Recently, DP Rob Lyall talked to us about his experience shooting an upcoming National Geographic special in Egypt and Morocco. In this interview, he discusses how he utilized the CamTram portable dolly in the desert, over rough terrain and inside pyramids. He also describes how CamTram performed alongside traditional dolly equipment.
For this project, did you have a large budget and crew, or were you working with more limited resources?
Like many documentary films these days, it involved traditional, vérité, documentary-style filming, and then a film-style shoot to capture dramatic reenactment scenes. The vérité scenes of the film were shot with a small crew in Egypt, and the dramatic recreation scenes were filmed in Morocco with a sizable film crew, grip trucks, wardrobe, actors, extras, special effects, etc.
How did you find it switching between these two very different styles?
Creatively, it’s easy to switch between the two styles of filmmaking—I look at them as storytelling in much the same way. As the style of the narrative changes from one format to the other, I look for ways to connect the reality of the present day story to our dramatic interpretations of history, while working within the confines of a documentary budget.
Camera movement is a classic tool for this, though it’s highly impractical to cart a cine-style dolly around on your documentary shoot… and many of the other small, portable dolly systems have pitfalls that outweigh the benefits.
Do you consider budgetary or artistic demands first when you select a dolly, or are both equally important to you?
Audiences have a fairly sophisticated visual vocabulary whether they know it or not, so the dramatic scenes have to look like big-budget Hollywood productions on relatively miniscule shoestring budgets—not even the whole shoestring is available these days… maybe just the plastic tip-part that helps you thread the string through the holes… and the shoestring is old, frayed and knotted… and might break at any moment… (Thank you for indulging my metaphorical gripe.)
That being the case, we have to look for new tools to deliver the best of our craft, and I have to say the CamTram is one of the cleverest tools I’ve seen in a long while. The proof is on the screen—solid, smooth dolly moves that feel like they were laid on golden track, meticulously leveled by a seasoned crew and pushed by a 400lb dolly-grip named Manny. The secret is I set it up myself and was on to the next shot after five minutes.
Tell us a bit about your first impressions of the CamTram.
I was immediately intrigued by the CamTram’s ability to use readily available materials for track. It isn’t too much of a stretch to find an extension ladder, pipe, steel tubing, lumber or some other smooth rigid surface in most parts of the world.
What were your locations for the Nat Geo special, and how did they influence your dolly selection?
In Egypt, we filmed in the desert, on the Nile, in tombs, and even a few aerials via hot air balloon. Because of the varied conditions, I needed a dolly system that would be flexible, portable and fast. The CamTram fit the bill. In Morocco, we shot nights in some natural caves, on a lake, and on a temple set at one of the studios in Ouarzazate (the Hollywood of Morocco).
What track did you use for the CamTram, and how did you select your materials?
Generally, ladder sections were particularly well suited for this job because we were operating in very difficult to reach, uneven terrain in narrow tunnels several hundred feet underground. A lightweight, highly portable, solid system that could run over rocky, unstable surfaces and setup quickly was essential.
We used extension ladders, when we could find them. Many of the ladders in Egypt are “A” shaped, so, in some locations, we constructed our own track. In Luxor, our fixer had some track constructed for us out of 1-inch square steel tubing. That was perfect and rigid enough that we could run the CamTram across a 12-foot span without any additional support.
What do you see as the advantages of using the CamTram in conditions such as these?
The key to the system for me is that I can set the track on two points at either end of a move and not have to worry about supporting the span at points along the way. It’s also not necessary for the track to be perfectly level. You can level the tripod head to the horizon (or not, for the Dutch shots) in the ball receiver on the CamTram just like a hi-hat or a tripod. The orientation of the track to the horizon doesn’t change because it’s a straight, rigid rectangle between the two points… so right off the bat, you’ve eliminated two of the most time consuming aspects of using a traditional dolly—support and level.
What was the rest of your camera, lighting and rigging package on this shoot?
