Audra Coulombe is the Marketing Manager for The Molecule, a VFX, Motion Graphics, and VR company located in New York and Los Angeles.
Like a lot of things on TV and in film, driving scenes are almost always touched in some way by a VFX team.
There are a bunch of reasons for this, and one of the big ones is safety. For example, if an actor is trying to steer the car, follow the rules of the road, watch out for pedestrians, AND remember his lines — well, either his acting will suffer or his driving will suffer. Either way, you’re not going to get the best take, and it’s potentially dangerous.
For this reason, a lot of production teams opt to film driving scenes in a studio and comp in footage outside the windows. The name of the game here is “control” — control over the lighting and weather, control over traffic (because there is none in a studio!), control over the scenery, and control over noise. To keep the actors and crew safe and to make your shot as perfect as possible, predictability is key.
Once you’ve got your studio space, your actors, and your vehicle, it’s time to get rolling. Here are a few key pointers to make sure your driving scene looks awesome.
Choosing Your Background
Believe it or not, you need to know what your driving environment will look like before you start setting up your scene in the studio. It might seem a little early to be choosing your background, but this is really the most important step! Will it be night or day? Busy interstate or secluded mountain road? Snowing or raining? Knowing what kind of scenery your actors will be driving through will dictate what kind of lighting you’ll need, and whether or not you’ll need a blue or green screen.
Stock libraries are an excellent resource for what we call “driving plates,” which is an industry term for the environment that moves outside the window of a moving car. Of course, you can always shoot your own if you’re not finding the exact environment you’re looking for.
Lighting the Screen
For driving scenes, you typically want to use either a green or blue screen. The point is to have a clean separation between the characters and their background so that you can easily add in the driving plates later.
At this point, we should also mention “spill.” Spill is the contamination of the foreground object by the light that bounces off of the green or blue screen. A certain amount is inevitable, but we want to minimize it as much as possible — a green actor against a green screen is difficult to separate.
At the Molecule, we typically opt for blue screens for nighttime scenes and green screens for daytime scenes. VFX Supervisor Charlotta Forssman explains, “The hue of the spill of a blue screen lends itself better to nighttime colors.” However, if the actor is wearing blue clothes, you want to use a green screen, and vice-versa.
A blue-screen driving scene from Showtime’s The Affair
If you’re in your car, driving down the highway at night, you’ll see headlights from other cars and streetlights passing overhead. Even if you were driving in the daytime, you’d have reflections off of other cars and shadows from trees overhead. These are light sources that you can’t forget about when shooting a driving scene in a studio.
There are a few in-studio few hacks that can replicate these light fluctuations. Sometimes we’ll attach mirrors to a C-Stand and spin them around to mimic the light bouncing off a passing car. Sometimes a crew member will cover up a light with his hand or a piece of fabric to imitate a passing car’s headlight or a tree’s shadow.
One of the coolest things we like to play with in the studio is a chaser light rig:
These can help simulate streetlights passing overhead. We can even turn them red or green to resemble a traffic light, and we can change their speed depending on the speed of the driver in the scene.
Moving the Car
To effectively “sell” the idea of a moving vehicle, you have to move both the camera and the car during filming. A static camera is an easy giveaway that the scene was filmed in a studio. If you move the camera gently when filming, it will help maintain the illusion that the vehicle is in motion.
It’s important to move the car, as well. We don’t mean you should take laps in the car around the studio; rather, if you rock the car to mimic the natural dips in the road, it will help your actors inside the car have synchronized, natural movement.
Camera placement is also an important aspect to consider, because that will dictate what angle of driving plate you will need to find (or film), and what reflections you’ll need to capture.
An important note about reflections: they’re a good thing! If your perspective is from the driver’s seat looking toward the passenger’s seat, you’re going to want to bring out those reflections as much as possible, so that you don’t have to rebuild them in post. (Pro tip: Keep your levels low. The brighter your levels are, the more your reflections will be blotted out.)
Window reflections captured for the film A Most Violent Year
You’ll also need to pay attention to exterior window reflections. If your camera is positioned outside of a car window, whatever driving plate you choose will need to be reflected back onto it in VFX.
Focus on the Details
Like most shoots that we VFX supervise, we go through a mental checklist of how we can replicate each element that happens in real life for driving scenes. In our mind’s eye, we put ourselves in the driver’s seat and remember every detail of what happens — like the frequency of street lights on a highway or the way our body moves when we hit a speed bump.
It’s up to you to figure out how you can replicate those small details. We’ve moved planks of wood under tires to simulate bumps in the road, and we’ve created makeshift brake lights with whatever we’ve found in the studio, so there’s no limit to how creative you can be with the resources you have available.
After that, if you have your driving plates selected and your scene lit properly, you’re well on your way to greatness. Bon voyage!
Top image: A green-screen driving scene from Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt