Filming a Dolly Shot for a Scene of the Television Series, “Mad About You”
by Jack Anderson
Laying track is a skill, and I recommend that you find a professional grip and have him show you. If that’s not possible, the idea is to have the track all at one level, left to right and front to back. Before you’ve got it leveled, make sure it runs in a straight line from front to back. Otherwise, it’s just embarrassing. You can level it by putting wedges under the joints in the track and adjusting them until a long (at least 3 foot) level shows the bubble centered. You’ll probably have to use some kind of cribbing—any sturdy lumber—in some place to account for really low levels. Remember, the track has to be as high as the highest point of the ground, so it’s likely that you’ll need cribbing. Apple boxes are most often used. Anything sturdy and non-slipping will work. Sometimes grips put a 1’x1’ piece of plywood under the joints above the wedges. This give a little more support area, and it’s a nice safe technique. The wedges have to be placed in line with the track so they don’t stick out and you can avoid their being kicked. It’s best to use two wedges, points facing each other so the track is resting on as flat a surface as possible.
I was an operator on the TV show Mad About You for seven years. So I had a lot of chances to do dolly shots on our backlot New York street: Paul (Paul Reiser) and Jamie (Helen Hunt) walking along the sidewalk, talking about life and running into friends and oddballs. This day we had a shot running the whole length of the street.
Since our back lot was an old driveway behind another stage, it was raked to follow the contours of the land. No concession for movies. We set up probably an 80-foot shot, the full length of the street, ten lengths of track. At the start, the track was on the ground; at the end, it was a full two feet above it (remember about leveling?). The grips probably used every apple box in the department to get this marathon level. Now one rule of track is that no one walks along, on, or over the track. No one. If the dolly grip absolutely has to pull the dolly, or if the actors have to walk through the track to make the shot, ok. While we’re shooting. No one else. No other time. Everybody else, walk around. The exercise won’t kill ya. The grips all keep an eye on the track, especially the dolly grip, and they warn everyone away from the track; but they don’t have eyes in the back of their heads. The cruel truth is that there are always producers on the set. Producers are a little like doctors—they think they’re god. And on TV, most producers are writers, so they’re fuzzy headed and not graceful. I don’t know who, but someone (and I’m guessing producer), kicked one of the wedges supporting our track. This is bad enough, but it’s only the second worst sin. He then pushed the wedge back where he thought it belonged, and he didn’t tell anyone what he’d done. That’s the worst. You have to figure civilians don’t have a clue how to set up a track, and they should stay away. But if they must mess around, they should be big enough to tell a grip when they’ve screwed up.
So we’re doing the shot, and Paul and Helen can move quickly, so the dolly is moving at quite a clip. Suddenly I notice my view is clearer than before. It registered on me that I wasn’t looking through the eyepiece anymore, just as I noticed the ride was a little bumpy. Our special skateboard wheels—for speed—in their special sled had hit the wedge that the culprit had “replaced.” The dolly popped off the sled, it hit the track and started knocking the track over, and everything moved quickly toward the ground. What I had noticed was the effect of impact and imbalance on the camera, which had separated from the tripod head and was also moving toward the ground itself. Half a million dollars worth of camera and lens, not to mention the film that would be lost.
For some reason, and it’s got to be reflex because I wasn’t thinking at the moment, I grabbed the camera and kept it from hitting the ground. And I whined a lot trying to get my assistant to help before my back went out. (Here’s a hot tip: never hurt yourself to save the camera. They can always make more at the factory. But assistants are trained to marry their cameras, and we’ve all been assistants, and we can’t help ourselves when it comes to saving cameras in distress.) Anyway, the camera was saved with only minor repairs. No one was ever caught. But this is why you’re careful with your wedges, and this is why dolly grips scream at you idiots walking anywhere near the track.
Jack Anderson is a thirty-year Hollywood veteran. He was DP for Always Say Goodbye, first-prize winner at the First Hollywood Film Festival. He did second-unit DP on Hook, Noises Off, and Mad About You. Short films he shot won prizes at the Los Angeles Short Film Festival, Crested Butte Reel Fest, Instant Films (LA), Waterfront Film Festival (Muskegon), and Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. He teaches Cinematography at California State University Long Beach.