Friday, March 1, 2013

Breaking Down the Spike Lee Double Dolly Shot


Spike Lee is one of the most well known living filmmakers for a number of reasons. His controversial nature, the taboo subject matter of his films, his prolific filmography, and so on. But one thing that is discussed far too rarely is Lee’s technical style. This includes his penchant for changing aspect ratios, fluctuating film stocks, morphing color tones, and, of course, his signature double dolly shot.

If you’ve ever seen a Spike Lee film, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a moment when a character appears to be floating toward the camera. Now, most every film made uses a dolly at some point during its production. Usually, a dolly shot is executed by mounting a camera on a tripod, and mounting that tripod to a track. The camera glides in, away, back or forth. For Lee’s double dolly shot, he set up a dolly per usual, then puts the actor on another dolly, and moves the camera and the actor at the same time. So, essentially, the actor is standing on a small board that is mounted to a track, and the board is then pushed forward, as the camera is pushed away.

Denzel and Spike prepping for a double dolly shot on Inside Man
In my research, I found that many people hate Lee’s double dolly shot, because it takes them out of the story, and forces them to instead focus on the technique. Fair criticism, but I’d argue that is precisely Lee’s intention. The man uses cinematic flourishes (double cutting when people embrace, breaking the fourth wall, mixing in documentary footage; in addition to the ones listed above) to remind the viewer that, yes, you are indeed watching a movie. I don’t think that takes away from the story at hand, but rather, if done properly, only heightens the overall experience.

So with that, here is a breakdown of every occurrence of the Spike Lee double dolly shot. Please note that while many argue that Lee’s School Daze (1988) and Do the Right Thing (1989) contain this shot, they simply do not. As Lee has said previously, he discovered the technique while filming Mo’ Better Blues (1990). In fact, since 1990, he’s only not included the shot in three of his narrative films. Here’s where he’s used the shots previously, and how effective they’ve been.

Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Lee said the idea to have his character, Giant, sitting on a dolly and gliding along was a random thought he and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson came up with on the spot. In the shot, Giant is walking toward an angry bookie that Giant is indebted to. Once Giant sees the bookie, it’s as if the shot is attempting to predict the horror that may come. Giant floats on, cautious and scared. When he spots the bookie, he turns and floats away. While on the dolly, Lee can be seen moving his shoulders up and down, as if he was trying to mirror what it would look like if he was walking. He admits that technique was “really just show-offy, student film stuff,” and has since kept his characters more or less still when imploring the technique.

Effectiveness of shot: B+

Jungle Fever (1991)
For Jungle Fever, Lee used the shot twice, but in similar situations. The first instance is when Annabella Sciorra and John Turturro are walking to go on a date, and Turturro playfully pokes fun at the fact that her overprotective brothers may be retarded.

Secondly, we see Wesley Snipes and Spike Lee gliding down a quiet street, as the two argue about how much information Lee shares with his wife.

Both scenes look decent, but there’s one annoying trait: you can hear the very false-sounding noise of heels clanking on the sidewalk, as if to mimic the sound of the characters walking. But, much like Lee’s walking in the Mo’ Better shot, feet would not be heard again in a Lee double dolly.

Effectiveness of both shots: C

Malcolm X (1992)
The best, most iconic use of the Spike Lee double dolly is the hauntingly beautiful shot of Malcolm X knowing he’s walking to certain death. With the camera positioned a little low, the sky overcast, and the soundtrack crooning Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” this shot represents the best that Spike Lee’s cinematic flourishes have to offer.

Effectiveness of shot: A+

Crooklyn (1994)

Two double dollies in Crooklyn. The first takes place within a dream, where young Troy (Zelda Harris) is being chased by two dope fiends. The dopers catch up to her, force her to sniff glue and she slowly floats high into the air. Technically, this is the most proficient double dolly of Lee’s career. One that involved two dollies, a large crane, a great deal of choreography, and tons of mood lighting. The shot dips in and out of focus, the dolly is moved at various speeds and we’re whisked away, casting a perfectly dreary spell over the viewer.

The second shot is far more basic, and involves two kids running toward their stoop. To be honest, given how expert the first Crooklyn double dolly shot is, this one feels rather unneeded.

