Remote-controlled Vehicles and the Roles They Play on the Silver Screen

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

Whilst computer-generated special effects and stunt driving make for impressive watching, remote-controlled vehicles allow filmmakers to push the boundaries of what is possible to create bigger, bolder and more elaborate scenes.

As well as being technically advanced and able to achieve effects and stunts that manned vehicles could never safely do, the craftsmanship of big-screen, remote-controlled vehicles is incredible. To the untrained eye, they look, run and operate like real vehicles and sometimes they fool the enthusiasts too. 

Remote-controlled vehicles help recreate extreme incidents

In 2010, director Tony Scott’s final film hit the screens just before his untimely death in 2012. Unstoppable centred on a runaway train pulled by the AWVR AC4400CW, threatening disaster to populated areas of Pennsylvania. The film was loosely based on the CSX 8888 (or ‘Crazy Eights’) incident of 2001, where an unmanned runaway CSX Transportation freight train (an Electro-Motive Diesel SD40-2) carrying cars filled with hazardous materials narrowly avoided disaster in Ohio. The engineer who chased CSX 8888 in the real incident, Jess Knowlton, was the technical advisor for Unstoppable.

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Scott’s interpretation featured a leased General Electric AC4400CWs – a 4,400-horsepower diesel-electric locomotive built between 1993 and 2004 – and an EMD SD40-2s – a 3,000-horsepower C-C diesel-electric locomotive built from 1972 to 1989 – both operated by remote control for the film. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine performed many of their own stunts for the film, jumping from car to car on the remote-controlled train (which was completely empty, making it unstable on the tracks), though acrophobic Washington had several stuntmen. 

Boys and their toys: action films and remote-controlled vehicles go hand in hand

As well as enabling filmmakers to create spectacular and seamless movie moments, remote-controlled vehicles have also held starring roles in many action films. Since the invention of the first commercially available remote-controlled car by Elettronica Giocattoli in mid-1966 (a 1:12 Ferrari 250LM), they have featured heavily in a variety of ‘lads’ films – indulging a long-held obsession with ‘boy toys’ and gadgets. 

From 1998’s Small Soldiers (featuring remote-controlled helicopters, cars and tanks) to 2003’s Bad Boys II (with a Tamiya TXT-1 monster truck), remote-controlled vehicles have been used to attack the enemy in testosterone-driven, action-packed films across the years. From monster trucks and Ferraris to the Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, lifelike remote-controlled cars are still widely available for men who can’t get enough of the action.   

Causing havoc with cleverly crafted miniatures

When Clint Eastwood’s fifth instalment of the ‘Dirty Harry’ series, The Dead Pool, came out in 1988, the RC10 was already available on the commercial market. The film features a modified 1:10 scale 2WD RC10 with a Parma International 1963 Chevrolet Corvette body, filled with an explosive bomb, and an electric motor (the internal combustion engine noises were added in). Its body has custom aluminium rims and thin, buggy front tyres, with sturdy scuff plates to allow it to reach the speeds required during filming. The car is driven under Nolan Kennard’s Mercedes Benz as he’s backing out of his driveway and, later, in a famous chase scene, in pursuit of ‘Dirty Harry’ Callahan through the streets of San Francisco.

The ultimate contraption for gadget-loving men

Before the iPhone came along, being able to use your mobile phone for things other than phone calls was a novelty: phones were only seen as cool and innovative gadgets in the movies. In 1997, Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond uses his Ericsson phone to control his new BMW 750iL, known as the ‘Bulletproof Beamer’, from the back seat in Tomorrow Never Dies as he’s being chased and is lying on his side to avoid being hit with a bullet. 

The four-door sedan, which he is given by Q, is an exact copy of the BMW 750iL, except it has been kitted out with an electric security system, missiles in the sunroof, re-inflating tyres, bulletproof armour and glass, and a fingerprint-activated safe in the glove compartment. Interestingly, the BMW 750iL was actually rigged so that a stunt driver could operate the vehicle undetected, while Brosnan was filmed ‘driving’ the car remotely. 

The future of remote control for cinema

Remote control has brought us some of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history, and they will continue to be re-watched and relived for years to come. In its early days, remote control technology was celebrated in film for what it was: a new and exciting gadget. In later filmmaking, it took on a more practical character, allowing directors to create exceptional shots that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. 

Now, the tech that’s really making waves in the modern film industry is drones. Spectre, The Wolf of Wall Street, Jurassic World, The Expendables 3: all these big-name Hollywood hits were filmed using drones, allowing filmmakers to capture high-speed aerial footage that surpasses the abilities of other cameras. Just like remote-controlled vehicles, drones have added new possibilities to film.

It’s safe to say that, where there’s action, there’s going to be remote-controlled vehicles, drones and gadgets aplenty.

About the Writer 

Lee Carnihan, Outreach Manager, Further

Lee Carnihan blogs about art, design, photography, travel and technology, especially the future of technology and what it means for business, culture, people and the planet.

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