Cinerails Gets You Rolling Smoothly

Affordable way to add visual interest to shoots
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The author adjusts the Cinerails dolly to ride smoothly on the rails.

Smooth camera moves that we see on TV and in movies add lots of interest to the visuals, but attaining those moves has always been expensive. Lately, the cost to do moves like that has crept within reach of government video operations, and Cinerails just made it more affordable and practical.

The Cinerails Camera Dolly system can be used with smaller cameras and tripods, and it’s affordable enough that there’s a good chance the tripod you put on it costs more than the dolly system. It’s also literally one of the most flexible dollies out there.

FEATURES

The main components of the Cinerails Camera Dolly are a three-armed dolly platform and seven cross rails. You have to supply your own rolling rails, which need to be 3/4-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipes that are available at any big-box hardware store for less than $5 per 10-foot length. You’ll need two of them, so your dolly rails will cost less than $10.

One other item that comes with the Cinerails Camera Dolly is a ratcheting cord with a metal hook on either end. This is used to create curves in the dolly track, so that you can do both straight and curved dolly moves.

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Assembling the track took a firm press down into the cross rail.

The cross rails are 22.5 inches long and have a notch cut at either end. The 3/4-inch pipe that you supply snaps sharply into the notches and is held pretty firmly there, although the rail pipes can pop out if stressed too much.

The actual dolly platform has three arms, with a four-wheel assembly at the end of each arm. Two of the arms can pivot, so that the dolly can be folded up for easier storage, and each of the arms extends a few inches so that the dolly can be adjusted for your exact rail conditions. I assume this also means that the dolly platform will work with rails besides the system designed by Cinerails.

At the end of each of the dolly’s arms is a spot for a tripod foot. The dolly has a finger-tightened mechanism to firmly hold the tripod’s foot so that it can’t slip off the dolly.

The entire dolly platform is nicely made, looking and feeling like a more expensive piece of machinery than it actually costs. The rest of the kit is also well made, but the dolly platform probably represents 90 percent of the value. The care taken to manufacture it gives the entire system an overall feel of quality.

Cinerails sent me two sets of cross rails, for a total of 14. The company also sent two small bits of plastic called “ADtrack connectors,” which let me join two sections of pipe for a longer dolly track.

One interesting feature of the Cinerails Camera Dolly that was not on the unit I tested is its “low-mode” shooting capability. You can order the dolly platform with a standard 1/4-20 threaded camera mount for getting shots close to the floor, in addition to the ability to mount a tripod. With the low-mode feature, you could get shots that mimic the point-of-view of an animal—or use it to demonstrate what hazards look like from the perspective of a crawling infant.

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Extending the length of the track was as simple as adding ADtrack connectors.

A complete Cinerails Camera Dolly system with cross rails for a single 10-foot section of track costs $349. A second set of cross rails for another 10-foot section costs $59, and ADtrack connectors cost $8 for a pair.

IN USE

I found using the Cinerails Camera Dolly completely intuitive. I watched one video about the product on the company’s web site, then was able to assemble and use it with no further instruction.

One of the major features of the Cinerails Camera Dolly is its ability to provide whatever curve you need for smoothly flowing camera moves. To make a curve, you use the ratcheting cord with hooks on the end to bend one pipe. Once you have one pipe bent the way you want, snap the cross rails onto that pipe, then snap the second pipe into the remaining notches on the cross rails.

There’s probably several ways you can do this, but I found it easiest to get the curve first, snap on all the cross rails, then snap on the second rail working from the middle to the ends.

It was a little unsettling at first, since curving the pipes felt like I was *really* stressing them. I knew that if a pipe popped out of the cross-rail notches that it would have enough spring force to cause some damage. However, the reality is that the Cinerails system held everything just fine and there were never any issues.

With materials for two 10-foot sections and the ADtrack connectors to hold them together, I could have one section curved and another straight. This let me get a smooth dolly shot down a hall, then curving into a room. Since I had a tripod mounted to the Cinerails dolly, I could pan and tilt as I dollied in order to frame the shot the way I wanted.

Using the dolly several times on a variety of surfaces, I found that it works best on a smooth, hard surface such as concrete or a hardwood floor. Although it works on rugs, the thicker the rug is, the more likely you will cause some flexing in the surface as you walk along beside the rails rolling the tripod. You probably still can get dead-smooth rolls on carpet as you track the camera along if you’re really careful.

An alternative for carpet would be to set up your shot, attach a string to the dolly and pull it along from one end of the dolly track. That works fine if you don’t have to pan/tilt the tripod or adjust the camera’s lens.

On a hard surface, the Cinerails Camera Dolly was perfectly smooth when using my fairly light tripod and dSLR camera. There’s clearly more load capacity in the system to hold additional accessories, such as a heavy lens and prompter.

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I had to use tarps outside to keep grass from causing bumpy dolly moves.

Using the Cinerails Camera Dolly on grass presents a problem. Laying the track on grass in my back yard, blades of grass fell over the track and made dolly moves bumpy. I tried a couple different things, and had the best luck putting a tarpaulin down on the grass first, then setting the track up on that. With no grass or weeds on the track, I could get a smooth roll. Still, the system weighs so little that it can “float” on top of a tarp on the grass, and that can cause the track to shift as you walk alongside it.

One of the other important features of the Cinerails Camera Dolly is how flexible it is about going over obstacles that might stop another dolly system in its tracks. For example, going over a threshold is easy—I propped a couple of books under the track to give it support making the transition and there was no problem.

If you’ve never worked with a dolly before—and I had not—you must learn to be graceful when manipulating a tripod as you dolly. Working in fairly cramped locations, it usually took me multiple takes to get a clean dolly shot. Otherwise, I found myself stepping on or even kicking the dolly and track as I tried to move smoothly. With plenty of elbow room and space for your feet, this would be less of a problem.

A smooth dolly shot is a joy to watch, and it really adds visual interest. A straight shot can reveal interesting features in an artistic and natural way, while a curved dolly shot can bring a sense of mystery or even menace as the background changes behind a subject who’s glaring into the lens. It was really fun to see some of the shots I could get and understand their emotional response.

Breaking down the Cinerails system after a shoot, the entire kit for a 20-foot-long dolly fits into a relatively small and easy-to-carry box―except for the rails, of course. There’s no getting around the fact that the pipes are 10 feet long and need to be stored somewhere. I plan to build a simple overhead rack if I get a system like this.

MORE INFO MODEL: Cinerails Camera Dolly

LIST PRICE: $349 (not including rails)

CONTACT: www.cinerails.com

SUMMARY

The Cinerails Camera Dolly was easy to use and quite flexible, at a price I never thought would be possible for a quality dolly system. If you’re a run-and-gun shooter, you may be put off by the time and planning needed for quality dolly shots. However, once you see the results, it’s hard to go back to a shooting environment in which dolly shots do not exist.

The Cinerails Camera Dolly is a quality piece of production kit at a price that is reasonably within reach of nearly all professional video operations. Now, if I can only get the four 10-foot pipes off the floor and stored somewhere convenient, it would be just about perfect.

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