DIY: How to Build a Camera Dolly

For those of you new to a filmmaking, the first question is: what is a camera dolly? Quoting from Wikipedia:

A camera dolly is a wheeled cart or similar device used in filmmaking and film/television production to create smooth camera moments

A dolly is a staple piece of equipment for many professional and indie films alike. It usually consists of a track ranging from a length of 10 feet to 50 feet and sometimes even further. Professional tracks are generally made of aluminum and other light metals (whereas most DIY tracks are made out of PVC).

Dollies are used quite frequently in films because they allow smooth movement of the camera to follow action and to create tension or add depth. With a dolly you can go forward, backward, side-to-side, and even diagonal. And with the right kind of tracking/wheel combination, you can even go in circles and big curves.

It can be a motorized camera dolly or it can be operated by a camera operator and a focus puller to push the dolly back and forth.

As a filmmaker, you must constantly figure out ways to improve the production value of your projects, and a camera dolly is a valuable piece of equipment to do just that. Let’s examine the four ways a dolly can make impact your film project:

  1. Tracking shots – When a dolly is used, it’s like a camera on tracks. It mimics the movement of the subject in frame. For example, it can go sideways from left to right to track the movement of actors. The camera creates a dynamic movement to keep the audience interested in the scene. Instead of having static actors talking at each other, why not have them moving left to right with the a dolly to track their movement as they speak? It’s much more interesting.
  2. Pushing in and out -  Instead of using the camera to zoom in and out with the lens, you can put a portable dolly on tracks and the entire piece of equipment zooms in and out, usually on tracks. This movement highlights the importance of a particular character and what he or she has to say at that moment in time.
  3. Moving up and down – Usually, this movement can be done with a camera jib. But there are dollies that can perform this function, such as products made by JL Fisher and Chapman.

Here's an example of an EPIC tracking shot from Spectre:

When you have billions of dollars, you TOO can make this amazing tracking shot.

For most beginner filmmakers, purchasing a dolly is usually not an option. Not only does it cost money, but you really need to know what you’re doing or you could end up damaging your camera. There is the possibility to rent out a dolly from a reputable vendor. Some places you can try:

  • Kitsplit
  • B&H

Dollies make a big difference in any film project, and are very very useful. However, to buy a professionally-made dolly from a vendor, you can spend hundreds of dollars for just a decent one. Most indie filmmakers can’t afford that kind of dough, so instead they make their own. And that’s exactly what I did; I made my very own camera dolly!

Here’s what I did to create a portable, lightweight dolly:

I took one of those studio dollies, the kind with the crappy rubber wheels and the three-prong design. They’re generally used by photographers in studios to move around a tripod easily. The heavy-duty kind are used in TV studios to move around those giant television cameras. The one I used is one of the cheaper kinds you can get off Ebay and other discount stores.

The first important thing about DIY dollies are the way the wheels are mounted. To use them effectively, they should be mounted at an angle to help stay on the track. The use of angle iron allows a mountable surface just perfect for making the wheels angled.

So I bought some angle iron with pre-drilled holes in it (how convenient) which you can get at your typical hardware store. Luckily the bolts from the studio dolly were just the right size to fit through the holes drilled into the iron, so all I had to do was screw in the angled iron where the wheels used to go. I really got off easy there. In most other cases you’ll have to drill through some metal to mount the iron to whatever you’re using, so be careful.

To aide with the mounting of the wheels, I bought some washers, bolts, and nuts. They were all 3/8″ size, but the sizes might be different according to invididual circumstances. I also got some nylon spacers to space the wheels away from the angled iron. Again, all of these parts can be found at a hardware store. Nothing obscure, I promise.

The second important thing about dollies are the wheels themselves. I’ve seen people use skateboard wheels, roller skate wheels, and let’s not forget rollerblade wheels. To be frank, it doesn’t matter what is used, as long as the wheels come with bearings. Without bearings the wheels will catch and hang on the bolts used to attach them to the angled iron. With bearings, the rolling is smooth. I recommend using rollerblade wheels and nothing else. I bought a set of eight for $35 at a run-of-the-mill sports store.

