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DIY tracks, cable cams
What’s the difference between any ordinary dolly and a camera dolly? Also, look to use PVC, which is available in sizable lengths and is easy to cut, to your needs to build your own dolly.

DIY Dolly Tracks, Cable Cams: Creating Motion Video On Budget

Motion can pull anyone into a conversation or discussion, giving a real feeling of depth and dimension to your scene, better than even the most intense depth of field or rack focus shot.

We’re all aware of how vital content creation is to the success of media ministries.

I have good news. PVC is your new best friend.

More than 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every hour of every day. The global population has developed a ravenous appetite for original content, and rightly so.

Given the quantity and ubiquitous availability of video through so many outlets today, it is a reasonable expectation for the average person.

Quite simply, it’s the foundation from where we seek entertainment and how we digest information. Regardless of quality at times.

When contemplating the massive quantity of films, shows, shorts and vignettes out there, all reaching for the same audience that you are, a question arises. Message aside … how do you engage your audience visually, in an organic, visceral, relatable way?

Motion.

Well placed or timed camera motion can bring your viewers into a scene, as though they were actually entering a room or walking with or around your principal subject.

Motion can pull anyone into a conversation or discussion, giving a real feeling of depth and dimension to your scene, better than even the most intense depth of field or rack focus shot.

Depending on the scale or scope of what you’re shooting, this can be a pricey endeavor.

Luckily, we’re going to skip a lecture on the nuance of camera motion and jump right into cash-saving measures, to get you out of the gate, without spending thousands on equipment that realistically you probably won’t often end up using.

If you’re looking for step-by-step building plans, get on YouTube. I’m only here to tell you what you’ve been overlooking and to inspire you.

Much of this will sound absurdly simple.

That’s because it is.

Do not overthink this

You will. Your gut instinct is to research how they do it in a studio production, before jumping on Amazon, or a certain photo/video supply website that is identified by a pair of initials to shop for pro-level dollies or cable trollies or baby-sized railroad tracks to scoot your camera along with.

Is pro equipment good? Yeah, of course. It’s great.

Does that mean you need to throw away $1,500 on a mechanical, programmable, remote mobile app-controlled, time lapsing, satellite tracking slide, to capture the two or three shots you have in mind?

No.

Here’s where you need to stop window shopping, and start analyzing practical effects, their implementation and potential.

For example, each Death Star fly by shown in Star Wars: A New Hope, filmed in 1977, was achieved with large slides or dollies on tracks, right? If you said “yes” or “probably,” then you’re overthinking this.

I said you would.

Star Wars was a low-budget production. It was such a triumph of filmmaking, because they used brains instead of money, to capture amazing sequences.

They put the camera in the back of a truck and drove past the Death Star model to create a forced perspective with a sense of high speed. Easy.

Need a sliding effect? Put a blanket on a table, place your camera on the blanket and pull the blanket. I promise you, it works great. With very little setup and practice, you’ll get your slide shot, and you did it with materials you already have.

I just saved you $50 to 200 minimum, on those two ideas alone.

What else do have you lying around?

Good question. Here’s another, though: What’s the difference between any ordinary dolly and a camera dolly?

Here’s your answer. A camera dolly only has three wheels. That’s only because tripods only have three legs. It certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t put your tripod or camera on something else that rolls.

A decent midrange dolly typically will have good casters, a hefty weight (for a low center of gravity and steady movement), and perhaps rails, which can run you between $200 to $300. Even then, many in that range are typically only great on very smooth surfaces, like a gym floor or flat, firm carpeting. Thanks, China.

The TV dolly that already exists in any of your small group meeting rooms, is already paid for. Put some sand bags on the bottom shelf of that dolly, and place your camera on top.

Instant camera dolly.

Yes, you can get away with paying just $30 to $50 for a dolly, but if you’re going to buy a cheap piece of garbage, I would suggest that you not buy anything at all, and just go borrow a furniture dolly from your church’s maintenance department. They won’t mind, because a furniture dolly is only ten bucks at a hardware store.

To make it work, you may have to drill some holes, and do some minor woodworking to affix your tripod securely to the dolly, but hey, the savings!

What if you do need rails or tracks for a solid shot?

I have good news. PVC is your new best friend.

It’s available in sizable lengths and is easy to cut, to your needs. It’s also super cheap. So long as you have access to a table saw, you can pull this one off without a hitch.

The first thing you’ll want to do is measure the feet of your tripod and find a pipe that size. You won’t need much, a couple of feet. You can cut it down into three smaller sections, put a notch in this and slap those bad boys onto the bottom of your tripod, like a set of shoes.

Making Tracks

Grab a pipe the length of the track you need, but large enough for the new tripod shoes to fit into. Run it across a table saw, cutting it longways into two halves. A fun fact worth mentioning here is that PVC pipe doesn’t have to be a full circle to fit into an elbow joint. You can slam it in there once it is cut.

If you feel you need to cement it in place to secure it, then go ahead, but it’ll be a hassle to break down. My advice on this front is to cut small sections off the ends of the now semi-circular pipe and hammer them into the elbow joints to secure the longer sections.

Once you have all four corners jointed, just connect them with pipes the length of your tripod’s footprint, drop sandbags onto the ends to hold it in place, slip your newly shod tripod into the new rail system that you just made, and slide away!

PVC slides easily through PVC in the right conditions. If weather or humidity are causing friction at any point no worries, a little silicone spray will fix that. There you go. A track slider for under $10.

You can build a tripod mounted slide in more or less the same way, using one-inch PVC pipe. It’s simple enough to get creative with some wood and extra camera plates that’ll fit your tripod. If you’re not handy enough to pull this off, don’t sweat it, because someone in your church probably is.

Sometimes, getting a project like this whipped up is as simple as telling someone what you need to accomplish, after which a church member could get it together for you.

What’s that? You say you need a cable cam shot?

I don’t believe in outdoor cable cams. That’s what drones are for. They do it better than a cable cam would. Save the effort.

You’d be a fool to fly a quality drone indoors, however. Having a ceiling overhead drastically changes aerodynamics and air flow. I’ve heard stories of attempts that ended in literal tears of bitter regret.

I could start talking about motors, pulley wheels, actuators and balancing systems coupled with steel wire. Or I could ask if you’ve ever seen the Death Star flyovers from Star Wars.

They shot those with a cable cam that was gravity powered. It just slid down the cable on rollers. At the end of the shot, they would reel it in with a bit of twine.

Again, brains.

I wouldn’t even go so far as to use the rollers even. Yeah, you guessed it, nylon cord and a length of PVC to hang the camera from would do it. Set it up properly and it ought to run the cable just fine. Don’t forget your tow back line.

In wrapping up, you could have come up with many or all of these ideas on your own. Indeed, there are lots of articles, plans and videos on how to make these things happen with a DIY project.

Be careful how involved you get, though, into building a fancy rig. At some point, you’re going to spend so much money and labor on it, that you may as well have just bought something.

The reason why you haven’t thought this through is because you’ve been focused on what you need to have to get the shot you want, rather than doing what you need to do to get the shot you could have.

Build it yourself if you can. It doesn’t matter how ugly it is.

Be a good steward of the resources you have.

When the video is finished, and it’s out there doing the ministry work it is meant to, the only person who will know what was behind the camera, is you.

 

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