What is the Difference between Dolly, Tracking & Crane Shot?

A shot is an important building block of any scene. The cinematographer decides the types he chooses from the storyboard instructions, the director’s guidance, and what he feels will add to the power of storytelling in a particular moment. 

There are numerous shots and tricks that the DoP can pull out of his hat, and today we discuss three of the most popular. Namely, we’ll be taking a look at the dolly, tracking and crane shots, analyzing what sets them apart and what each adds to a scene.

A wheeled cart or rail-moving apparatus upon which the camera and its operator sit when filming is called a dolly. Hence the subsequent shot is naturally known as a dolly shot. The dolly moves along a set of rails and the camera motion is therefore swift, smooth, and perfect. The movement could be alongside the subject and sometimes away or toward it, in which case it’s called a dolly zoom. 

While a dolly shot can be a tracking shot depending on the camera movement, not all dolly shots are tracking shots. The tracking shot may also be a dolly tracking shot if the camera moves on a cart along tracks. A tracking shot essentially follows the subject and keeps them in the frame but doesn’t necessarily involve the use of a dolly or a pre-made track. 

It can be made by handheld videography, among a variety of other innovative techniques. Hence, unlike the dolly shot, the tracking shot can be unsteady at times depending on the shooting mechanism used. Also, the latter usually only trails or follows the subject, while the dolly shot has more diversity of movement.

Finally, the crane shot is any shot that is taken from a moveable, robotic arm called a crane. The camera and its operator may both sit atop the edge of the crane, which offers a nice range of motion and height for filming. In some cases, only the camera is mounted on the jib or crane, and it is then controlled remotely. A crane shot sets itself apart with the dolly shot, first and foremost, with its height of filming. Additionally, it is also not limited to a horizontal axis like the dolly which is restricted to a rail. 

Unlike the tracking shot which implies a restricted direction depending on the subject’s changing position, the crane shot can move every which way. However, the crane shot is most commonly associated with up and down movements. 

What is a Dolly Shot? 

In a dolly shot, the camera follows the action or subject in a frame on a rail track. It can move toward the subject or away from it depending on the requirements of the scene. When a director wants precision and smoothness in movement, the dolly is typically the go-to.

In terms of industrial equipment, there are several variations. The most popular is the cinema platform dolly, which features in the blockbuster movies you may be familiar with from behind-the-scene shots. 

Here is a montage of Spike Lee’s use of the dolly shot:

It is a high-end Hollywood option, and most indie filmmakers usually get creative with their dollies when a more professional setup gets too expensive. A slider is a cheaper take on the dolly, where the camera directly mounts onto the rail without a platform and an operator. 

An even more affordable option is the tripod dolly, where a wheeled tripod achieves the dolly motion. The latter however is limited to only even surfaces, otherwise you’ll get a very shaky frame during filming.

You may come across terms such as dollying in or dollying out when talking about dolly shots. Dollying in is a zoom shot where the camera moves on a railed cart toward the subject. The operator may need to manually adjust the focus in the process to compensate for the distance. 

Here are samples of the best dolly shots in cinema:

Cinematographers use the dolly zoom shot to increase the emotional tension in a scene or to enhance a moment of realization.  

Dollying out, on the other hand, breaks away from the emotional connection of a scene. It severs an established link between audience and character and wraps up a scene organically.  In general, the dolly shot also guides viewers’ attention to an important prop, background, or character. It imitates the feeling of leaning in for a closer peek and achieves a certain dramatic effect. Hence, the dolly shot may be used to highlight something that may ordinarily slip past the audience. Back or forward dollying meanwhile is an excellent way to give more details about a location and create geographical depth.

Other variations of the dolly shot include the dolly tracking shot which trails a character’s movement and Spike Lee’s famous double dolly shot. A double dolly sees a character set up on an opposing dolly, or on the opposite side of the camera on the same platform. 

In other words, both camera and character are on the same platform, moving in the same direction. The result is a shot where actors appear to be floating on air. The double dolly can be implored for daydreaming, psychedelic purposes, and special effects in science fiction, among other purposes.

Filmmakers usually pair the dolly with other movements to increase the engagement of a scene or cast focus in a particular direction. Common pairing options include camera rolls, tilting, and panning. Sometimes a dolly is also amped up with a Dutch angle as we explore new surroundings or a mentally imbalanced character, among other purposes. 

The floating dolly shot in Malcolm X 

For an example of the dolly shot in film, specifically the double dolly, we’ll reach into Spike Lee’s accomplished career and pick out an impressive scene from his 1992 biographical, Malcolm X. 

Due to copyright reasons, I can’t post here but do check out the link, or search it on Google or YouTube.

A double dolly shot in the scene leading up to the activist’s assassination highlights his frame of mind and powerlessness in the face of death. He is caught up in his internal conflict and the double dolly explores his wandering mind with him. It also sets up the ensuing shootout, harnessing surprise for when a nonchalant mood drastically changes to fear and panic. 

What is a tracking shot? 