I had my VariCam package with the Fuji 4.5mm wide-angle HD zoom and the Fuji 22x HD zoom, along with a few Joker 800 Pars, universal voltage Diva lite, Mini Flos, Litepanels, etc., a magic-gadget flicker-box (for firelight effects), some GAM stickups and a Long Valley 7 Jib, which complimented the CamTram nicely for camera movement. I also had an Innovision probe lens for working with the hieroglyphs… and the cobras… but that’s another story.
In Morocco, we had a complete grip and lighting package, with a German-made dolly, 1.2K Pars, 4K Pars, 6K Pars, a sizable tungsten package, a squeaky fogger that didn’t work, and a wonderful special effects guy with a flame-thrower and several large tanks of propane.
So, you were using the CamTram alongside a larger, traditional dolly. What was the division of labor?
We used the big dolly on crane moves and a few long runs. The crew got into a rhythm of switching off shots between the big dolly and the CamTram. In the setup time of the big dolly for one shot, we could get several other shots off with the CamTram, capitalizing on the strengths of each system for particular shots. This was very efficient and satisfying way to work.
What would you say was the primary difference between working with the CamTram and a standard dolly?
The CamTram is fast. I can have a lens up and sliding on the track before the dolly grip can grab his box of wedges… We had a shot with an actor riding on a standard dolly on 16′ of track, which needed to be tracked by another dolly running parallel to the actor. It took the dolly grip and two others twenty minutes to set and level the track over the rocky terrain, using a truckload of apple-boxes, cribbing and wedges. When it looked like they had a few minutes to go, my AC and I grabbed a ladder and set it between two of my Pelican cases, and popped the CamTram on the track.
Because the angle of the track with respect to the horizon is consistent across the entire run, when you set level with the ball of the tripod head at one end of the track it’s the same at the other, eliminating the time it takes to level the track. This is a huge time-saver.
Were there any shots on this job that would have been difficult or impossible to get with a standard dolly?
Several of the shots in the film were in narrow tunnels that were several hundred feet down in tombs and pyramids. I’m a Steadicam operator as well, so I instinctively turn to that tool for shots involving fluid camera movement. This project posed several challenges, including the fact that some of the tunnels were only four or five feet tall, making it impossible to stand upright.
We were also doing a lot of detail work with hieroglyphs on the tomb walls with an Innovision probe lens, so being able to land the lens a centimeter or two away from a 3000-year old, priceless plaster sculpture with a certain degree of precision was, shall we say, rather important.
What did the local crew think of the CamTram?
Our Key grip went through several packs of cigarettes marveling at the CamTram. Several times, I caught him rubbing his beard, shaking his head, and muttering something in French that sounded, well… pretty good. As the sun was rising at the end of our last night of shooting and we all said goodbye, I think I saw a tear in his eye as he bid the CamTram farewell… or maybe it was the dust storm.
How do you find traveling with the CamTram?
The new version (2500) breaks down to nothing, and the weight of the basic system is negligible. On shoots where I’ve needed to be conservative with the number of cases to fly, I’ve been able to pack the bits and pieces of the system in with my other kits. I’ve even had the wheel trucks in my personal bag. A puzzling mystery for the TSA, I’m sure.
As we wrap up, is there anything else about working with the CamTram that particularly stands out for you?
The thing I like most about the CamTram is the simplicity of its design. The wheel trucks are beautifully engineered to rock over imperfections in the track—no single wheel is connected directly to the chassis.
And, the thing sets up so quickly! Who says, “hang on…I just want to grab a quick dolly shot here”? Until now, there was no such thing.
What’s next for you?
I’m headed to the Chachapoyas region of northern Peru on a film for National Geographic. One of our principal locations is a 200m rappel down a rock face onto a terrace with an archaeological dig. I plan to use the CamTram to film some climbing sequences, some of the archaeology, and for some time-lapse still photography work. We attach a small stepper-motor to the CamTram, which allows it to transit the track in a consistent move over four or five hours… it’s a great effect.
For more information on Rob Lyall’s work, visit RobLyallProductions.com.
Below are more images are from the shoot.