What is a dolly shot?

A dolly shot is a kind of tracking shot where the subject is followed on a dolly cart. Dolly carts usually run on rail tracks or their own wheels, and they’re designed to take smooth and controlled shots – almost as if the camera is floating. The camera is pushed along the track, allowing it to move towards, away from, or alongside a subject. As the camera dolly moves, you can adjust camera settings, tilt, rotation, or focal zoom to create various dolly shot types.

Types of dolly shots

The standard and common dolly shot types are the dolly-in when the camera smoothly moves closer subject of the scene, and the dolly-out when it moves backward. By adjusting the camera zoom during the dolly movement with a zoom lens, the shot becomes a dolly zoom. The subject stays the same size while the background becomes more open or narrow. This effect is often used to create disharmony or confusion.

A 360 dolly shot orbits around the action in the scene, and it’s most often used for spectacular fight scenes. It’s complicated to execute, so it’s often rather done with a Steadicam or a gimbal.

Director Spike Lee popularized an alternative take on the classic dolly, by simply placing the subject of the shot on a separate dolly cart. This makes it seem like both the subjects and the camera are floating, while the background changes. This unique effect is suited for surreal storytelling.

Effects of the dolly shot

The dolly shot can be used in many ways, with almost no limit on the possible effects on the narrative. It can be a great way to direct the viewer’s attention in a dramatic way, and it’s amazingly suited to reveal a location, making it common for establishing shots. It can help the audience visualize the scale of something, may it be big or small compared to the environment.

A dolly can also convey character realizations and tension, especially a dolly into a close-up of an actor’s face. It can also enhance and clarify the plot if it plays out over a larger area, usually as a long take, immersing the audience and allowing them to experience the action along with the onscreen characters.

A tracking shot is defined as a shot that follows a subject that would otherwise leave the frame, such as an actor or vehicle in motion. Besides a dolly cart, a handheld or Steadicam mounted camera can do the trick. We can say that most dolly shots are tracking shots, but not all tracking shots are dolly shots. Find examples of tracking shots at Masterclass.

A zoom-in provides a similar effect to a dolly shot. Zooming in is done by adjusting the focal length of a zoom lens. While it’s simple magnification, a dolly changes the physical distance between camera and subject, and therefore the spatial relations of everything in the frame.

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