In Praise of the Car Chase (and How to Film Your Own)
The car chase seems like a straightforward scene — in reality, it’s anything but. Let’s go behind the scenes with this Hollywood staple.
Ah, the car chase. It’s one of the most beloved tricks in Hollywood, involving everything from floating skids on faraway planets to high-performance roadsters in downtown L.A. We’ve been watching them since the earliest days of cinema, and even though they boil down to one vehicle literally chasing another, we can’t get enough. It’s like staring into a campfire. It shouldn’t be captivating, yet it is. Why is that?
Let’s take a look at the trusty car chase scene to plumb the depths of its grip on our imaginations. And then, in true PremiumBeat spirit, let’s see if we can’t put together a toolkit to make some chase scenes of our own.
Rules of the Road
The rules here are simple:
- You need at least one car chasing another.
- The chase can involve law enforcement, but it doesn’t have to.
- The cars don’t have to be cars.
The reasons why the chase in question began are somewhat irrelevant — because they are legion. People start chasing each other in vehicles in the movies all the time. We’re more interested in the action itself. The speed and the risk of collision and death are what keep viewers riveted. We like it when things explode, so being teased with explosions every two seconds activates the thrill centers in our lizard brains.
The “cars” can be simple, they can be souped-up, they can even be exotic concept vehicles — it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re going fast enough to justify (and sustain) a high-speed chase, we’re off to the races.
The film’s production budget has a lot to do with dictating the car chase. If the movie has an astronomical budget, then all bets are off. Special effects, explosions, acrobatics, multiple vehicles — you name it. We’ll see it all. But as you walk back the budget and start working on indie projects, that scope narrows a bit.
There are usually many takes involved in recording the chase, and you usually end up breaking a car or two (whether you mean to or not). So, at this tier, we’ll usually see vehicles that are a couple of models out of date. They’re more affordable, and we don’t have to sign the automakers on as producers simply to afford the shot. (But, of course, product placement is king, so if you can talk BMW into giving you a never-before-seen concept roadster for your chase, go for it.)
Through the Years
In what should come as a surprise to no one, we began filming car chase scenes just soon as we had a) cameras and b) cars (viz, “Runaway Match” by Alf Collins in 1903). In 1924, we watched the innovative genius of Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. — he famously filmed his difficult (and dangerous) chase scene in reverse, just to make sure it played out exactly how he wanted it to.
1968 rolled along, and Bullitt changed everything with a ten-minute, mind-blowing chase scene that rigged cameras in such a way that audiences felt like they were truly inside the vehicles. Steve McQueen was behind the wheel in this groundbreaking chase at all times — no rear projection, and no stunt drivers. The bar had been lifted on the humble car chase scene, but an even gutsier revolution was just around the corner.
The French Connection. Widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, it was listed in American Film Institute‘s Best American Films in 1988 and again in 2007. In 2005, it was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” At the 44th Academy Awards in 1972, it garnered eight nominations and won five — not to mention a Golden Globe for writer Ernest Tidyman.
So, you know, kind of a big deal.
The famous car chase in The French Connection pulled our beloved chase scene out of closed courses and cordoned-off tracks and placed it smack in the middle of busy New York traffic. But get this, it’s not a typical car chase — it’s a train chase. Gene Hackman (“Popeye”) commandeers a 1971 Pontiac LeMans, then tears through NYC in pursuit of an elevated train. DP Owen Roizman undercranked the camera to 18 frames per second to make everything feel faster (it worked), and a number of near-misses with other drivers (both stunt men and innocent civilians) accidentally became flat-out collisions — and they made it into the final cut.
What followed were a thousand individual innovations in filming the chase scene and amping up the excitement — each of which contributed to the long story of the chase scene, and the movies that would elevate it into a cinematic genre all its own, with films like the Fast and Furious franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road, Drive, Baby Driver, Hit and Run, and more. This featurette by The Insider does an excellent job highlighting this journey’s significant touchstones.
How to Film Your Own Chase Scene
If we learned anything from The French Connection, camera placement counts. One of the innovations of that famous chase scene was the bumper-mounted camera that created an immersive experience. Audiences were the car chase. It was pretty novel, and as accustomed to it as we are now, somebody had to be first.
So, at this point, we know the history, we’ve seen the featurette, and we know that car chase scenes take a lot of preparation, collaboration, and timing. Remember, kids, safety first.
But once you have your route, location, safety protocols, and car, how do you actually film the chase? Here are a few of our favorites from the PremiumBeat archives on what to do with your camera.
First up: the car mount.
At some point, it’s just not enough to hang out the back of an SUV with your gimbal. For about $30, you can use dent or glass pullers with suction cups to mount your camera securely atop your car for a first-person POV of your chase.
You’ll need a follow focus system and an HDMI transmitter to make this work. And be sure to shoot at a higher frame rate to reduce motion blur and give warp stabilizer a fighting chance in post.
So, what’s our next angle? Get low with a side mount.
Ideally, you’d use a U-Crane to do this, but if you can’t afford one, or simply can’t get your hands on one, here’s a DIY alternative.
This rig will cost about $50, and it builds upon the design of the previous rig. You’ll add some straps to be extra-double sure that the camera isn’t going to go flying off the side of the car. Here’s the gear that went into the shoot in the tutorial above:
- Canon R5: small, easy-to-balance camera with powerful codec options.
- DJI Ronin MX: cheaper gimbal option, advertised to have stronger motors with GPS capability.
- Aputure DEC Lens Regain: wireless record function control, f-stop adjustment, and less accurate focus control.
- Cinegears Rattlesnake Follow Focus: more accurate wireless focus controls that can make a photo lens feel like a true cinema lens.
- Sigma 18-35mm Art Lens: a fast lens that can change focal length without a change in barrel size or weight distribution.
- O Gear HDMI Transmitter: wireless HDMI viewing (can be glitchy based on setup and distance).
Next in the DIY filmmaker’s car chase toolkit: the Poor Man’s Process.
Poor Man’s Process
Process trailers are amazing, and they’re clearly essential in Hollywood productions, but we’re going to assume you don’t have your hands on one here. So, how can you fake their effects? Easy — use the Poor Man’s Process.
This tutorial shows how a projector, a screen, a few friends with lights, and a car jack can create a realistic interior car shot. It’s not quite as dopey as rear projection — in fact, it’s subtle enough that it could use its own name, like . . . near projection.
If you can match the exterior lighting from your other shots with intercuts of the Poor Man’s Process shot, you can pull off some of the same tricks as the Hollywood pros.
And, finally, don’t forget your drone.
There’s more you can do for your chase than simply film it from above. In this tutorial, you’ll discover a few tips you can use to enhance your drone footage — and even add some things in post to give your car chase an edge.
Cover image via Universal.
For more practical filmmaking tips, check out these tutorials:
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