I often get asked about the importance of a level track vs a "lay of the land" one. My reply is usually that I'm more concerned with a track that has no bumps, than a level one. I had pretty much satisfied myself with my track laying and had rarely had a problem. Then along came the Alexa. This is my first feature that isn't film. Every show I'd done up to this one had been shot either on a Panaflex or an Arri 435, on back to the old BL (remember the coaxial mags?). These old film cameras were as stable as anything you could ask for. Since the obsolescence of steel track, I rarely even had to use skate wheels anymore except for extremely long lenses (150mm or above). The first day on this show, I noticed something was different. I had a quick dolly move with an actor who stood up and walked briskly across a baseball field. We were on a geared head, on a relatively wide lens (I think around a 50mm on the 12:1). Take one, the director yells, "No, no, no!" He then yells that he sees a bump on the takeoff. Okay, I take a little steam off. Take two, the same thing. Over the course of the show, I begin to notice that I'm having to use the skates more often than ever, usually when we're on a long zoom. Complaints about the bumps become common from the operator and now I'm getting concerned. Finally, I've had enough and want to know what's going on. After looking at the camera, which I hadn't really bothered to do closely, I notice that it's supported solely by a tiny baseplate that's about 3" by 3". There's basically nothing supporting the huge lens or the back of the camera. It's all balanced on this tiny baseplate, an incredibly stupid design through which even the slightest of vibrations is transmitted. So, I've had to really go back to the basics on my track laying. Now, I not only level with the whiskey stick (level), but sight down it afterwards and use shims to tune up the joints, even though it may not read exactly level afterwards, something I wouldn't necessarily have done if we had been shooting on a film camera. (As a matter of fact, I just finished a Panaflex show and rarely did this and never had a single complaint of a bump showing in the lens). I called some dolly grip buddies of mine who had done work with the Alexa and discovered that this was a common complaint, though maybe not as prevalent as on my show where we constantly use a long zoom and are also using the smaller diameter 15mm rods as opposed to the 19mm rods. We recently switched out to the 19mm and it seems to have helped, but it has been a pain up to now. My key grip finally told the DP that he can't redesign the camera in the field and the baseplate is an incredibly ridiculous design, so they tried the larger rods. Anyway, if you use the Alexa, be on the lookout for this. And lay it straight.
The art of Dolly Gripping is like no other job in the world. It falls to us to work out the mechanics of a particular shot, as well as offer a smooth, aesthetically pleasing move which makes the shot work and delivers emotion to the scene. It's the ultimate blend of engineering and art. This website is a place for professionals in motion picture camera platform movement to meet and swap tips, stories, and gripe a little about the difficulties we often face, but rarely get to talk about among ourselves. It's also a place for aspiring Dolly Grips to learn a little something from the old pros. So, welcome. Look around and join our little community. The site is run by myself, D, and Azurgrip, two guys who have each spent the last 20 years moving cameras around film sets. But it also benefits from the readership and participation of hundreds of Dolly and Key Grips from around the world, men and women who have helped deliver some of the most memorable and beautiful moving shots on film. So if you have any questions, please ask. You can ask questions or make comments on our message forum, which is below, just above the photos, or email us at dollygrippery at gmail dot com. We, or one of the experienced grips who frequent this site will answer.
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