Effectiveness of dream/drug shot: A
Effectiveness of running to stoop shot: B-

Clockers (1995)
Toward the end of Lee’s Clockers, we’re privy to a handful double dollies that add serious weight to the drama. The first shows an emotionally drained Strike (Mekhi Phifer) walking outside along his housing project. He looks up and sees a no-good, doped out gangster waiting at the end of the street, and we cut to:

Shorty (Pee Wee Love) riding on his bike, paper bag-covered pistol in hand, ready to take the gangster out.

Later, when police detective Rocco (Harvey Keitel) is reenacting the crime for Shorty, Lee fills the screen with broken fourth wall tirades, including a brief moment when Keitel is on the dolly with Shorty, as Shorty rides on.

The first shot of Phifer is perfect at echoing despair, and Shorty’s slow bike ride compliments it well. The Keitel/Shorty shot, while fun to look at, is completely unnecessary.

Effectiveness of Mekhi Phifer shot: A-
Effectiveness of bike shot: A-
Effectiveness of Keitel/bike shot: B-

Girl 6 (1996)
The first double dolly in Lee’s little seen Girl 6 is one of my favorites. On the cusp of a having a mental breakdown from working for a phone sex hotline, Judy (Theresa Randle) engages in a phone sex fantasy with a scary stalker, in which Judy glides back and forth, up and down the hallways of her apartment. The walls are bathed in dark blues, bright pinks, and eerie greens, while Randle’s sensual-if-not-horrified demeanor seriously benefits the dreariness.

Later, Judy walks down the street with her ex-husband (Isaiah Washington), and… not much more. Like most second or third double dolly occurrences in one film, this one is rather superfluous.

Effectiveness of Judy/stalker shot: A
Effectiveness of Judy/ex-husband shot: C

He Got Game (1998)
He Got Game is one of my all time favorite Spike Lee films. I think it is masterwork of American filmmaking that only deserves more recognition. Its wasted double dolly shot during the film’s back-in-time credits, however, does not.

Effectiveness of shot: C-

Summer of Sam (1999)

Until researching this post, I honestly had no idea there even was a double dolly shot in Summer of Sam, which proves how subtle it is. As the film nears its end, lead character Vinny (John Leguizamo) is so continually stoned and drugged out, that he’ll believe almost anything, like neighborhood thug, Joey (Michael Rispoli) saying that the Son of Sam serial killer is indeed Vinny’s best friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody). Vinny and Joey slowly dolly toward us, before Joey walks out of frame, leaving Vinney in a drug-fueled panic. The camera bends and shifts and whirls upside down, and we know that it’s all downhill from here.

Effectiveness of shot: A-

Bamboozled (2000)
In one of Bamboozled’s first scenes, we are introduced to television executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) by having him look straight into the camera and tell us who he is. As he does this, he glides around his apartment in a crazy eight configuration, with the sun occasionally lens flaring in our faces. Nothing more than mildly amusing.

Effectiveness of shot: B-

25th Hour (2002)
Three stellar double dolly shots take place in close succession in Spike Lee’s masterpiece, 25th Hour
First, we follow Monty (Edward Burns) into the VIP section of a club. The camera follows him from behind, before craning up to take it all in.

Second, we witness an extended and brilliant shot of Anna Paquin, sweaty from dancing and high on ecstasy, slowly make her way to a VIP booth. Paquin’s convincingly stoned-out acting helps immensely, but this is precisely what Spike Lee’s double dolly is all about. Perfect in its tone.

Now, most every instance of a repeated double dolly shot within the same film has merited negative results from me. 25th Hour is the rare exception in which every one of its double shots actually gets better. Shortly after high school teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has drunkenly kissed his student (played by Paquin) he leaves the bathroom and looks right into the camera as the dolly carefully takes him away. Again, acting is a great help here, but more so than Paquin’s dolly shot, this shot perfectly encapsulates the frustration, fear and utter isolation of the man on screen.

Effectiveness of Norton shot: B+
Effectiveness of Paquin shot: A
Effectiveness of Hoffman shot: A+

Inside Man (2006)
One of the most discussed double dolly shots of Lee’s career is this frenzied execution in Inside Man. Seconds after thief Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) kills a bank hostage in cold blood, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) races on a dolly toward the bank’s front door. The camera shakes rapidly, Denzel’s face gets more and more pissed, and we’re left with a feeling of utter disarray. This shot is very stylistic, but certainly no less fun.

