ACTION DESIGN BLOG: Evolution of The Car Chase

Mad Mel.jpg
Mad Mel.jpg

ACTION DESIGN BLOG: Evolution of The Car Chase


A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine – a stuntman and a helluva driver. I asked what he thought were the best driving movies. He mentioned a movie I hadn’t seen but wanted to, and was now available. Since he was helping me on a project, I thought it might be in my best interest to watch it.

I did and was disappointed to the point where I feel driven to write this. I saw the credits and they showed some of Hollywood’s best drivers, so that was not the issue. 

Driving has been in my blood for as long as I can remember. My oldest recollection is my father racing in & out of cars on the highway while chasing a train. I couldn’t have been more than two years old, but I was tall enough to stand on the seat and see over the dash. I can still remember him shifting with no less than a Hurst shifter. No seat belt. Yeah…The ultimate in parenting skills.

My mother said when my father arrived from overseas, they had a problem paying rent because of his speeding tickets. It’s good to know pops had his priorities straight!

All kidding aside, the truth of the matter is my father, before he came over from Europe, took 1st in his division and 3rd overall of the now WRC (World Rally Championships). Moreover, he came from a volcanic island with tight winding roads, with little laws or safety. This was a driver with experience.

My first car was my parents', one they bought for $3,500 in the Fall and in the following spring sold it for $150…slightly “used”. At 18 my first police chase, at 19 reverse 180s, at 21 putting cars up on three wheels, at 22 driving in conflict zones. After that, it gets kind of interesting.

( If you want to find out more about that: "The Unknown Art of Driving" )

There were a couple of things I learned from my father:

1) To shimmy the tires to create traction, which is not done much anymore due to the quality and technology of tires and;

2) To check the body roll and suspension while in and out of the car.

This is where I begin… and it sort of starts with the movie Bullitt. Despite its continuity issues, it remains THE original car chase. As a kid, it was the cars – the '68 Dodge Charger and the Legendary '67 Mustang Fastback - that fascinated me. In my late teens and early 20s it was “inspiration” - to speed, frankly. Now, as a filmmaker, I see pure filmmaking. They captured something that is part of Hollywood history.

I was lucky enough to have a great chat with Loren Janes, Steve McQueen’s stunt double, and I must admit…my head couldn’t fit through the door afterwards.

What stands out for me, as a filmmaker, is that the Bullitt car chase may be basic but it is very well executed.

For example, when Steve McQueen misses the turn, reverses and the wheel hop occurs…from the beginning of that particular part of the sequence it was nicely done. The camera operator nailed McQueen as he came in…and if you look closely, it was done in one take as there are no other tire marks.

If you look at Ken Block’s videos - not that Ken is a bad driver - there’s something about nailing it the first time. Film vs. Digital mentality? Editing versus the actual footage?

Next were the cars themselves. They were slightly modified but the cars back then weren’t polished as they are now. Translation, he had to keep the revs (RPMs) up so that he could keep it in the power band. Not to mention those boat steering wheels they had back then were a chore, at best. To elaborate more, you’re maximizing your power in the car at its most optimum state from the standpoint of power.

Maximizing it from the suspension and steering are two other different things. And because of this very “little” thing…McQueen doesn’t have to act…he just drives. If you fast-forward now to certain movies, they show heads being tilted or pushed back, or perhaps they can barely hold onto the steering wheel in order to convey the illusion of power. Acting. And I’m not talking Anthony Hopkins or Gary Oldman kind of acting…

In fact, J.J. Abrams did a mini remake of the Bullitt chase for the show Alcatraz. Some great burnouts, but that was it. The actors had to act, which detracted from the action performance of the cars, because they didn’t have to work the power band because the engine was powerful enough. 

Let’s move to the next in car chase classics – The Seven Ups with Roy Schneider. Same driver from Bullitt – Bill Hickman, the bad guy. This chase had more elements, more traffic, screaming kids, and different angles of the cars. Continuity also was remedied. Again with Bill Hickman as the driver for the epic car chase scene in The French Connection. Notice a pattern?

And if you know anything about Friedkin, the director, this is one of the crazy times that was put to good use. Now, here you have an element of “interaction with the people” with Hickman hitting a passerby with a shopping cart and you better believe that’s a mistake you are going to put in the movie!

This was around the time that cars by way of the Canam, LeMans and Formula One series were starting an era of motorsports that has been long gone, in my eyes, unfortunately to marketing & technology.

These cars were just off-the-hook…Canam had unlimited horsepower, Le Mans was at its most popular when McQueen starred in the movie Le Mans and Formula One was the most amazing motorsport on the planet. But drivers were also getting killed.

That racing technology was also trickling down to the consumer, first, with the GT40, with perfect weight distribution and a couple of years later with the Datsun 240. And later with the perennial BMW.

Jackie Stewart was the top guy and was promoting safety with seatbelts. Incidentally, my seatbelt was my dad putting his arm across my chest! Did you know they were an option at the factory back then? And if you were really old school, well, when you bought a car, you just cut them out!

Move forward and we are just around the corner with autonomous cars. We are losing and/or have lost the right to drive cars by using technology and safety. And if it’s not that, its hybrids and electrics which don’t have the same feeling as a combustion engine. Hybrids feel much more linear. 

You see, these guys were the greatest drivers of all time. There wasn’t much technology or safety back then. In fact, tires just blew…but they blew so often that drivers knew what they had to do, to control the vehicle. Technology has obfuscated the abilities of the driver - he or she has been bypassed…as a driver.