When the camera moves to follow a character or other point of focus in the scene, it becomes a tracking shot. It tracks the subject from one point to another, with the equipment physically moving (as opposed to digitally zooming in) to keep up. 

Here’s a discussion on one of the most famous tracking shots in the movie Goodfellas:

Not only is it a tracking shot, but this scene is also a great example of the long take.

How the camera moves does not matter, whether railed or otherwise, just that the direction of motion is maintained in line with a shifting point of interest. That movement could be alongside the subject or from a backward or forward point of view. Usually, the tracking goes on for a significant amount of time to qualify a shot as a tracking shot.

Filmmakers execute the tracking shot in one of many ways. The most common is through the use of a dolly on a rail, famously called a dolly tracking shot. The movement needed for a tracking shot may also be input by handheld cinematography or through the use of ropes, among other reinforcement tactics. 

In cases where rails or tracks are not an option, a handheld Steadicam is the go-to for smoother filming. The Steadicam is a special motion picture camera system specifically designed for handheld shooting and general filming on the move. It absorbs jostles and irregularity in movement for a more balanced frame.

The tracking shot offers immersive benefits to scenes since they go on for quite some time. It increases engagement as it doesn’t break away from what we’re seeing and allows us to journey down the same road with the characters. The shot helps set a movie’s pace or tone and also takes us through a new world from the eyes of the character who’s experiencing it. Tracking shots can be leveraged as a tool of suspense leading up to a big reveal or surprise. 

The tracking shot in Baby Driver that introduces personality 

Edgar Wright uses a comprehensive tracking shot for the opening sequence of Baby Driver as he introduces us to his bubbly protagonist, Baby. The long tracking shot starts with Baby walking across town to get coffee during a break from “work”. 

He is engrossed in his music, earphones in both ears, singing along and dancing to the tunes from his iPod. As we follow the action, we see him crossing roads whilst paying little attention and almost getting hit by a car, showing his more careless side. Nonetheless, we get the impression that he is a likable and somewhat cool guy.

The opening sequence is full of foreshadowing details as well for the keen. A motorcycle revving in the alley, the odd cop car hanging about, and the heart graffiti above Deborah’s head as she passes by the coffee shop. Additionally, the long tracking shot works as a “save the cat” moment, where the filmmaker endears us to a character who ends up doing things that aren’t so noble. 

You’ll also notice as well that the tracking shot breaks the 180-degree rule of film conversation when Baby talks to the coffee shop attendant. That gives us a taste of the character’s disorientation from his chronic tinnitus when he takes off one side of his earphone. All in all, the tracking shot is one of the most well-executed in recent cinema. It sets the mood, ushers in the protagonist’s blissful personality, and hints at us what to expect from him and his actions henceforth. 

What is a crane shot? 

Shots and how filmmakers shape them influence audience perception in profound ways. The crane shot is one of the more evocative types in filming. It can dictate the stylistic tempo and tease with suspense and impressive vantage points. Crane shots have been around since the early days of filmmaking. They were quite popular in the era of silent film, where mise en scene played a far more important role than it does now. 

The crane shot is traditionally implored to illustrate the vastness of a location, offering sweeping wide and extreme wide shots of important scenery and background. 

Initial crane designs could sometimes seat up to three people, including the DoP, the director, and the camera operator. Today, it remains the most popular strategy for adequately capturing large crowds in a single frame. Additionally, it’s also great for getting all the action in a chase sequence.

One of the most distinguishing elements of the crane shot is its height. While filmmakers don’t exclusively use it to shoot from high points, it’s most commonly used for such purposes. The camera, and often its operator too, attaches to the end of a jig or crane and the camera then moves freely in the space that the mechanical arm creates. 

Sometimes, when cinematographers want to add more movement into a scene, the crane can be mounted on a dolly to make a crane trolley.

A crane shot can reveal the extent of the space around a character and overwhelm viewers with a sense of being stranded or lost in unfamiliar surroundings. Alternatively, the shot may simply just establish where the characters are, especially if the background offers important exposition or will be important to later events. It’s also a popular way to finish off a happy ending in a movie, in what has become famous as the riding-into-the-sunset shot. 

High Noon isolates the protagonist with its famous crane shot 

The classic western High Noon features one of the early uses of the crane shot in cinema. It works powerfully to depict the isolation of the main character who is left alone to shoulder the burden of justice in a town that won’t help. 

The crane shot occurs on a deserted street toward the film’s climax. Marshal Will Kane is the target of a vengeful criminal he put away. Newly released from prison, Frank Miller and his gang are coming for payback. Every door Kane has knocked on for aid so far has been greeted by a decline. Those that have offered to help are unable to because of age or disability.

In this scene, Kane is coming to grips with the reality that he’ll have to fight the battle alone and the crane shot compounds his isolation. The scene opens up with a close-up shot of Kane’s face, which has sweat and worry written all over it. It then elevates and the crane shot dwarfs the marshal in a largely empty backdrop as he faces his demons alone.  

You may notice that the shot is a little wobbly because of early filming crane designs. These days producers pull off smoother shots by weight-balancing the arm, among other strategies.

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