Myths of handheld and Steadicam time-saving vs. dolly, sticks and planning…

William B. Demeritt III
May 29th, 2012

We should never make aesthetic choices based on economic choices. However, with the economy and industry we work in, we sometimes have to make aesthetic choices based on economic choices. Budget won’t allow for a technocrane, so perhaps a simple jib will suffice? However, when we operators hear arguments supporting aesthetic choices that are clearly uninformed budget choices, I feel we need to make ourselves heard.

Myth: “Dolly takes too long, let’s just do it on Steadicam.”
Fact: Dolly always hits their mark. Dolly doesn’t get tired. Dolly takes as much time to lay track and block out if everyone is aware as soon as possible.

For many years, I worked G&E while operating and doing Steadicam on the side. My passion was for filmmaking, so working in any capacity gave me a paycheck and an education. I feel, as an operator, the ability to speak in the language of grip and lighting is as indispensable as the language of blocking and shots. As another operator, Eric Fletcher, has frequently said: “We are the DP’s conscience.” We’re another key position that should support aesthetic decisions that best benefit the project and the DP’s collaboration with the director.

Myth: “We have a tight schedule, so we’re doing it all handheld.”
Fact: Does your story want to be all handheld? Is that how you envisioned it? We can help manage a tight schedule, but give you the aesthetic you want. Let’s talk!

I personally have laid dolly track. I’ve laid track over 40+ feet on uneven rock and dirt/sand terrain. I’ve laid track over uncut grass, washouts in the desert, even over asphalt to sidewalk curb. Even the most challenging dolly tracks I’ve laid, were it 6 sticks of 8’ straight track or straight and curved track, all took less than 10 minutes. I remember someone saying a film set is “the world’s most expensive taxi cab: once you’re in, that arm drops, and time costs money.”

Myth: “We’re losing the light, come on let’s just pop it off and do handheld.”
Fact: You may spend those last few minutes of light trying to figure out how to do it handheld when you probably could have done it the way you wanted if you’d consulted the proper people and executed it as they suggested.

They also say “$2,000 spent in pre-production and planning will save you $200,000 in oversights and problems ‘on the day’.” Whenever I heard someone say “We don’t have time for dolly track,” I can’t help but wonder, “Why not?” Does the production not have time, or do you personally not have time? Did you not allot time for dolly? Was this dolly shot a surprise?

In a perfect world, we would make the aesthetic choice the story demanded every single time, without influence of time or budgetary constraints. While we do not live in that world, we do live and work with skilled technicians who know how much time things take, and 5 minutes spent planning will save you 20 minutes spent hurrying.

The 6 P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Last minute decisions happen. Change happens constantly. However, anticipation of those changes and keeping your DP and operator in the loop will make the difference between operating like you have that perfect world where aesthetic choices rule and hurrying. While lighting is finishing up, we would be happy to figure out start and end points for the next dolly shot. While we’re cleaning up this scene, the grips are already prepping for the next dolly setup. 5 minutes preparation means we walk into a set track when “moving on” instead of 20 minutes waiting while the right equipment makes it to the set.

Do “we” not have time? Or did “you” not make time?

The Steadicam has proven itself a great tool, but so too is the dolly. Handheld has a powerful aesthetic, which made it the primary tool of film movements like cinéma vérité and French New Wave. Does it save time? Perhaps only when rationalizing it before you attempt it.

“Block, Light, Shoot”

The blocking discussion does not become simpler if the camera is on my shoulder, on my Steadicam, on a dolly or even on sticks. They’re all complicated, and to regard one as “quicker” or “easier” is to disrespect the shot’s purpose, the performances, the lighting and any other nuances that tell the story. We will always need to know where the camera should be and what it should see throughout the shot.

Handheld may save you the 2 minutes it takes to bring in the sticks and set the height, but shallow focus and imperfect distances from the focal plane to the subject could compromise fidelity of the focus. Same can be said for Steadicam versus dolly: I do my absolute best to hit my marks, hoping the actors do as well. However, the dolly ALWAYS hits their marks.

The point I’m trying to make (albeit fairly sloppy) is that your camera operators and Steadicam operators are skilled technicians, not just with their equipment, but with the language of film, the intricacies of blocking and the methods to best achieve your vision. The more of your vision you share, and the more of the constraints you share, the more we can collaborate with bringing your vision to the screen.

Give us those 5 minutes, and we’ll help bring your audience the exact aesthetic you wanted, not the one others convinced you that was all you could afford. “So while we’re waiting for these last minute tweaks, what’s the next shot? Cool, I’d love to go take a look at it while we’re waiting.”

William B. Demeritt III