


Be inspired by the film making techniques you love (not unlike Aronofsky), and don’t let your lack of budget or equipment stop you. When we want to create a dolly shot here at the Zooppa office, we use a wheel chair purchased from a yard sale. It is a really easy way to achieve an interesting effect on a low budget. What inspires you in your own creative work? I would love to hear about it.


Thanks for reading the Zooppa Blog. Your top destination for all things crowd-sourced creativity. Check out our active video, design, and interactive competitions for top brands.

Meme E

4 Comments

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