The third important thing about dollies is the placement of the wheels. Certainly you can put them straight across from each other and it’ll work, but many people recommend to stagger them. You’ll see what staggering means by looking at the pictures below. The main reason you should stagger is because the weight of the dolly will be more evenly spread throughout the base of the dolly. If you come across a bump in the track, it won’t be as noticeable, if at all.

To mount the wheels, I used an “intricate” design I cooked up in this order: (from the outside to the inside) Bolt, wheel, nylon spacer, washer, angle iron, washer, nut.

Tighten the nut as far as you can, and it should stay firmly in place. You may need to loosen the nut a bit if you tighten it too far, to make sure the wheel turns properly.

In my design I only used eight wheels; two on each prong and an extra two on the lone prong. I’ve seen designs use just as much, but I’ve also seen some use 12 or 16.

Most other designs will need to create their own notches to hold the tripod legs. This design really saved some work, but I recognize not everyone has a studio dolly lying around. What’s cool about the holders is that they’re adjustable, too. However the downside is that they won’t extent to their full length, due to the wheels obstructing the path.

Also note the track, which is made out of 1″ PVC piping and connected with 3/4″ PVC jammed in-between them. I bought them in 5′ lengths, which makes them easier to store and transport. Of course, you could buy 10 foot lengths at a cheaper price and cut them yourself, but where’s the fun in that?

On the ends of the track I cut some extra PVC and used elbow joints to create a buffer at the end. This keeps the tracks together in case they’re on a slight incline, or if someone is a bit careless with their extremities.

A Really Cheap Way to Build a Portable Dolly

Above explains a very hands-on approach to create an affordable and collapsible dolly. However, I do admit that it involves a lot of handyman work. Here is a simple one we created for a recent TV pilot shoot.

Essentially, we took a used a Rock N Roller Multicart and put a sturdy box on top of it.

Then we placed a bunch of film sandbags on top of it. Finally, we rested our Sony FS7 right on top. The finished product looks like this:

This contraction worked very well on our push-in shots, as the camera on wheels acted like they were camera on tracks. The cart provided enough stability to create an amazing shot of the scene. When you’re looking at this contraption, you might be thinking it’s only good for push-ins. However, it can also work for side-to-side motion.

We didn’t use it for side-to-side motion in this shoot. But you should have easily turned the camera sideways and had the camera operator push the cart from left to right or right to left.

One thing of note. It is suggested that you have at least two people operating this contraction. One person will actually push the camera. The other person will work to stabilize it. The last thing you need is for the camera to fall on the ground and cost you $10K to replace it.

This setup will only cost you the cart, a box and the sand bags. However, any serious filmmaker will already have these tools so this setup can easily work for someone with the basic tools.

What if You’re Really, Really on Budget

First, I assume you’ll have a camera – whether it’s a Sony FS7 or a RED. But let’s say you don’t even have a cinema camera and all you had was an iPhone. It’s still easy to create a “dolly.” You might not be able to afford a motorized camera dolly or you might not have the funds to rent one. But all you really need is anything with wheels.

You can stand on a skateboard with your iPhone and have your friend push or tug you along. You can be on rollers skates and have someone push you toward the actors for a classic push-in shot.

Point is you just need to have an imagination to create an affordable camera dolly. Not everybody started with a RED Camera and a fancy Hollywood dolly like a Chapman motorized dolly.

You can easily create a lightweight, affordable camera dolly with an iPhone, two friends and a skateboard.

This is what it means to be an indie filmmaker. You work within your budget. You focus on story and strong characters. And you make the most of what you have.

A camera dolly is a great way to improve the production value of your film projects. Hopefully, these tips on creating an affordable dolly will get you going on your film project. Good luck!