What does a filmmaker do when their driving scene is set in summer and it’s the middle of winter? Or when they’re shooting in a sound stage, but the characters are driving through Tuscany? Well, they turn to a particular stock footage asset that’s referred to as a Driving Plate. Driving plates are ubiquitous in films and tv shows, and they’re always in demand.
This niche genre has evolved over the years to be integrated into productions much more seamlessly than in the past. As a result, it’s an interesting subject matter for stock videographers to pursue. Pond5 contributor Andrew Dutton of hh65flier tells us all about it from a contributor’s point of view in the story below.
In the years leading up to the COVID pandemic, I worked as a pilot for an executive helicopter transport company based in New York City. On our empty legs (no passengers), I would ask my co-pilot to take the controls so that I could collect smooth aerial footage of city landmarks. When COVID came along in early 2020, like many pilots, I was laid off and without a job for nearly a year. I still wanted to shoot videos in my free time, and I now had a lot of spare time to experiment.
My Covid Conundrum
However, I had a dilemma: What do I shoot now without access to a helicopter? I own a drone (and possess the requisite commercial drone license), so I initially dabbled with filming the COVID landscape: crowds of people wearing masks and street-based testing facilities. I soon realized that the volume of COVID-themed footage on Pond5 was massive. Everyone else had the same idea, so I had to find some other untrodden territory to try to stand out.
A Happy Accident
The answer came to me almost by accident. I was riding a commuter train and decided to press my iPhone against the train window to film the New Jersey Meadowlands. This part of Jersey has a serious “Tony Soprano” vibe that some of my far-away friends find intriguing. Sometime later, when clearing excess files from my phone, I saw the clip. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was smooth, evenly exposed, and would be recognizable to anyone who had traveled this busy railway line. On a whim, I uploaded it to Pond5, and I wrote off the possibility of it selling due to the improvised nature of the shot. But it sold! Several times, in fact. Intriguing. Who the heck would buy a clip like this, and why?
What is a Driving Plate?
After cursory research, I soon realized that background window views from moving vehicles are known in the film industry as “driving plates.” When I was a child (in the ’70s and ’80s), studio scenes from inside vehicles were almost always laughably bad. Rear window views of curving roads and uneven shadows would whip by without any corresponding movement or lighting on the faces of the characters inside the car. The technique was so poorly executed that it distracted the viewer from the scene’s intent.
Since then, filmmakers have dramatically improved techniques and methods to mimic an on-location scene inside a car or train. Today, studios amp up the external lighting and diffuse the brightness so that the lighting on the car looks far more natural and realistic. They also project moving imagery back onto reflective surfaces like car hoods and window panes to mimic real-world phenomena. The trained eye can still detect if a scene was shot on location or studio, but the differences are subtle enough to no longer be distracting.
Why Are Driving Plates Useful?
Driving plates are so common that they’re oftentimes unnoticeable. That doesn’t mean they’re boring. They’re an invaluable asset for every production budget, whether it’s a student film or a big-budget Sci-Fi Blockbuster. Filmmakers, production houses, and full-service production companies know the benefits of using pre-shot driving plates, which is a big part of their appeal. They don’t have to send out a crew to drive around and shoot footage. They don’t have to rent or set up expensive camera rigs like picture cars on process trailers, block off streets, hire police escorts, and more.
Instead, they can simply use what’s known as the “Poor Man’s Process” to set up a stationary driving scene and add the footage in post-production. Once that hard work is done, the filmmakers can browse through thousands of driving plates in Pond5’s footage library to find something that’s going to match (or that can be matched to) the look and feel of their shot footage.
Mastering the Craft
Shortly after the success of my train “driving plate,” I started to film more fixed footage from moving vehicles, realizing the potential this genre held. I toyed with mounting cameras to my car’s hood, trunk, roof, and side windows. Experimenting with different angles (sideward, diagonal, rear facing) opened up new options. Then I started to film driving plates at different hours during the day and in various weather conditions (rain, sun, snow). Over several months, I uploaded a sizable collection of plates to Pond5 and was pleased to see some success. The clips I created generated a versatile collection for customers to use in their productions.
Moving forward, I tried to anticipate what types of footage would be in demand. I observed the use of driving plates in broadcast/streaming media to see what they used and how they used it. Pretty soon, I was filming everything I could. Wealthy neighborhoods, industrial areas, iconic Manhattan streets, and Washington DC landmarks. I filmed rural areas in autumn. A series of airport loading and unloading zones. I filmed from inside trains, subways, and even a taxiing airplane!
One of the other great things about selling through Pond5 is that their sales team will work with their customers to secure additional clearances if and when it’s necessary. The additional clearances then pass on to contributors as additional licensing revenue! Case in point, I noticed that this clip and others have sold at the Premium license level, and it’s a real treat.
(This clip, and others from the same shooting session, have sold several times. This particular clip was licensed at the PREMIUM level).
The Driving Plate Guide
As I began posting more content, I refined and standardized my techniques. I learned a ton along the way. Here are some tips that have worked for me:
- You don’t need to film in 4K. While 4K footage allows filmmakers to crop, scale, and reposition the footage in post-production, I license the vast majority of my driving clips (85% plus) at HD resolution. Don’t let a lack of a 4K camera dissuade you from shooting and uploading your own plates. The creator seeks background imagery that is secondary to the scene, so high resolution is not a priority.
- Motion blur is a good thing. Aim for a 180-rolling shutter speed (1/60th of a second at 30 FPS or 1/48th at 24 FPS). It doesn’t have to be exact, but try not to use anything faster than 1/100th of a second. Higher shutter speeds make the moving scenery look halting and rigid. You want the background to move in a fluid, smooth manner. While it may appear too blurry, it will look fine as a background.
- Unless you have a global shutter (you probably don’t), keep your vehicle speed below 45 mph for sideward shots that feature nearby objects like trees, people, buildings, etc. At higher speeds, rolling shutter effects (nearby objects appear slanted) become distracting. You can’t control this on a train, so shoot segments where the train is not close to walls, platforms, or other trains.
- A wide-angle field of view conveys speed and movement better than a narrow field of view. If you’re trying to emphasize speed, use a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle views also offer the client more leeway in post-production.
- Keep exposure consistent. Auto exposure settings in a scene that moves from a brightly lit place to a dark place will look unnatural. Consider using a filter and manually setting the shutter speed. Otherwise, aim for relatively consistent lighting.
- You don’t need high-end equipment. Some of my best sellers are shot on an iPhone. I have used inexpensive “bridge” cameras for most of my driving plates. Your night shots are the most demanding sessions requiring good equipment.
- Invest in suction cup mounts (for the hood, trunk, and roof shots) and consider a window clamp mount for sideward shots.
- For car shots, enlist the help of an assistant if possible. Retrieving cameras requires pulling over safely. There’s also the possibility of someone trying to “liberate” your camera from an external surface. An extra person can help ensure the safety of your filming.
Driving plates are a niche genre that may inspire you to find creative approaches to diversify a stock portfolio. Not to mention they have excellent, unrealized earning potential. Even though you may think your neighborhood is routine and boring, there’s a decent chance that someone in the world needs a shot that only your region can satisfy. The effort involved is modest when compared to the potential reward.