Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Laying Pipe

I had another column up that I wrote last night but it was so badly written I took it down. It involved the rumors in recent years of the Dolly Grip being absorbed into the Camera Dept. Those stories have been around awhile and deserve an honest look, but not the one I wrote. It was bad. So I'm going to let that one stew awhile and put up another.
In checking my hit counter, I've lately gotten a lot of "1st time visitors" from Google Search.
I enjoy clicking on the referring page link because it shows me what they were looking for when they found my page. I get everything from "castle nut wrench" to "stairway dolly" (two very common ones). The next most common seems to be "Wally Dolly" which is apparently some Australian sled type dolly and also the name of one of my posts which is actually about skateboard wheels. Most of the hits give a lot of insight to the searcher and most appear to be from beginning Dolly Grips searching for info before they start a job ("crab dolly steering", "Fisher 10 camera dolly"). I enjoy these the most because I genuinely like offering something that might help someone. My beautiful wife seems to think that I'm "giving away my secrets" and no amount of discussion can dissuade her from this belief or the fact that nothing I, nor anyone else, writes on this site will make you a better dolly grip tomorrow. It takes a lot of real world practice and there aren't really any secrets, just a few basics. Lately, there have been a few searches for "laying dolly track." So here's a little primer. (everybody does it a little different, but here's my way).
Lay it out, connect it, find the high point. Once you have the highest point located, level that rail from one end to the other, at the joints, until it's all level with the high point. Next, go side to side bringing the other rail up to match it at the joints.(I go side to side at each joint as I'm leveling the high rail, but it's a matter of choice.) Next, before filling in, get down on one end and sight down it, tweaking the imperfections (have another grip take up or let out joints that need it)Do this to both rails and fill it in.
This is just a rudimentary, easy way to do it for someone who's new to it. After a few years, you get a lot quicker and can recognize when you don't have to be level every time and can go with a slight slope or just do it by eye without a level and slam it in, saving a lot of time.
Wedge your boxes. Make sure they don't rock then wedge on top of them if you have to.
There are a lot more things to learn about it that only come with doing it over and over such as when you get 3 feet off the ground on one end, Aluma beams, how the dolly should be oriented, crane track, when to use skates, etc. that I won't go into.
Tips anyone? Leave them in the comments.


  1. Anonymous11:37 AM

    Every chain is as strong as its weakest link: A badly spirit-leveled track is a bad shot! For me it is not of any importance weather a track is spirit-level or not, whenever it is in a straight line (as mentioned over the years).
    My way of leveling: Depending of the quality of the track you need to adjust your method of leveling: 1) when the track is as strong as a square and by lifting one tube the other tube is lifted as well I act as if the track is a piece of plywood; in this way that I level the track as one piece since when you level one tube it surely will influence the level of the other tube, just like a hugfe piece of plywood.
    2) when the track is sloppy and wobbling (??) you can treat each tube as a seperate piece to level.
    I always have a sandbag at hand to make sure that my leveled track remains at its level an on its wedges, sometimes a human-sandbag like the operator is available to give a hand (or foot).
    When using curved track you have got a special deal to get along with: You cannot put it in a slope, even the slightes slope will be recognisable....

    (just another thought: The trackjoints need to be lined up exactly. The spanners or turnbuckles are only ment to keep the tracks jointed, not to join them. Overcrancked (? too tightened?) turnbuckles will in most cases lift the track and cause a bad joint since they tighten at a lower point than the top-track-surface)

    (nice picture of track BTW...;-)

  2. Thanks for the comments Onno. It's good to hear from you. It's been a while!
    Your tips are great and I completely agree. I think, starting out, you tend to be way dependent on the level, then after a while you learn you just don't need it as much.

  3. Anonymous12:26 PM

    Sometimes I am a little away from work, sometimes to multi-linquistic (?) to respond, sometimes to obvious...
    I'd prefer to call it a balanced track then a leveled track.
    and another thought: check on daily routine your spirit-leveler, by rotating on a leveled surface. If it is your only leveler and out -of-balance then use it in the same direction only...
    and my last thought of today: When you intend to lay your track in a little slope and you want to us a spiritlevel: put some tape on one end matching your slope: one lauer can already be a lot on a 40ft track!