Effectiveness of shot: A-

Red Hook Summer (2012)
I’m not the biggest fan of Red Hook Summer. It is, simply put, mediocre filmmaking from a remarkable auteur. However. Right around the time you may have completely checked out of the movie, a character named Blessing Rowe (Colman Domingo) enters the small church of Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) and slowly glides his way up the alley, growing angrier and angrier with each passing second. This shot (and Domingo’s fearless acting) launches Red Hook Summer in a completely new direction, where it manages to gain newfound emotional intensity. In short, it’s the finest moment of an otherwise forgettable film.

Effectiveness of shot: A+

Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 of the Spike Lee lecture I recently observed

My breakdown of Lee’s entire career can be found here

And now for a treat. To view every one of these shots (and a few more single dolly shots for good measure) watch this amazing super cut video by Richard Cruz.

28 comments:

  1. I found that I hated Red Hook Summer, it just came off as so amateurish and unlike Spike. But that dolly shot was the one moment where the film managed to pick itself up, and while its my least favourite Spike Lee film it's probably the dolly shot I would consider his best.

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    1. Exactly. In a movie where so much is wrong, that shot is the one thing Spike got oh so right. Funny how Lee made that flick completely outside of the studio system, and it is arguably one of the worst of his career.

      But yeah, either way, that shot kills.

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  2. You know something, that's one of the aspects of Spike Lee I do enjoy. I always love seeing those shots. Only he can do that and you know it's him. Plus, I loved them for the fact that it is stylized and actually says something.

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    1. Same here. Whenever I see a new Spike joint and that shot comes up, I get all excited. It's kind of like Hitchcock's cameos: you know it's coming, and however brief it may be, it's enjoyable all the same.

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  3. Cool ... I always enjoy it when bloggers use both words and images to explain particular aspects of cinematography. I'll read this post after I've seen a couple more of these films.

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    1. Good stuff! Hope you like his films.

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  4. When I saw the title of this post, the one that immediately came to mind was the Malcolm X scene, which is just perfect. The resigned yet frightened look on Denzel's face fits what's going through Malcolm's head, and the device is the right move. I'd forgotten about the Clockers scene, but that also is excellent. I really need to watch that movie again. Nice work.

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    1. Thanks man. The Malcolm X shot has got to be my favorite. That's when it went from a gimmicky film school trick, to an extremely effective device.

      I hadn't seen Clockers in years but rewatched it for this post. Whoa. Great stuff.

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  5. This is a really cool post. You brought out some interesting things in a Spike Lee movie I have never noticed before. I can't belive I still have not seen He's Got Game and I hear that is his best

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    1. Thanks! In terms of Spike's filmography, I think Malcolm X is his all around best, but 25th Hour is my favorite, with He Got Game at a very close second. I LOVE that film.

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  6. Great write-up Alex, yes I completely agree the best use of the Lee's Dolly Shot is in Malcolm X. The 'Julius Caesar' moment, if you will, for the title character. He knows he's very well walking to his demise, but at this point it just doesn't matter. Either figuring that he'll forever be trapped by his his race and religion, or that his death will galvanize his people into action. He is indeed separated from reality, in this case the film portraying him and glides to his end... "E tu Elijah..."
    The one used in 25th hour is great just for Hoffman's expression, probably the first time in his life Jacob has ever been impulsive and he can't believe he had it in him. All the more shows what influence Monty has on the people around him.

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    1. "E tu Elijiah..." Jeff, you are a goddamn genius. That is the perfect way to articulate that moment.

      Also solid thoughts about 25th Hour. That's the charm of Monty Brogan: dude has an effect on people, without even trying. For better or worse.

      Thanks for reading!

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  7. The Spike Lee double dolly shot in Malcolm X was one of those massive moments for me in my ongoing film geekdom - I had really only started WATCHING-watching movies (if you know what I mean) and that shot of Malcolm "floating" made me consciously aware of how the film was being MADE. I've never forgotten it.

