This is something that we have harped on time and again. I often get emails from young beginning dolly grips asking what they can do to improve their skills, and thus, their hireability. Many are just out of college and have decided that this is a career they want to pursue. I always tell them,"Be a set grip first." I don't think you can be as effective as a dolly grip if you don't know the fundamentals of set lighting and rigging. Aside from this, there are a lot of subtle rules of behavior to working on a set. Unwritten laws abound in this business and you can often offend someone or put your ignorance on display for all to see, and have no idea what you did if you don't take the time to immerse yourself in set life and learn it's rhythms. This is not fun to hear I can imagine, but believe me, it makes all the difference in the world. It will teach you endurance and discipline. It will teach you the correct way to work and how to be as efficient as you can. You will learn to immediately assess a situation, formulate a plan, and attack, all the while ignoring the pouring rain, pitch dark, and freezing cold in which you're expected to perform.. As a dolly grip, you have little time to mull over the situation. You can't stand there and "ummm" and "uhhh" with a vacant look on your face as the operator or DP, or both, wait for your solution. You are constantly thinking a step ahead, and set gripping teaches you all this. If you're young and just out of college, don't worry, you have time, and all the more reason to take the proper steps and learn the job from the bottom and inside out. Aside from this, I can't tell you how many times the dolly grip has to take over the set if the key grip has to step away (and he will sooner or later). Now you're the defacto key grip. Any minute now, the DP will look over at you and ask if you can rig a camera in the ceiling, or fly a 20x20, or flag the condor, or set a double off an actor, or "Hollywood" a lenser. If you haven't been a set grip, odds are you have no idea and fumble for your radio trying to whisper that you need help. If you were a good set grip, you confidently take a second and give an answer, then you start feeding orders on the radio. Believe me, this will happen sooner or later. Take the time.
OK, now you've been working the set for a couple of years. It's time to move on. You've probably been working with a key grip pretty regularly and you let him know you'd like to push dolly. Now, he can start throwing "B" camera jobs at you. Maybe an operator you're friendly with has a low budget show and he's willing to give you a shot. All of this is an opportunity to learn. Go to a rental house. Familiarize yourself with the dollies. They are the tools of your trade and you should be intimately familiar with what they can and can't do. Learn approximate lens heights for any configuration. Learn what you need to do a Lambda shot off the side. How about straight off the front? It's about making the operator comfortable while achieving the shot. How far do you offset the track?. Do you need to offset the track? You have to be right the first time. You don't want to be relaying it while the DP checks his watch. Get all the accessories out and learn what they do and how to attach them. If you're a Chapman user or vice versa, you still need to learn the other dolly because sooner or later you will end up pushing it. As a set grip, you've probably helped put a crane together so you are already ahead on that. What are the rules for operating it? What's a sightline? These are things you have to learn. I can't tell you how many thirds I work with who don't know how to lay track. While you are a set grip, pull the dolly grip to the side and ask him to teach you. I pulled out a couple of sticks at lunch one day and taught one of the thirds how to do it after she asked me. That's all it took. Learn how to mark the wheels. Learn how to do a compound move. Then two or three in succession. Believe me, the time will come when you're on a dance floor and the operator keeps adding boom and floor marks and the more he adds, the harder you'll sweat unless you've put the time in and have learned how to remember, and then execute them. Do you know how to lay a floor? Again, something you will pick up as a set grip. You don't want to be trying to figure it out on your first job as "A" camera. How do you lay a floor across a half-inch drop off? It has to be smooth and even. If you've been a third, you already know.
As you can see, there's more to it than hitting your marks. These are a fraction of the things a dolly grip has to know, and a lot of them he picks up as a set grip. It's like taking the core curriculum in college. You have to have it before you can graduate.
Wubba Wubbba. Doodle doodle dee.
As an added bonus, here's a great article by camera operator Dan Gold SOC on the importance of the Dolly Grip to the process. http://www.soc.org/index.php?id=27&article=47