  4. Anonymous2:30 PM

    one of the most common mistakes when laying track especially long runs is to connect all the track and kick it (i mean place gently)where you want it) then start levelling at the joints . as you start at the high side you are lifting the end of the track and putting in the appropriate packing to level tat rail.what happens as you go to the next piece and lift it to level it actually lowers the rail preceding it.because the packing you put in at the first joint was resting on the unlevelled rail.

    ihope this is not to complicated to the end sure it is o.k to run your track out connect to find your line but it only takes seconds to break it and level one piece at a time in the end you will have track straight as an arrow

  5. Yes, you are correct. I left out that I usually "prebox" the track if it's off level enough to cause an end not to set down. Thank you for adding this as I didn't think about it. I still connect even long runs and prebox them and it works for me because I'm used to it and have a system for it. A lot of people do level them one section at a time, though and either way works as long as you are aware of what's happening with your track. Thanks again for bringing this up.

  6. I'll second the motion for not latching before leveling. Yes if it's just on flat floor, but if you have to prebox it's too precarious and I hate it when an unleveled piece of rail botches up the 10 leveled pieces behind you.

    As with Onno, I always find guys who have to over tighten the latches which leads to bending latches and sissoring track. Please don't get me started on FilmAir's two different latch positions and how well they DON'T work with a Fisher 10 and track wheels.

  7. Anonymous5:12 PM

    heee, get some real track :-)) my track!!

    just kidding, also with my track I do have problems with over tightning! I am working on a solution and I have got one but that makes every piece of track 250 euro more expensive and that is a whole lot of money compared to hire pro's... As a menufacturer/sales and keygrip I would choose for thr right use; so get a pro!

  8. Anonymous5:15 PM

    Just another thought today (I could not get to sleep tonight..) What do we do when we are leveling/balancing track when it is partial on a softcarpet and partial on a wooden floor? What is our reference when the dolly is where??

  9. Two votes for unlatched. Pre boxing has honestly never been a problem. I rough it in, eyeball it and get it close, still knowing where my high point is, and either use the level, or level to sight and then go side to side. Overtightening is sometimes a problem, but generally it's from someone who thinks it's got to be wrenched as tight as can be and just needs a little correction. Onno, I apologize but I don't know if I understand what you're asking. Try rephrasing it if you get a chance because it sounds like an interesting question.

  10. If I'm in a situation where the track leaves a carpet and has to cross onto floor (hardwood, whatever), I'll get location carpets / runners to protect the flooring, but also use the runners and thicken them up to match the thickness of the carpet (soft cribbing?).

    One of my biggest problems is that I find these days that the art / sets dept does far too much work to "please" the Prod Designer / Art Director, when most of their work won't show up on camera. Case and point - you're shooting in a house with a medium sized living room. Invariably Sed Dec will rent / buy some thick piled oversized carpet and then place two sofas, a lazy boy chair and a glass topped coffee table. I'll show up and then tell them the carpet has to go as we're laying dance floor or rail. So, then all the sofas, chairs and table have to move out just to get the rug (that we'll NEVER SEE!!!) out and then replace the furniture. And they bitch at me for to amount of work that has to be done. Of course the carpet they've chosen is too thick and or too expensive so you'd have to lay plywood on top for a track base if you did leave the carpet in.

    I have to remind them that we've got amazing painters that can paint the "same" thing.

    Sorry to ramble on - you may have hit a nerve...

  11. I thought that's what he meant but wasn't sure. Ditto everything Azurgrip said. I had the same conversation about painting the floor last year after set dec brought in a 1" thick 20 x 20 rug and put a 1000 lb desk on it. You should have seen the faces when I told them it needed to go (or at least the 1" pad under it) after warning them about it on the scout and getting ignored. It was almost fun.

  12. On Wes Anderson's new movie "The Darjeeling Limited, we ran 300 plus feet of track along a river bank which had a rough undulating rocky surface. We had a flat out sprint with a Fisher 10 with 3 people onboard (Wes Anderson , Bob Yeoman & John Boccaccio - focus puller) so it needed to be pretty solid. It took us (Me plus 4 assistant grips) almost 3 hours to level. I Ran a 3mm steel cable from one end to the other on 5 foot stakes hammered into the ground and cranked it up with turn buckles to get rid of sag. I then hung a spirit level on the cable and hammered one end of the stake in to drop it to achieve level. We then just raised the track to come in contact with the cable. It worked pretty well. we used a truckload of cribbing. Our biggest problem was getting 240 ft of Ronford Baker Track to match up to 100 odd feet of Panther Precision track.

