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Using an Hydraulic Dolly or
Steadicam for Moving Camera Shots
As we point out in our explanation of production value, one of the very best ways of increasing the look and perceived value of your project, with only a very modest increase in cost, is through the use of a hydraulic dolly or Steadicam.
A dolly is a sophisticated camera platform on wheels used to create smoothly flowing camera movement. This piece of equipment is used on virtually every Hollywood feature film, because it enables the director to utilize all the benefits of camera movement.
The camera attaches to the dolly, which provides a stable horizontal ride for it on track or wheels, while at the same time allowing for vertical booming with a built-in hydraulic engine. This enables the mounted camera to track in, out, up, down or alongside a moving figure or object while shooting. The camera glides gracefully, precisely, fluidly through space with absolutely no shake or jitter.
Thoughtful, choreographed dolly shots add a great deal of emotional impact to your film or video and enhance your project with the kind of polished camera movement we've come to expect on feature films. In our opinion, it's the best way to increase the production value of your project and it's perceived value, and at only a very modest increase in cost. These moving shots add more production value to a video than any other single element.
So whenever possible, we try to incorporate a fair number of hydraulic dolly shots in our productions. We usually work with a Phantom, Chapman Super Pee Wee, or Fisher Doorway dolly. Each has it's advantages under different conditions, but they all perform basically the same functions.
When it is not possible to use a dolly because of a confined space, we will often make use of a jib arm, which allows the operator to smoothly move the camera on a swinging arm. In situations that call for a large number of tracking shots or when laying track just isn't practical, we often rely upon a Stedicam system and operator.
A Steadicam is a camera-stabilizing harness which a highly skilled operator wears, that allows the camera to hover in front of the operator when he or she moves, walks or even runs. It provides smoothly flowing shots, which typically are almost as smooth, but not quite as flawless as those provided by a dolly.
The main advantages are that setup time for each Stedicam shot is much faster, which allows for greater flexibility and coverage throughout the day; and a Stedicam can be used in cramped quarters, which otherwise might not allow for a dolly. With a Stedicam, the director also doesn't have to be concerned with framing his or her shots around dolly tracks which have to stay hidden.
ER is a popular television program, shot on film, which is noted for its use of extensive Steadicam work. Very often, you will notice the camera tracking down the halls, turning corners, circling around principal actors, and gliding around the operating table. Another memorable use of the Stedicam is in Stanley Kubrick's film, The Shining, when the camera follows a young boy as he rides his tricycle through hotel corridors. Because of the confined space of the corridor and the impossibility of hiding tracks, a dolly could not be used, so the Stedicam was the only option for smooth, tracking shots. Thanks to the beautiful Stedicam work,
(which was actually shot by a a Stedicam operator who was pushed around seated in a wheelchair)
the movement in these shots is so seamless, they appear as stable as conventional dolly shots from a track.
Films and videos shot with handheld camera moves, typically have very noticeable, distracting camera movement, which decreases the
production value of your end product. In all fairness, there are exceptions. Some exceptional camera operators are able to provide fairly smooth handheld camera moves, and in the hands of a talented operator, a handheld look can help portray an immediacy and grittiness that you may be looking for, for instance, in the look and feel of N.Y.P.D., the combat sequences in Saving Private Ryan, or the raw excitement captured in many music videos. However, the great majority of the time, we feel that handheld camera work is distracting to the viewer, and unless you want your film to resemble The Blair Witch Project , we highly recommend the inclusion of a dolly or Stedicam for accomplishing moving shots.