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Best way to shoot a car scene without a car rig

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Hi folks


I'm shooting a short film in a few weeks and I'm figuring about a car scene with two actor having a dialog while driving, and how I should go about that. First of all, we don't have much of a budget, so a even though a car trailer would be the optimal choice, we can't afford it unfortunately.


Any recommendations of how to shoot this?


My initial idea was to shoot this infront of a green screen with tracking marks on set, to take advantage of the existing light. By doing so we could use a hand-held camera to add a sense of realism with the background moving (very slightly) in conjunction with the actors and the car.

AFTER we've shot infront of the green screen, we go out and shoot the background plates, at the same camera position we used shooting the green screen shots. I believe this could work.


Second idea is to shoot the whole scene in front of a rear projection screen. The problem with this I believe is to get a powerful enough projector and not destroying the black when lighting the actors. Also, lighting the car to blend in realistically would also be somewhat of a problem since we can't use any existing light.


Third idea is to let the actors drive the car. By far the easiest way to go, but not the safest. Also, they have to be focused on driving the car, so their acting might suffer from that.


Any ideas? I would appreciate it a lot!




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Personally I'd go for the actors driving a real car on location - but it depends on the kind of film you are making. I saw a great short film many years ago (actually shot on Black and White Super 8) set entirely in a car with a locked off shot through the windscreen and the background rear projected. The result was entirely fake looking but that was the idea. It echoed the use of such techniques in the classical period. I read it as a critique of the technique as much as a surreal homage.


If going for a green screen or rear projection set up there are different philosophies - the conventional one being to take a "realistic" approach, ie. where you aim to produce a result that doesn't look like it was done using green screen or rear projection - ie. looks like it was shot in a real car on location. This is obviously the most difficult approach but can have it's own kind of reward. The worst approach is aiming at this result but failing to achieve it. And failing to achieve it is both very easy to do and looks really really bad. But this approach also begs the question as to why? If one is aiming at a realistic result why not actually shoot it in real life - one will get the sought after realism automatically. Even the acting will be real life looking.


The real reason green screen shots are done (or should be done) is because one is not aiming at realism. Here there are all sorts of possibilities from the comical to the surreal.


In this approach it is not the faking of reality as such but the creation of a substitute reality. A parallel universe. Here the issue is not how realistic you can make the shot but what kind of world you are wanting to create. It might be a completely fantastic world or one that echoes the ordinary world in some way - but the last thing you'd be aiming at is realism. This is simply because realism proper is about shooting on location in the real world.



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You can film them talking from the back seat, hand held. the interior may be a bit dark so you could probably use a small Kino which you can connect to the lighter compartment of the car, and use fast primes. or you could just rent a rig, they're not terribly expensive to rent, it would save a lot more money than using green screen.. http://www.hdgear.tv/SUPPORT/Car_Mount_-_Hostess_Tray



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Hi Carl and Joshua, thanks for your reply! I've thought about what you've said and we have decided to let the actors drive the car! The sound guy wasn't happy, but as you guys mentioned, letting them drive saves us a lot of time and trouble in post.


We are going to shoot this short on a RED Scarlet Mysterium-X and was thinking if HDRx would be a suitable option for me? Since we're shooting in a car, it will be dim inside and very bright on the outside thanks to the snow on the ground.


What compression would you recommend shooting in? 3:1 - 18.1? When shooting in HDRx, do you get double the amount of file size?


Thanks in advance


Best Regards

Patrik Ingvarsson

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I've done scenes where the actor is really driving, but it's best if there's very little other traffic around, the actor driver has limited actions other than driving the car and isn't involved in an emotional scene. You should check on any insurance restrictions and consider their driving skill levels.

Edited by Brian Drysdale
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I've never even touched a Red camera in my life, but it would be safer to do tests with the camera to see what you like, it's one of the common rules of cinematography, some cinematographers spend months testing before shooting, something I should also learn how to do. There was one thing that a filmmaker said about sound that stayed with me when it comes to doing ADR, which is that the intital recording done whilst filming retains a quality in the emotion and tone of the actor that cannot be replicated in ADR - I believe it was Noah Baumbach who said that. But I think the sound would be fine, if you rolled up the windows and used wireless mics, a wireless mic is more directional than a boom mic which captures a lot of ambient noise.

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I shot a movie a long time ago that was almost entirely set in a car. We towed the car. Nothing fancy, just some chains and ropes and a pick-up truck. This was mostly for sound reasons, though it did free up the actors from having to drive. THere was still a lot of noise, so we couldn't go over around 20 mph. Fortunately, it was set at night, so we found some empty streets. Camera was mounted to the hood of the car with this big suction-cup, around 12' in diameter that had a Mitchell cheese-plate mounted to it with a basic tilt and pan function. We found that at a rental house in Chicago, and it was pretty cheap. For lighting we just taped some bare 12" Kino's to the ceiling of the car running off the cigarette lighter I think. Obviously, if you're shooting in a high profile area, this wouldn't be such a good idea.

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I'm with Joshua on ADR - I wouldn't use it. I'm from a low budget film background where the sound of the camera itself (let alone any other unwanted sound) was something I've encountered quite often. But no matter how much ADR I did to clean up a troublesome take, it would never work. It was always far more effective to leave the faint background chatter of the camera in there, or some other sound, than to put a substitute dialogue track in. The original performance always seemed to carry the scene far better. Miscellaneous sound is like the grain of film. You don't notice it after a while and when you do it just adds to the strangeness the film - if that's the kind of film you are making of course.