  13. Hi Gripworks. I once did something similar where I had to lay 40 sticks of 8' track (don't ask) on a slope. It took half a day to lay it and we had to go with the lay of the land and hook up a pully system. Thanks for the story.

  14. Anonymous4:26 PM

    i am a real fan of going the lay of the land when makes sense as the actors will be following the same slope as saves time a crane up move and the chance of all your packing being kicked around.

    this rule goes out the window of course if the action is headed up hill.

    in this case level is best but if it means busting out a bunch of cribbing go with a little slope it will be o.k, just tell the first a.c you are walking this one.and break out the peewee and speedwheels

    if anything else it is a great way to develop leveling track by eye.

    starting at a highspot going downhill on a slight angle.forget that level on the track thing get down and eye ball it fun,fun,fun.

  15. Hi Chris,
    I like to go lay of the land too, when I can. If a slope is too much, I just bring one end up enough that it's not a struggle and go. If you know when it can be done, it saves a lot of time. That's also one reason I connect first most of the time so I can eyeball it and then go side to side. Thanks for the comments.

  16. Hi Chris, D, Azurgrip (nice name!), Onno and Anon.
    I have a question. When I go with a slope ( I only do it if it is a long run on a fairly steep slope) I almost always counterbalance with a parallel track with a weighted platform dolly running down as we run up. This is obviousle timeconsuming and a pain if its not nessesary, but I find it nearly imposiible to get rid of the "walk" in the shot without the counterbalance. Even with Zen like concentration, i find it dificult to keep all the deceleration and acceleration from the walking motion out of the move with the weight of the dolly falling toward gravity. And while often you cant see minute changes, the operator can feel them, as can the dolly grip. Any thoughts?

  17. Hi, Gripworks. Yeah, the old counterbalanced dolly scenario. It's a monster. I only do it if a slope is completely unmanageable alone. If I lay on a slope, I'll bring the low end up enough to make it doable. If it's not a haul ass, I've just practiced over the years to the point that I can take the steppiness out by keeping my upper body rigid and keeping constant pressure on the dolly. A long run of this which it sounds like you're talking about (over 50 feet) would wear you out pretty quick. I'm a big fan of lay of the land moves because it's just quicker.

  18. Anonymous1:11 PM

    if i'm using a peewee i like to do the old take the rubber grip of the pushbarhandle and stick the seatpost
    in it trick

    .it helps to get you away from the track and all the you a better control.kind of like rowin a boat.

    when i order a hybrid i always get a couple of two foot seat risers.i oftenstack them up and push from the side in a more upright position.
    both these methods i feel allow you to lock in your upper body like d,s also a back saver for us guys over 40.

    as far as this counterweight thing are you talking a bout some kind of pully system.please explain further.

  19. Yeah Chris, Gripworks is talking about where you lay two parallel tracks and put a counterweighted dolly on one and link them together with a pully system so the weighted dolly pulls the camera dolly up hill. I do the same thing with the seat risers and I tend to be a "side" pusher anyway because it gets me closer to camera. Thanks for the comments.

  20. The counterweight dolly is (as D says) a dolly on a parallel track linked to the camera dolly by cable (or static line - which is smoother) running through 2 pulleys at the uphill part of the track. Usually I just park my truck up front and rig the pulleys to it.

  21. Anonymous8:46 PM

    Hey Guys, really enjoyed reading all of the suggestions. But you left out the most important one of all,
    "push dolly, collect check"! Ha Ha!

    Well that is what Don S used to say.
    Thanks also for explaining 'in print' what I have been trying to tell so many in the past as far as when to use a level and when to use your eye. Mainly when 'lay of the land' and 'time needed' comes into play. Also, please mention that most dollygrips over fourty all know, that you should not over tighten joint connections and especially not to use the mighty foot to finish the job (a broken turnbuckle really bites on the mountain top far from home). The last comment I would like to thow onto the pot is to mention especially for all of the younger dolly grips out there is to stand by your guns and not let the producers/ass directors force you to use too much help in leveling out track. Most times it only takes the dolly grip and one other seasoned person for the job. Being the Dollygrip
    is not brain surgery, although watching a young dollygrip struggle because of to many hands-on suggestions and not enough proper input is truely painful. Just knowing when to take control of the situation to get the results that the DIRECTOR is looking for is soo important. Often times the quickest and simplest will do just fine.