How to use a dolly shot to transform a simple scene

Every filmmaker will shoot simple scenes. Most of us shoot a lot of them.

Analyze your favorite movie or TV show. It may shock you how many scenes take place between only one or two characters. Want to tell great cinematic stories? You must master the simple scene. A well-executed dolly shot can take a moment from lackluster to memorable.

When done properly, a moving camera adds richness and subtext to your scene, while also increasing production value and keeping the audience engaged. Getting both right—improving your storytelling and visual impact at the same time—is a tall order. But for razor-sharp storytelling, you want a tool that rewards thoughtful planning. A clever filmmaker can create dynamic, cinematic scenes using the most classic of filmmaking tools—the camera dolly.

Pioneering director Ida Lupino tests a dolly shot

Pioneering director Ida Lupino tests a dolly shot

Why use a dolly?

Steadicams, cranes, and drones typically involve high rental costs and dedicated operators. Not so with the humble dolly. New, hybrid slider-dollies like the Dana Dolly can be rented for less than $50/day and don’t require a dedicated operator. You can build a pretty good DIY dolly with materials from Home Depot. No money at all? Borrow a wheelchair and push your camera op around for a run-and-gun look. There are lots of options, and many of them are dirt cheap. 

The dolly is a low-tech instrument that encourages precision. Its simple construction rewards big ideas instead of big techniques. It encourages you to ask yourself, “What does this shot actually do?”

Physically moving the camera, as opposed to a pan or zoom, literally changes the audience’s perspective. (Watch this awesome old video if you need a demonstration.) A long take—especially with a moving camera—teases out information. It prompts the viewer to ask questions. What is being revealed or obscured? In contrast, a cut gives information immediately, often providing answers.

Taxi Driver: the scene reflects the character’s reality

A thoughtful camera move can say things that your characters can’t or won’t. These shots or sequences operate on two levels, similar to the way an actor’s performance can deliver both text and subtext. Dynamic shots transform simple scenes into something special. Let’s look at a classic example from Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese is the absolute master of the unmotivated dolly shot—a camera move not prompted by moving elements in the scene. This shot is perfect; accomplishing visually in seconds what might take minutes to describe. According to our acting metaphor, the text is obvious, even boring. Travis (Robert DeNiro) calls to apologize for a failed date, asks for another one and is turned down. The subtext, though, is less obvious.

The dolly move creates a visual connection between Travis, the empty hallway and the rainy night. The semiotics of the scene have been analyzed to death—seriously, there’s even a Sparknotes page about it—but, to me, the shot communicates a terrible, determined loneliness. It’s hard to explain. The scene is just a guy talking into a pay phone. Then the camera moves, and it becomes something more potent.

Animal Kingdom: menacing tension

The next example, from Animal Kingdom, manipulates the audience in an equally powerful way. The scene begins with a dolly move, and then cuts between a short series of static shots. Pay attention to the way the tension of the scene builds during the moving shot and then changes when it cuts to the next shot.

The slow dolly move establishes the scene. Then Pope’s (Ben Mendelsohn) longing expression fills the frame. The camera continues to move, but stays on his face long enough for his expression to make us uncomfortable. We assume that he is looking at the TV until the picture cuts to the sleeping girl, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright). The scene fills with menace before the first action or word of dialogue.

Text: They all fell asleep watching TV. Pope sets Nicky on the bed and tells Joshua (James Frecheville) that she’s beautiful.

Subtext: Be afraid of Pope. 

A lesser film might have given Pope a “bad guy” scene to show us how unpredictable and dangerous he is. But Animal Kingdom succeeds by trusting cinematic language to communicate on a visceral level.

Fargo: more than a simple push-in

The two previous examples succeed by bucking convention. Let’s examine a scene from Fargo that takes a conventional dolly shot and one-ups it.

The slow push in is the classic dolly shot. The push is most often used during speeches or long dramatic beats where the character is not moving. Subtly removing extraneous information from the screen encourages the audience to lean in and focus on the central performance. It’s common for sound effects to fade away and the score to rise during the camera move, deepening its impact.

This example takes the push in and adds another layer—the window blinds. Jerry (William H. Macy) tries to sound pleasant and confident, but we know something’s up. The camera pushes forward on a wide-angle lens, pressuring Jerry. The blinds on the window blur and thicken until they look like prison bars. Jerry isn’t just in a tough spot; he’s running out of time.

The Piano Teacher and empathetic distance

We’ve demonstrated that the dolly shot is a powerful subjective tool. However, it can also convey austere realism.  The classic tracking—or “trucking”—shot is used to maintain continuity and a sense of realism as the character moves.

In its classic form, this shot maintains a similar frame throughout the long take. While it’s always been a mainstay of Hollywood filmmaking, the tracking shot has taken on new life as the staple of the network drama—the “walk and talk.”

The calm, objective perspective creates empathetic distance between the audience and the subject. That’s exactly what makes the following scene from The Piano Teacher so troubling.

The Piano Teacher full of composed, elegant exteriors with madness and cruelty hidden beneath. It operates on both levels in nearly every scene. Michael Haneke’s crisp, even camera movement is motivated by Erika’s (Isabelle Huppert) action. The frame remains to precise that it’s easy to miss the motion.

In our other examples the dolly moves provided clues and insight. Here the camera gives nothing. It refuses to interpret Erika’s behavior. The audience must try and understand the piano teacher’s behavior on their own. The result is a very uncomfortable empathy (and a very disturbing film).

Track out

There are, of course, hundreds or even thousands of great dolly shots out there. There’s the insane single-take fight scene from Oldboy. Or that awesome reveal in the last episode of Breaking Bad (as analyzed by Vashi Nedomansky, editor of 6 Below). A clever dolly shot can deepen even the simplest scene. All you need is a great idea and a little track.

What great dolly shots do you remember from your favorite films? How have you used a dolly shot to explore the subtext in your own work? Share your thoughts and examples in the comments.