From a sound perspective I'd try and work with the location sound as given. Just get the microphones in close and ensure sound keeps being recorded past where the cut is supposed to happen, for a good amount of time, ie. with dialogue on hold. And give the same room to lead in time as well - the idea being to give the editor some wiggle room - to allow the background sound an opportunity to arrive through a previous shot and exit through a subsequent shot.


This might require more shot planning of course, rather than a guerilla style on-the-day approach, but planning is one of the best ways of working within constraints and budget. Storyboarding the shots in advance can be a really good thing. One can think through in advance all of the problems one might likely encounter, but also which problems one doesn't have to address, eg. the fact that a particular low angle shot need not have to involve the car moving (and all the problems that entails).


The downside of planning is that it requires more imagination, and any deficit in such risks being reproduced on location. Whereas on location one can become inspired (by reality). Sitting at a desk one can be less so.



Edited by Carl Looper
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Third idea is to let the actors drive the car. By far the easiest way to go, but not the safest. Also, they have to be focused on driving the car, so their acting might suffer from that.



I suggest you go to U-Haul and rent a “car carrier” to tow behind a pick-up truck. A number of commercial productions I have worked on have done this with great success.



I don’t recommend that you try to power lights with an inverter through the lighter socket. Car lighter sockets are only capable of handling a couple of hundred Watts at most and you usually require at least a 400W HMI to provide fill during a day lit shoot. To run a small HMI you can use a "Battverter" - which is a Battery/Inverter system. A "Battverter" system consists of a 12V DC power source (usually Marine Cells), a DC-to–AC True Sine Wave Power Inverter, and a Battery Charger. Wire these components into a Road Case or milk crate and you can put it on the floor in the back of the car.


Here are some production stills that show you two Battverter systems I built to run lights in vehicles at various times. The first is a 750W "Battverter" rig wired into in Calzone case.



To maximize the running time on the batteries, I made up a "jumper cable" that we attached to the leads of the pickup truck's battery. That way the engine alternator charged the batteries as they were being discharged by the light. Tie–ing the Battverter into a vehicle engine will extend the running time on your Battverter batteries so much that they may never run out of power.



The production stills below show a more elaborate 1800W Battverter system that we built to run 16 - 4’ kinos tubes inside the airport shuttle bus. Use this link for details on how we wired it into the shuttle bus.


(Kino Flo 4x4s rigged to an exo-skeletal frame of a Shuttle Bus and powered by an 1800W Battverter)


If you don’t require a lot of light, a Battverter will even enable you to use a car engine as a generator. Use the engine to run the lights through the Battverter as described above during set up and rehearsals. When it comes time to shoot a take, simply shut off the engine and continue to run the lights on the Battverter alone. Running the vehicle engine between takes charges the batteries so that they will run lights all night.


(Custom 1800W BattVerter powers 16 - 4' Kino Flo single tubes rigged

in the interior and on the exterior of an Airport Shuttle)


When building these rigs, keep in mind that when voltage goes down, amperage goes up. Wire that carries 12V DC has to be much larger than that which carries the same load at 120V AC. For instance to supply 12 volts to the 1800W inverter used on the shuttle bus required that we run 2 ought feeder to the buses' alternator. Also be sure that the alternator is large enough to take the load without burning out.


Finally, You have to be really careful when choosing a DC-to-AC inverter for film production because there are three basic types of inverters and not all of them are suitable for all types of motion picture lights. For more information on what type of inverters to use with different type of lights I would suggest you read an article I wrote about portable generators that is available online at http://www.screenlightandgrip.com/html/emailnewsletter_generators.html. Since inverter generators use the same three types of inverters, the information in the article is applicable to stand alone DC-to-AC inverters designed for use with batteries as well.


If you don’t want to tie batteries into the car’s alternator, you should consider using a small portable generator. But, you don’t want to use a generator, like the Honda 2000, that has a gravity feed for fuel. The fuel sloshes around and causes the generator to run erratically. I suggest you instead use a generator that has an electric fuel pump like our 7500W modified Honda EU6500is Inverter Generator. The fuel pump assures that not only will the engine receive a continuous feed of gas, but also that it won’t run out of gas in the course of a production day. The EU6500 is so quiet that you will not hear it in the car with the windows closed and, as you can see from the picture below of another rig, it is cable of powering large HMIs for daylight fill.


A 7500W modified Honda EU6500 powering a couple of 2.5HMI Pars on a car rig.


If you have any questions about using inverters or generators, I would suggest you read an article I wrote on the use of portable generators in motion picture production. Harry Box, author of “The Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook” has cited my article in the just released Fourth Edition of the handbook. In addition, he has established a link to it from the companion website for the Fourth Edition of the Handbook, called “Box Book Extras.”



Of the article Harry Box states:


"Great work!... this is the kind of thing I think very few technician's ever get to see, and as a result many people have absolutely no idea why things stop working."

"Following the prescriptions contained in this article enables the operation of bigger lights, or more smaller lights, on portable generators than has ever been possible before."


If you haven't yet read the article, or looked at it in a while, it is worth reading. I have greatly expanded it to be the definitive resource on portable power generation for motion picture production. Use this link to read it on-line for free.



Guy Holt, Gaffer, SceenLight & Grip, Lighting and Grip Rental & Sales in Boston.

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