The 80s were the Go Big or Go Home era of car chases. Explosions, pile ups, total carnage. Think Blues Brothers, Cannonball Run, Live and Die in L.A. This is where Hollywood started to get their grubby hands on these movies by bringing in people from outside.... Nowadays, you’ll find most execs in Hollywood have MBAs, not filmmaking degrees. Their expertise is putting a budget or revenue waterfall together.

The 90s came along and technology, ie visual effects, started to rear its ugly head, especially when it wasn’t really ready for it. However, every so often would come along…a filmmaker. Ronin came along and stole the show, a refined performance. And ending off the decade with Gone in 60 Seconds, with an epic but fun car chase.

2000s there was a little Action series that came out and is perhaps the point of this whole article -- The Bourne series.

Two things…the cars don’t mean shit! And it’s not about the speed…it’s the illusion of it!

The Bourne series had 2nd unit Director Dan Bradley at the helm and Gary Powell as the stunt coordinator.

Can you recall anywhere in the films where they used beautiful, exciting, exotic, fast cars? Not really, other than when Damon reverses an Audi off the side of a parking structure, which I’m not sure you could consider “driving”.

Mini, Lada, Mercedes SUV, VW Touareg, Kia, Suzuki SUV, Malibu (Chevy)…not exactly the cream of the crop of cars, eh? Did you really care about the car when those cars were in the chase?

And if you weren’t on the edge of your seat watching The Bourne films…you may want to check for a pulse!

Fancy cars are good for product placement, but even with their fancy looks, fast cars can TAKE AWAY from the excitement. Yes, they do.

Have I enjoyed the Bond series? Absolutely. There’s a right time for these types of cars especially when it enhances the story or character, but they still need to be driven AND captured a certain way to create that excitement.

This was evident when Ron Howard, self-proclaimed not a car guy, as well as his DP, Anthony Dod Mantle, who is Danny Boyle’s regular DP. They were smart enough to hire shooters from the popular British show, Top Gear, where the crew eat and sleep cars and its culture.

Further, the cars that go well over 180 mph. Honestly, there is nothing that can catch it on film. Helicopters can go maybe 120-140mph. Drones are not even close. Ultimate/Russian Arms get up to 120 mph…and that’s unofficially. It’ll be 70-90 mph for insurance companies, producers, and worrisome relatives.

Hollywood is heavily influenced by NASA due to the extreme aspects of tolerances and stunts. Every top stunt coordinator has dealt with them in some capacity, but we’re just not there. NASA, ten years ago went through a transition. The old farts had retired but what was lost was the culture and advancements of technology that they had gone through. They started off with vacuum tubes, transistors then computer chips. Sure, computer chips are the future but there is something to be had with knowing previous technologies so as to have a foundation to work off. Same thing with music when it comes to analog versus digital.

Since the “incentive era” we have seen an alteration in the car chase. Now car chases are done in the backwoods, in the countryside. Look at the movies of the last few years and you will rarely see a chase in the city. Why? Insurance, speed, safety. Yup, back roads -- trees and cornfields.

The background environment in a car chase is a big thing as it helps with the illusion of speed. Streetlights and buildings create a sense of speed. If you see trees and corn…can you really see or sense the speed? The speed needs to be “shown” on the speedometer or with certain camera angles and edits to circumvent it.

Conversely, you can be very clever by using tension like what was done in the opening of Drive. That car chase held my attention very well. When they did let it go…it didn’t fail me. It was in a controlled environment, with an industrial setting and for the most part they were on a straightaway, which reduces the risk; and as a result cost.

I like how the Europeans shoot their driving sequences, particularly the French. It’s a passion of theirs. The Europeans bring refinement to the process, just like their cars. The Americans, Asians, and the Aussies bring other things to the table so it’s up to you what sort of Action Design you choose.

The movies of the 70s brought a raw, unrefined, fuck-the-man attitude, which has been lost somewhat. Movies like Vanishing Point, Crazy Mary Dirty Larry, Rendezvous, and the original Gone in Sixty Seconds, Smokey and the Bandit, Gumball Rally.

Though, from the 1960s, a filmic masterpiece in terms of the driving sequences is Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. It’s the only movie I know of where in each race they changed the theme and style of it. Again, pure cinema.

Moreover, the 70s, as far as I’m concerned, are the new classics where we should be looking. The craftsmen were on top of their game and technology was at a minimum.

This is the way I see it. There are action and stunt people, craftsmen (DPs, Editors, Production Designers) and the Filmmaker. Each one of those people will look at it differently, but the filmmaker has to encompass it all. Which one are you?

There is a difference between a stunt driver, street racer, performance driver and a driver who has operated a vehicle under fire; and most of the drivers put their neck on the line, but if it’s not shot right or even edited properly…it can all go amiss.

In closing, the first time I met Gary Powell, we talked about Minis and rally driving back in Europe.  He told me about a Youtube video that he was intrigued by, featuring a Ford Cortina and a Chevy Camaro. This not only was exciting, it is racing. The smaller, nimble car versus the big engine for the straightaways. Gary has access to all the resources of creating something awesome. But in the end, it’s all about the basics. Gary has been known for doubling Pierce Brosnan in Bond movies for driving, and has been the stunt coordinator for the Bond series since Casino Royale. His grandfather doubled for the original Bond, Mr. Connery himself. His father for Roger Moore, and his brother Gregg Powell coordinated the Harry Potter series.

Gary knows what driving and a car chase is.

Can you imagine what those conversations over dinner were like?

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