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Filmmaking Tips: How to Shoot Driving Scenes

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Working as a professional interior designer for many decades, I've been involved in design-and-build residential building projects.

In cinematography, up and coming cinematographers seem to have a love/hate relationship with shooting driving scenes that involve vehicles, especially when it is moving.

A car is a challenging environment to shoot in and many cinematographers, especially those just starting out, feel that the main challenge is finding a way to control or set up their lights. But driving scenes are one of the most exciting shoots in the process of film making. The reason for this is because the power and force that driving a car, especially at top speed, can give video scenes, is awesome.

For up-and-coming filmmakers and those working on a tight budget, shooting a driving scene, especially one that involves a dialogue scene inside a moving car, can be a challenge. For top feature filming that typically comes with huge funds, roads can be blocked off, cameras can be mounted to the car hood, and process trailers utilised. They can afford it, but micro-budget productions can’t afford such luxuries.

To save money and still produce movies that that look realistic and professional, other techniques need to be employed to ensure you get great shots without sacrificing quality and also take the safety of the actors into consideration.

Shooting a driving scene . . .

Shooting a driving scene . . .

Cinematography Tips for Driving Scenes

If you are a budding cinematographer, these simple tips that have been tested and proved to work can help you avoid the hassles associated with shooting driving scenes. You should be able to shoot car scenes that appear genuine and professionally put together and have your video look as good as they do in films.

There are 4 methods you can adopt to create great driving scenes.

  1. Shooting in a recording studio.
  2. Using a process trailer or tow car.
  3. Using a dolly.
  4. Installing small hidden cameras in a moving car

Shooting a Driving Scene in a Studio

One good way to control the contrast between your background and your talent for a car driving video scene is to light your vehicle in a recording studio. You can do this by setting up studio lights around the car with control and excellent precision. But one of the biggest challenges faced by cinematographers who use a recording studio for driving scenes is getting a natural looking scene that looks and 'feels' realistic enough to pass off as the outdoors.

  • Thoroughly clean the vehicle windshield and side windows so it doesn’t wash out when the lights are turned on.
  • For a realistic looking scene, you need to set up a green background (screen) and use any Chroma key program to replace the screen with your pre-recorded outdoor scene.
  • Match the vehicle's steering wheel colour with the colour of the footage that you capture so that there is some harmony between the vehicle and your background.
  • Place a soft light in the front and the side of your talent. With this, you can fill in the shadows and avoid unnecessary highlights.
  • The light must come from the same side as the sunlight in your footage to avoid breaking the illusion.
  • For the vehicle moving effect, use grips to shake the car as gently, or as rigorously as is required, depending on the speed you wish to capture and control the lights, depending on your desired results. They are also good for quickly placing objects in front of your key light and backlight, to make it appear more realistic. This will create the effect of your vehicle speeding or cruising by trees, dirt roads, poles, or other objects that tend to naturally block the sun whilst driving.

Another good set up used by cinematographers is to light your green background evenly and ensure the lighting inside the vehicle matches the natural light in your outdoor scene. When shooting your video from the side, using a strong backlight beaming from the back of your talent will aid in forming their shape from the background.

Using a Process Trailer in Film Making

Using a process trailer to tow and power the vehicle is the best method used by cinematographers to shoot a driving scene. It is the most realistic method that will give you the most control and the desired results.

A process trailer has a wide berth, serves as a moving camera platform and is towed by another vehicle. The good thing about a process trailer is that both the filmmaking crew and all required equipment can be set up around the vehicle while it is in motion.

As effective and as efficient as they can be, the only snag is that they come very expensive, and because of their large and extra wide size, they often require the use of a police escort which adds a considerable chunk to the budget.

Because a process trailer has a high level of safety that it affords the actor, uses the natural setting, and is convenient to use by the crew, it is well worth the extra cost and effort.

"A New York City taxicab loaded onto a "process trailer" with lights and cameras in preparation for a filming . . . "

"A New York City taxicab loaded onto a "process trailer" with lights and cameras in preparation for a filming . . . "

Using a Dolly in Cinematography

If you are working on a tight budget, and don’t have the funds to invest in a process trailer, you can always rent a tow dolly from a moving company and mount your lighting gear and camera to the car itself with industrial grade suction cups.

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Using a tow dolly may lack the convenience of easy electrical power output, but it still allows your talent to focus more on their lines than on the road.

A Dolly - Special mid-axle drawbar trailer . . .

A Dolly - Special mid-axle drawbar trailer . . .

Installing Small Hidden Cameras in a Moving Car

There are lots of different ways to mount cameras in a car, and not all of them have to be expensive. Lightweight cameras are easier to use if you install cameras in the moving vehicle.

Small cameras can be easily positioned using inexpensive window mounts that will hold a lightweight camera, unlike the past when filmmakers had to use elaborate rigs and trays or build and attach to position a camera at various angles on the car.

Lighting Setup for Driving Scenes

Referred to as car lighting, this method of shooting car driving scenes in cinematography is the most affordable, and the least involved effort-wise. To light the interior of the car, the equipment is set up inside the car itself. The only challenge with using this method is in finding ways to power the equipment without running down the vehicle's battery.

It is a very affordable system of shooting car scenes because you can use inexpensive non-powered items like:

  • White blankets or cloth
  • Bounce cards
  • Reflectors

A common trick used is placing a white blanket over the vehicle's middle console and on the talents’ lap in order to reflect a soft light effect on their face. A reflector can also be placed in the back section of the car to provide your backlight. But if these are insufficient in providing adequate light, you can use a high output LED fixture.

These fixtures usually consume no more than 120watts and can be plugged into the car's power port. If these fixtures are strong enough, they can also serve both as a backlight or fill light, with the natural sun obviously acting as the key light.

The advantages of using a LED light is that it will keep the temperature of the car's interior cool, plus you will be able to get more luminance per watt than if you use a quartz halogen lamp. And if you want to save more power you can even use battery powered LED lights.

If your cinematography task requires much more than LED lights can provide, you'll probably have to purchase a power inverter with a high wattage that attaches directly to a car battery. These are quite affordable and will last for quite some time when the car's engine is kept running. Additionally, you'll be able to use hundreds of watts of light in your car shooting scene.

However, it has its own disadvantage in that you'll need to run cables or wires around the car or through the dashboard in order to get it inside the vehicle. You will want to ensure you let the lights cool down between each shot. These kinds of irritating complications are what makes the studio lighting and towing methods much more convenient options.

Lighting car interiors for a driving scene is no easy task. It requires careful planning, some technical knowledge and a high sense of creativity.

But with a clear understanding of these cinematography tips most describing the common methods for car interior lighting, you can be sure that your filmmaking and video scenes will look fantastic, no matter the situation.

© 2011 viryabo


Daniel on October 27, 2014:

Thank you for the suggestions. I especially love the idea of a white cloth!

viryabo (author) from Lagos, Nigeria. on May 09, 2012:

Glad you find it helpful Trahn. Thanks for the visit.

TrahnTheMan from Asia, Oceania & between on May 07, 2012:

Agreed! Seriously helpful, detailed hub viryabo. Thanks for the inside knowledge.

viryabo (author) from Lagos, Nigeria. on August 21, 2011:

Thanks Recipe Gal.

Recipe Gal on August 20, 2011:

Wow! This is a very thorough article! I'm impressed!

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