Years ago, I was in the middle of a movie and was off to the side of the set laying a track for a future shot. The lead actor walked up and watched me work for a minute. "Hey, let me ask you something," he said. "How do you know what speed to push the camera?" I think I gave him some lame answer along the lines of, "You just know." He got a dubious look on his face and said, "Yeah, but how do you know?" I'm pretty sure I just shrugged my shoulders and said, "I guess if you do it enough you just develop a sense of it." He walked away with a doubtful look on his face. This conversation was brought to mind again last week when I got an email from a student asking the same question...."How do you know?" After thinking about it for a while, I believe my second answer those many years ago was essentially correct. After you've done it a while, you just develop a sense of what works with the rhythm of the scene. Of course, your operator and DP will tell you if you aren't going the right speed, but generally, you develop a timing that is usually pretty close to right. I was talking to a camera operator recently about another Dolly Grip who was going to take my place on a show that I was leaving. He said, "I don't want to have to talk to him and I'm afraid I will."* He wasn't being unfriendly, he just meant he didn't want to have to explain the speed or execution of every shot (this camera operator and I have a very tight working relationship and rarely have to talk about the shots. We just do them). I think that, first of all, you have to speak the language, and film is a language. It has a pace that you will immediately pick up on if you've seen more than ten movies (and of course you have) in your life. You basically do the same shots over and over in different situations. The operator I'm working with now will often just look at me after we've set up a shot and say something like, "page three, paragraph B in the Dolly Grip Handbook?" And I'll smile and nod. You'll generally know what kind of move the shot calls for just by knowing what the scene is about. Of course, staging shots are generally self-explanatory. You follow an actor at his speed, start when he starts and stop when he stops, all the while adjusting for any variations he may make or for if he misses his mark. These shots are all about just having the camera where it needs to be to see what it needs to see. It's the aesthetic shots that are a little more subjective. These are often unmotivated moves that add emotion to a shot. These require you to speak the language. Sometimes even staging shots require a little more finesse than normal to work though. I did a shot last week that involved starting behind two actors sitting on the trunk of a car. One actor stood up and walked away from the car about ten paces forward, away from camera, stopped and turned to face camera, leaving him in the background facing the actor who was still on the trunk, with her back to camera. He then walked forward toward the girl on the trunk and as he did, we pushed forward and met him at the trunk in a fifty-fifty**. A pretty straight forward dolly shot. Just match his movements as he walks forward and meet him at the car. After one take, though, the camera operator asked me to delay my move a little because we were moving forward so fast to match him that we totally lost the foreground actor on the trunk and then found her again as we landed. So, I adjusted a little and held back to hold them both the whole time, causing me to land later than he did. I just creeped the end of the shot a little and wrapped around them to make it look like it wasn't an accident that we were landing a few seconds after he did.In the end, while not a perfectly matched staging move, it worked. I also suggested to the email writer that he watch a few movies for the camera movement to get a sense of why certain moves were made. The fact is, you really shouldn't notice a staging move unless you're looking for it.
All right, I've droned on enough. Please feel free to add any thoughts you may have, or suggestions for up and coming Dolly Grips who may have the same questions.
More next week including an end of the show wrap-up.
*He worked out fine. The camera op called me later and told me the guy was "awesome."
**a "fifty-fifty is a two shot featuring two actors facing each other in profile,each usually taking up an equal amount of the frame.