It’s Hailing Dolly Shots
In the days before smaller lightweight digital cameras and sliders, you needed a dolly if you wanted to move the camera. Dolly shots are never easy, and they usually take a while to set up. Tracks need to be laid, and a dolly grip is needed to move the camera. The shot usually needs to be rehearsed several times to get the move to work and to set the focus.
On one of our shoot days, we planned to shoot two dolly shots in two locations, one interior and one exterior. The plan was to get the interior shot that morning, and then move outdoors to get the second shot right around magic hour when the light was great. We didn’t have a lot of money for rentals, so it was imperative we get as many of these types of shots done in the same day or the same weekend. Little did I know this was much easier said than done.
The first scene took place in a bedroom. Our main character is lying in bed, the camera moves up his body, and at the end of the shot, his face is revealed. It was a pretty simple shot to set up. We were shooting in the Director of Photography’s apartment, so he was able to light the scene the night before which saved a lot of time. Getting the shot, however, did not prove to be simple.
We had a skateboard dolly which is basically a piece of rectangular plywood with wheels attached to it that fit on the dolly tracks. The morning of the shoot we attempted to put the wheels on the board. There were holes pre-drilled in the board that were supposed to fit the wheels, but they didn’t. We tried every which way to attach them, but to no avail. Finally we called the rental house which was thankfully open on a Sunday. We’re thinking we have to go back and get the a new skateboard or new wheels. Instead, they told us to simply drill new holes in the board. “Are you sure?” “Yeah go ahead.” It was lucky our DP had a drill. Otherwise we would have been screwed.
We spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon putting the dolly together until we got the shot of the actor in bed. A small triumph, and the day is going well. To this day, I still feel it’s the best shot in the movie.
Then we proceeded to move to the next location, the house we were using for the exterior. I wanted a circular dolly shot of my actor standing in front of the house. The actor walks into frame and the camera moves around him 180 degrees revealing the house over his shoulder. It was one of the first shots in the film and would set the tone, so it was very important to get it right.
After a short drive, we arrived at the house, and out of nowhere, it started pouring rain. We got back in the cars hoping it would pass, but it didn’t. Instead of stopping, the rain turned to hail. The weather had been sunny all day, but now it was biblical outside. So we called it. As good as the first half of the day was, the second half was terrible. The film gods did not want us to make this movie. It was the agony and the ecstasy of filmmaking both in one day.
We went back another day and got the shot in front of the house, and it came out well. We were supposed to use the dolly for another shot later that day, but the 180 degree shot ended up taking too long. We were losing the light, so in order to get second dolly shot we had the cameraman sit in the back of a truck with the lens out the window as the actors ran behind. The set up wasn’t ideal, but we got the shot.
Making movies is a series of compromises. You start out with a vision and end up with a compromised version of that vision. You have to shoot around weather, equipment failure, location availability etc.. These compromises aren’t always bad. They force you to be creative, and sometimes the result is better than what you thought you wanted.
As far as controlling the weather, it’s like John Ford said “You have luck in pictures. Most of the the time it’s bad luck,” so was the case for us. One thing I take comfort in is the fact that no matter how big of a name a director has, no matter what the budget of a film, no one can control the weather, not even John Ford.