The editor's role in filmmaking is to piece the story together from thousands of hours of footage.  But before the editor can even begin to splice, it's the job of the cinematographer or director of photography (DP) to create the shots.  We may not realize it, but implementing a variety of camera angles and movements are what adds dynamism to a film and keeps our attention.  This month, we will be focusing on the importance and effects of camera movements used by DPs, specifically the dolly shot and the tracking shot.

There are many things in common between dolly and tracking shots.  Both are moving the camera across a plane.  Both dolly shots and tracking shots tend to be longer shots in length.  This allows the viewer to really take in a landscape, notice details on a set, and further immerse themselves within a scene.  To better understand the roles and differences between these techniques, let's start by discussing the dolly shot.


A dolly shot is named after the specialized piece of equipment it uses called a dolly.  It is a wheeled platform, usually moving on a track that is necessary to create smooth camera movements.  Dolly shots typically move forward or backwards and focus on following a character.  You might hear a director or cinematographer command to "dolly in" or "dolly out".  That refers to the camera moving forwards or backwards along the track.  The name for the person who operates the dolly is a dolly grip, a title which commands great respect on set!


Original version of a dolly- more like a wagon with the cinematographer holding the camera


A dolly during the filming of Apocalypse Now.  The camera still needs to be pushed but is being steadied further with a tripod, rather than the handheld method above


A more complicated, raised track where the cinematographer is able to move on his own.

Many people use dolly shot and tracking shot interchangeably.  This is not entirely incorrect as they both require wheeled platforms on a track.  However, more rigid filmmakers restrict the term dollying to forwards and backwards movements following a subject, where tracking is reserved for sideways or parallel movements along a landscape.  A tracking shot is also not specific to following a single character or subject like a dolly shot.  Instead a tracking shot, might be panning a landscape or moving through a crowd.

To better see the difference between these two very similar techniques, let's look at some examples!

Cabiria (1914) directed by: giovanni pastrone

Cabiria was the first popular film to use a tracking shot.  For a long time after this film was released, this type of shot was referred to as "Cabiria Movements".  While this early example of a tracking shot might be subtle, it is also extremely significant for two reasons:

  1. Camera technology was large and clunky during these early stages, making this a very difficult effect to accomplish.
  2. Films had still seemed very 2D up to this point, being more a still frame that showed movement within.  Having the camera move the audience through a set gave audiences the sensation for the very first time, that they were traveling to another place and being further involved in the story.


TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) Directed by: ORSON WELLES

There are many traits that make this tracking shot one of the most famous and repeatedly referenced scenes in history.  One aspect is the fact that the camera (therefore the audience) is at such heights throughout most of this scene.  That was achieved through the use of a crane attached to the dolly track allowing the camera to smoothly move up and down as well as side to side.  Another aspect is changing of subject focus.  The scene begins with us watching a man planting a bomb in a car trunk, then we lose him in a crowd to then begin following a different couple.  The sound design and usage of changing music also emphasizes the movements of the camera.  The sound is used to build tension and simultaneously mark the changes in subjects we are following.  


Mean streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990) directed by: Martin Scorcese

You can find gorgeous dolly shots in many of Scorcese's films, but these are two of his best!

In this clip, the dolly shot is so closely attached to the subject, that it gives the effect of instability- an ironic use for a dolly shot!  We are able to more closely relate to Harvey Keitel's drunken state this way than if we were to watch him stumble around with a steady shot.

In this beautifully choreographed scene, the smoothness of this dolly shot (especially compared to the previous example) helps accentuate the glamour and style of the event Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco are floating through.


Monumental director Spike Lee has taken the dolly shot to a new level by inventing his own specific style of using it.  Like the example from Mean Streets, the camera is attached to the subject giving it a surreal, drug like visual style.  He made it his own by also making the characters seem like they are floating or flying.  There were too many examples to pick from, so here is a montage of them all!

the shining (1980) directed by: stanley kubrick

This famous dolly shot, following Danny on his bike throughout the Overlook Hotel, came from the genius cinematographer Garret Brown.  Brown is well known for his invention of the Steadicam, which is a camera stabilizing device that allows the cameraman to walk with the camera giving more freedom of movement.

the passenger (1975) directed by: Michaelangelo antonioni

Antonioni, known for his beautiful subtleties and fearlessness of long takes, made another achievement in film history with this 7 minute long tracking shot.  This scene demands notice not only because of the length of the scene, but because of how he seamlessly moved the camera through walls.  In order to achieve this effect, he had the hotel built so that it could be lifted and split apart by a crane as the camera passed through the window and then be put back together before the camera spins back to face the window from whence it came.


aaron sorkin and the West Wing

Director and writer Aaaron Sorkin is known for his fast talking, super intelligent character dialogue, but also for his implementation of Garret Brown's Steadicam invention.  To emphasize the chaos and fast pace of the White House in his TV drama The West Wing, Sorkin follows characters through Steadicam, often switching character focus and simultaneously with fast conversation.  This video clip allows you to see the route taken in this example from the show.


kill bill vol. 1 (2003) directed by: quentin tarantino

This tracking shot while mostly following Uma Thurman's character, also leaves her spinning and moving throughout the building giving us the sensation that there are no walls or ceilings. It is almost as if Tarantino wanted us to get a full understanding of the layout of this set before the fighting begins.

Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015) directed by: Alejandro Inarritu

Inarritu along with his trusty cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, have been gaining much recognition and racking up the Oscars for their beautiful usage of tracking shots (among other things) in their collaborations together.  Most notably, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) which was made to look as though it were one long continuous tracking shot.

Their use of swinging tracking shots during the opening scene of their most recent film together, The Revenant, adds to the confusion of the directions their attackers are coming from.

For more explanation on Inarritu and Lubezki's style, check out this Esquire article HERE!


Well cats and kittens, there are many more examples where these came from.  As you continue to watch movies, pay attention to those longer following shots and ask yourself, "Is this a dolly or tracking shot?"  While it may be hard to tell the difference, knowing the director and cinematographers' choice helps us better understand them as artists.

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