    I don't know. You mentioned the Hitchcock cameo in a comment and I've never much cared for the Hitchcock cameo to be honest - it's like a crackerjack prize - and that's sometimes how I think of the double dolly shot. But when Spike uses the shot right (that Paquin shot in particular) it is absolutely effective.

    Great post idea.

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    1. I know EXACTLY what you mean about actually watching movies. That's what Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver did for me. I was like, "Oh, wait, this is...wow."

      I think Hitch's cameos can be hit or miss, but I do think it's important to distinguish that, by and large, mass audiences LOVED his cameos. We may see them as slight (maybe because so many other directors do that now...?), but back then, people ate that shit up. But I do agree, sometimes Lee's double dolly's work, and sometimes they do not.

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  8. Nice idea. Of the Spike Lee films I've seen, the shot from Malcolm X and the Paquin/Hoffman ones from 25th Hour are the most effective and, of course, brilliantly executed. I forgot about the one from He Got Game. That does seem like a waste, indeed.

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    1. Thanks man. Yeah, it seems almost inarguable that the Malcolm X and 25th Hour shots are the best. Lee's has even said his favorite was the X shot.

      And yeah, that He Got Game one just doesn't work. Maybe there was no other opportunity for the shot in the actual movie, but to tack it on in the end like that...

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  9. Wow, I really like that "floating' shot but I never knew what it's called and how they do that, that was awesome to read!

    I only saw 2 of Lee's movies but Malcolm X is on my watchlist.

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    1. It is really cool looking, isn't it? Oohh Malcolm X is a fantastic movie. Can't wait to hear what you think of that one.

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  10. Dear Alex,

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I find your analysis of Lee's signature shot quite illuminating. You managed to whet my appetite for more on Spike Lee and his techniques.

    I was wondering, however, if you have already watched "Miracle at St Anna"!!! I guess there is a dolly in there you are missing.

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    1. Hey there, thanks so much for checking out the article and leaving such a nice comment. I have seen Miracle at St. Anna, and I was not a fan. I honestly do not recall the double dolly shot from that film, so if there is one, I should've stated that I intentionally omitted it.

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    2. I am not that expert either in shots. But from the nice video treat you share above, I guess I witnessed something similar in Miracle. However, I will have to rewatch the "joint" to indicate when it exactly (if ever) occurs!

      Miracle is too long and verges on the boring at times, but I am studying the combat genre and I could ill-afford to miss it :(

      Thanks for the response :)

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    3. My pleasure! I'm definitely going to rewatch Miracle at St. Anna now, because I have no recollection of its double dolly shot. Thanks again for the comment!

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  11. Great article Alex. I've discussed Spike and his dolly shots with friends while we watched a joint movie. What's amazed me is how none of my friends had ever even NOTICED it before ! ! I'm rewatching 25th Hour as we speak, which is what prompted me to Google the shot at this moment . I can't remember any other director using it, although I am sure someone must have. I think using the dolly shot during the Paquin sequence is terrific, but using it again with the great Philip Seymour Hoffman sequence is just beautiful. Definitely my favorite examples in all the movies he's used it in. As for Spike employing the 4th wall tirades....I'm growing tired of them. In my opinion the "technique" has been overused . I'd love to hear your thoughts on that. As I say, I kind of stumbled upon your piece but I will be looking for more of your articles !

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    1. Thanks Randi! Other people have definitely used this technique, but no one goes near it today, as Spike pretty much owns it, you know?

      I do agree that his extended fourth wall breaks can be distracting.

      Thanks so much for the comment, really appreciate you stopping by!

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  12. Ha! Just realized that this essay is one of many right here on this site. And I saw you've written one about Philip S. Hoffman who was my very favorite actor of this generation. I'm now settling in for some good reading ! Thank you Alex!

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    1. Thank YOU for checking out more posts on the site. That's really nice of you!

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  13. Hey, Alex. Could've sworn I commented on this long ago. It's great stuff. I hope you don't mind, but I linked this post in an essay of mine.

    http://dellonmovies.blogspot.com/2015/08/origin-of-auteur-blogathon-spike-lee.html

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    1. All good man! Dude, thanks so much for the link and the kind words on your post! I really enjoyed that piece of yours.

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