Actions Speak Louder: Storytelling with Camera Movement, Part 2

Posted in Adorama Rentals by Nathan Lee Bush on March 10, 2011

In our first post in this series, we covered tripod shots. In this post, we’ll move into dollies, steadicam and zoom shots.

The dolly changed the way filmmakers thought about the frame by enabling the use of tracking and leading the action. It started with the use of trains and cars to move the camera along a chosen path. As much as camera moves started out of a scientific necessity it also freed up the proscenium of the standard theatrical scenario. Dollying employs the use of both the techniques of the tripod with some other techniques later used by the Steadycam.

Push In/Out
Scorsese moves his camera into the action by carrying the audience towards the character, a great way to work up to a cue line. As opposed to the zoom in (discussed below) the push in doesn’t distort the background and therefore keeps the intent of the shot continuous. A key moment to look at would be in Goodfellas, where De Niro’s Jimmy Conway sees his big-mouthed debtor who he has decided to kill. The shot pushes in on Jimmy as he finishes up his cigarette and leaves the frame.

Dolly Left/Right
Moving alongside the action with extended dolly track, the camera literally can narrate the movement of the story, allowing the comic-book aspect of sequential storytelling to prevail and the potential for the unseen image to enhance the overall picture.  A good example is in Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited, where the cast has shed their past burdens and books it for the train. In a slow motion dolly shot, we see them shed their luggage and run towards the future in a classic example of camera movement as story.


A staple in the post-modernist cinema of the latter 80s and 90s, the Steadicam has allowed independent cinema to rival and even exceed the apparent production value of Hollywood. Used in place of a dolly system whenever cost effective or stylistically appropriate. Case in point, Scorsese’s infamous long shot in Goodfellas of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill and his new girlfriend Karen. In this seemingly endless take, they walk down the side door to the bar and through the back, all the way to the main floor where we get a true sense of the power our young “construction contractor” has. Steadicam is also a strong way to capture performances in two-shots while walking for extended periods of time, made famous by television show The West Wing.

Zooming is a very manipulative and strong storytelling tool that can make your audience understand immediately that your character is either in deep thought, or about to make a choice that’ll change the course of the film. Zooming can be both quick and slow, and can run the gamut of available focal lengths. Zooming can be used when there isn’t room or budget for a dolly/steadicam rig, or if there is a need to capture performance at both a wide and close angle within the same shot.

A steady, slow zoom in is the most meditative of the type and as shown in Leon: The Professional it can create layers of tone and depth in a scene, enabling the performer to keep their performance inside as much as possible, such as Natalie Portman’s Mathilda.

(zoom starts at about 2:10)

Zooming out is a very grandiose and bold move that none other than Kubrick uses throughout his underrated film  Barry Lyndon. In the film’s many elaborate sequences, he enables the camera with a sense of placement away from the action, and leads us into or out of a scene with the dialogue of the camera’s perspective changing throughout. The camera in most of Kubrick’s films is it’s own character, and especially with the narration it seems as if the camera has an elevated consciousness in the film. (zoom starts at about 2:05)


Atif Hashmi is a filmmaker based in New York City.


2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] our first two posts, we covered tripod techniques and dollies/zooms. In this post we’ll cover a technique to inject a visceral, documentary vibe into your […]

  2. […] the magnum opus of camera moves, in his three part series starting with tripod shots, moving on to dollies and zooms, and finishing with handheld techniques; And I take a moment to marvel at the incredible shrinking […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: