Whether characters are talking or deeply immersed in action, the car scene has become a staple of movie production. Placing characters in a fixed place against an active, moving backdrop not only advances them in a physical sense but provides unique opportunities for story exposition. Shots like these have now become a director’s staple to transition a film from one plot point to the next.
That’s why it’s fascinating to see how car scenes humbly began. From camera cars to green screens, the car scenes have evolved heavily over time.
Cameras and Cars: Risks and Rewards
Not long after the first mass-produced vehicles were on the market, cars were showing up in films and aiding production techniques behind the scenes. This led to the swift adaptation of special equipment for filming scenes inside and outside of a vehicle.
For Ben-Hur in 1925, the first camera car of its kind was built in order to capture the action shots and chariot scenes that made the movie so iconic for its time. Cameras back then were especially sensitive and lacked the kind of definition achieved by today's standards, but it was the beginning of an important turn in cinematic history.
The setup was precarious and shooting the scenes could be dangerous while the technology and technique were still new. In time, manufacturers were able to build new fixtures and design car bodies specifically for the purposes of holding mounted cameras and attaching to trailers and dummy cars for better shots.
Movie Magic for Scenes on the Go
Stability and safety remain the biggest concerns facing studios and directors today. Unless the budget allows for the expensive and sensitive equipment necessary for smoothly processed shots, they may opt for safer and cheaper alternatives to cut down on costs and risks.
Before CGI was possible, this might have been accomplished by using model versions of cars for crash scenes to avoid the cost of replacing real cars for different takes. Now, even with CGI more accessible to film studios, it's still common to use a mixture of mock cars and special effects to accomplish certain scenes.
Films like The Matrix: Reloaded from 2003 are a great example of this. As a franchise that set a standard for special effects, the directors still relied on traditional methods with picture cars and process trailers for an iconic and action-packed highway shot.
Technical Tricks behind the Scenes
Scenes filmed in cars where the focus is on character development or dialog didn't require the same level of staging that ones with a lot of moving parts might, so directors were able to innovate more freely. As early as the 1940s, cinematic cameras were functional enough for handheld, close shots from angles below the passengers that weren't jarring or stifled by the process.
Once films were able to incorporate chroma key compositing post-production, shooting in green screen studios instead of openly staged lots or roads became the new standard. By shooting from angles with only one window visible behind the principal actors, directors could use stock or specialty layers of the scene's location.
Working in studios and supplementing shots with CGI meant other realistic effects could be used in combination with technological touches. Even with incredible leaps in advancement with these special effects, scenes that call for rain and other weather can benefit from traditional simulations instead of the computer-enhanced versions.
Once composite rendering developed to high definition standards, the intensity and fast-paced action of car chase scenes like the ones in the Fast & Furious franchise took it as a challenge to justify even more dangerous-looking and unbelievable stunts. These gravity-defying shots might only be a few simple and safe maneuvers performed in a studio for the actors and crew, but on screen for the audience, they bend the rules of reality.
From camera cars to models, green screens, and CGI effects, car scenes in movies are a huge aid in advancing a movie’s story. It’s been nearly 100 years since the first car scenes, and they’ve only gotten better with time.
Valerie Cox is a contributing author for Alexander Automotive.