DIY Camera Dolly & Track System

June 18, 2012 — 4 Comments

One of the most valuable things you can do for your video productions is to add camera movement. I’m not talking about the “shaky cam” fad that seems to be so overdone in too many videos. I’m talking smooth camera slides. Some time ago, I mentioned I was on the look-out for a DIY camera slider. I found a camera slider that met the cheap requirement, but it’s limited to slide distances of only about 20-inches – not bad, but not great. So, I set out to build a slider system that I could transport with a truck but that was very easy to assemble – for about the same price as that little camera slider. See if I accomplished my goal after the break.

I set several criteria for my build:

  1. Cheap – no more than $200, but as close to $100 as possible.
  2. Easy to assemble – this had to be something I could teach (in 2 minutes) to a new grip.
  3. Off-the shelf parts – I did not want to fabricate anything, mainly because I wanted to be able replicate it easily.
  4. Elevated – Most dolly track systems sit on the floor, requiring a relatively smooth surface.
  5. Versatile – most of the systems are fixed-width, limiting the size of the tripod dolly that you use.
  6. Rugged – It needs to last and withstand various environments.

Rails

The most important part of the dolly track system is the track. It needs to be smooth and sturdy, so that your camera moves smoothly. I found some 10′-6″ metal rails that are used for chain-link fencing. They are about 1.5 inches in diameter. Potentially, this can give you 10′ of slide! You can also use metal electrical conduit. I chose the fence rails because they are galvanized to prevent rust.

Pedestals

There are many ways to elevate track. I considered many alternatives. For instance, I considered something like saw horses, but the problem is that they are either fixed height, or they are adjustable at intervals that are too large to be sure the track stays level in difficult situations (like outdoors). The research for the perfect pedestal was the hardest part of putting this thing together – a search that nearly killed the whole project out of frustration. Finally, I found perfect solution: stack jacks. They are used to support RV’s and Camper shells. The beauty of these things is that they have about 12″ of adjustment, with a screw post!

I bought a total of 6 stack jacks. I modified 4 of them by screwing metal hose clamps to the top of them. The idea is to slide the rails into the clamp at each end of the rail, then tighten the clamps to hold the rails securely. Here is what they look like with the clamp added.

The other two stack jacks are to support the middle of the track. The problem is that I can’t use clamps in the middle since they would be in the way of the dolly. The solution I came up with was pretty easy but required an over night “dry time.” First, I setup the track with the four clamp stands. Then I wrapped the center of the track with some plastic food wrap. I elevated the end clamp jacks about 1/4″ each to raise the track above the center supports, which I placed under the plastic wrapped section of rail. I filled the gap with a liberal amount of silicon sealant. It looked like this during drying:

The next day, I slit the plastic wrap to remove it from the rail but keep it still attached to the stack jack. Then I gently removed the plastic wrap leaving a cushy, concave “bed” for the rail to sit in. Here’s a close-up of the center support before trimming:

End Stops

The last thing you want is your dolly to fall off your elevated track. The solution to this was pretty easy too. Back to the fencing products, I found some end rail clamps. They are meant to provide a “T” connection. I set it up so that the leg of the “T” prevents the dolly from sliding off. I crimped one side to fit inside the other for easy assembly:

Extras.

I also added some foam pads that I had to use indoors to prevent floor scuffing by the stack jacks. I also added the nut drivers needed for the jack clamps and the end-stops.

Judgement Time!

Did I meet all my requirements?

  1. Cheap – YES! The cost of the project is about $120.
  2. Easy to assemble – YES! It can be setup in less than 5 minutes.
  3. Off-the shelf parts – ALMOST! Everything was off the shelf except for the silicon bedding.
  4. Elevated – YES! Can be elevated up to 24-inches from the floor.
  5. Versatile – YES! It can be used with full-on tripod dollies, as well as smaller cart type dollies.
  6. Rugged – YES! It’s basically all-metal, either galvanized steel or cast aluminum.

Here’s what she looks like in action!

Future Improvements

One thing I am definitely going to add additional “center” supports. The current setup works, but you can induce bouncing if your rig is really heavy. Putting stack jacks at a 2-foot interval instead of 5-foot interval would really firm it up.

Another thing I am stillĀ  mulling over is a way to easily fasten the center supports to the rail.

I’m also thinking about an easy way to adapt what is already in the kit to be able to be elevated even more – like some kind of adjustable base to mount the stack jack pedestals on.

herbhalstead

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Herb is the lead pastor at Thrive Church. Herb also does freelance web design, 3D architectural modeling, and works as an architectural designer.

4 responses to DIY Camera Dolly & Track System

  1. Love this idea for a DIY camera dolly from @geekrevdotcom http://t.co/bx8L7WEC

  2. How did you end up mounting wheels to your tripod? What size of wheel did you use?
    Have the pipes slipped off the center pedestals from not being actually mounted?

    • The wheels are mounted via a tripod dolly base like this one. The pipes have not slipped off, but I have not been very aggressive with it. I suggest screwing up through the circular plate into the bottom of the pipe with a self-tapping screw. If you do that, you might want to mark the bottom of the track with a sharpie or something so you don’t mess up the smooth topside at a later date.

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