The dolly shot: It’s an eye-popping technique. The characters it frames seem to float through the scene, divorced from their surroundings and seemingly inhabiting their own plane of existence. This is Spike Lee’s signature touch—with one glance at its usage, we immediately know that we are watching his work.
To accomplish this stylish shot, Lee sets up two dollies in the scene. Wheeled carts, often on rails, are used to allow for smooth movement in a horizontal direction (either front to back or side to side.) Usually, the camera is mounted on a dolly and follows all other movement on set. In Lee’s shots, however, both the camera and the actors are placed on dollies, which allows for the actor’s movements to be smooth and seemingly immobile while the setting slides past. It’s a disorienting effect, which gives each shot a fascinating, gliding quality.
In this montage cut together by Richard Cruz entitled “Spike Lee – The Dolly Shot (Video Essay),” we can see arguably the most iconic usage of the Spike Lee dolly shot from Malcolm X (1991)—visible 34 seconds in—as well as many other incredibly effective usages of the shot.
The glue-huffing sequence in Crooklyn (1994) (visible at the 42-second mark) is a striking depiction of a young girl’s detachment from her surroundings, both relating to her forced drug trip as well as her isolation in day-to-day life. One minute and 45 seconds into the video, another usage of the shot depicts a worsening mental state due to drugs, this time from Summer of Sam (1999). Lee’s camera swings, spins and holds a stunning, dizzying effect as Vinny (John Leguizamo) slowly descends into drug-fueled hysteria. Possibly the most effective usage of them all is from 25th Hour (2002), seen at the 2:37 mark of the video. In the shot, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character Jacob floats through the bar, his glance just shy of being straight into the camera. He is elated in this moment, yet unsure of how to feel amidst his current circumstances as he behaves markedly out of character as opposed to what the film has previously established about his personality. Lee’s dolly shot, here, expresses all of these conflicting emotions in an effective manner, telling us what we need to know about Jacob and conveying the inner turmoil that lies at the heart of 25th Hour‘s entire cast of characters.
What the dolly shot does so well throughout Lee’s filmography is express some of the director’s most integral themes. Disillusionment, prejudice and our inability to control our own actions are instantly conveyed in these shots, which separate the subjects from his/her surroundings in a jarring manner. One minute we watch Malcolm X interact with everyone around him, and in the next, we watch him glide through the street in the most important moment of his life while the powerful voice of Sam Cooke fills the film’s sound mix. As viewers, we are able to infer that Malcolm is a martyr, but he is also a slave to what must happen in his tumultuous life, as he is pushed forward without the agency of his own movement. The dolly shot is a way for Lee to encapsulate many of his themes into a single running take, much in the way that Kubrick uses one-point perspective, or De Palma uses split-screen to play on human perspective. It’s a trademark in more than one way, as stimulating as subtext as it is as spectacle. MM