Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a major motion picture set? Have you ever considered how much time and effort goes into shooting even the shortest three second scene? Have you ever contemplated what it takes to capture a high-speed chase sequence or an epic crash? If so, then today is your lucky day as we take a look behind the filming of the big screen interpretation of Need For Speed.
While I’m not sure that such thing exists as a ‘normal’ day of Speedhunting, when I got a call from Rod back in April asking if I could hop on a quick flight to Northern California to shoot some production stills on the set of a big-budget movie, I knew it was going to be even less normal than usual. Living in Hollywood, I run across film sets on a weekly basis, but it’s not every day that you’re around real high-speed filming.
As these things go, details were kept to a minimum since everything is very hush-hush, but I was rather excited when I heard that the film was to be an interpretation of a videogame I grew up on – Need for Speed. As a child born in the mid-’80s, I spent a lot of time playing videogames, as I suspect many of you did as well, but NFS holds a special place in my collection.
While videogames may seem like a trivial hobby to some (including parents), when I now look at my life in reverse, it’s quite clear that they played a pivotal role in my story and laid the groundwork for much of the person I am today: a motorsport fan, a professional automotive photographer and a Speedhunter. Through these games I not only grew addicted to racing but I was also introduced to my life’s greatest fascination – cars.
The first title that I can remember that allowed me to start living car culture vicariously was Need for Speed II. It was at this time that I began to see the car as more than just a tool used for racing, but something beautiful with an aura of its own. I started memorizing statistics, picking up Road & Track magazine and sketching my favorite exotics. So you must understand that even though I knew fully well I was on a Hollywood film set, there were at least a half dozen times where I thought to myself “Wow, this looks exactly like a scene out of Need for Speed!”
I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. The cop cars, the row of exotics and even the location in Northern California looked as if it were plucked right from the game! One thing that was always so clearly different about NFS (the games) was that it was about racing and cars in equal parts, and it put a huge emphasis on the machines you were competing with. I was very happy to see the crossover on set in the fact that the real stars of Need for Speed aren’t the actors, but the exotic cars they drive. Take for example the ‘cast’ for the two days I was on set…
Koenigsegg Agera R. 1140hp. 0-100km/h in 2.8 seconds.
GTA Spano. 780hp. 0-100km/h in 2.9 seconds.
Lamborghini Sesto Elemento. 580hp. 0-100km/h in 2.5 seconds.
Saleen S7 twin-turbo. 750hp. 0-100km/h in 2.9 seconds.
Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. 1180hp. 0-100km/h in 2.5 seconds.
McLaren P1. 910hp. 0-100km/h in 2.6 seconds.
As you can see ‘talent’ like this should make for one fairly incredible race. But sometimes looks can be deceiving…Movie magic
Though so far it should be pretty difficult to tell, I suspect that the extremely keen lot of readers may have picked up that something isn’t quite right with the hypercars. In fact, they aren’t hypercars at all, but extremely elaborate replicas. I know the thought of ‘fake cars’ may leave some of you sitting at home perplexed, but let me assure you that there are a number of reasons why these special picture cars are used – for starters, budget.
But it goes beyond that. Nearly every single car in the film inevitably ends up crashing in a catastrophic fashion and for this movie the stunts (which I’ll touch on later) are done for real. So bearing the sobering realities of filmmaking, you can come to appreciate these custom-built tube chassis in a new light.
Every car is based off the same MR platform and uses a reliable Chevy LS3 V8 crate workhorse engine. Although they might not be quite as powerful as the hyper engines they’re playing on the screen, they’re definitely more than enough to propel these lightweight frames and provide some heart-pumping footage.
Certain scenes require additional modifications for special stunts to be performed safely and predictably which couldn’t be practically fitted on a normal car. Here we see a Saleen S7 that has been modified with a rail system to allow it to shoot under another vehicle and launch it into the air.
Although the cars do actually drive, they’re fabricated quickly and are constantly being tweaked and worked on to get them running right. Here we see Tanner Foust doing his own adjustment of the throttle pedal via pry bar. Not everything is as glamorous it looks on the silver screen.
A lot of quick roadside repairs and modifications are made between scenes. Since the stunt team never knows where they might have to work they had these ingenious air-bags to lift the cars instead of traditional jacks. They lift the car in seconds and work on any surface… I want some.
In the event that a job is too large to tackle on the side of the road, the team rented a warehouse nearby and set up a makeshift shop. Here they can perform basically anything from routine maintenance to full-on reconstruction.
After a major stunt scene, the cars are brought back and stripped of any components that are still usable. If it’s feasible, the chassis can be cut apart and rebuilt, or a new one can be made from scratch as needed.
A tube bender is an obvious must-have for this type of operation…
As is a welder and lots of rod.
Since the chassis are all basically identical except for bodywork, spares can be kept to a minimum. Common replacement items include fluids, brake components, springs, shocks, axles and uprights.
However some of the cars, like the hero Mustang of the film, are in fact actual cars…
But that doesn’t mean they don’t get spruced up a little as well. While I was lurking around the warehouse, the art department was busy preparing two more Mustangs outside with some wear and tear from a yet-to-be-filmed scene that occurs earlier in the movie. Continuity is everything.
With the bullet holes and body damage out of the way, the last step was to replicate some red dirt. Though the opening scenes had yet to be shot, the cars would need to look like they’d already driven across the country for the small cameo at the end of the film they were shooting while I was there.Reel action and real speed
Back on set I found a horse of a different color, if you’ll excuse my pun. No this isn’t a sinister disguise for a Mustang, but rather a precision camera car. When you’re filming a high-speed chase scene, keeping up is half the battle!
During my time on set, I saw a number of interesting camera set-ups. Some, like the rig mounted to the hood of this police car, were a little more down-to-earth and built from a regular collection of grip gear. Even a hobbyist filmmaker could replicate a support like this for a few hundred dollars.
At the other end of the spectrum are vehicles known in the industry as pursuit cars, which have been permanently modified to operate cameras under special circumstances. Pursuits have cables hard-wired for cameras and monitors and almost always utilize a gyro stabilizer head to get unbelievably smooth footage in the most challenging of environments.
The most elaborate of all utilizes what is called a Russian arm or Pursuit arm (depending on brand) which allows almost unlimited camera movement on multiple axis. This is the type of set-up used in almost all car commercials these days and allows the camera to be swept vertically and horizontally while being panned and tilted simultaneously. It’s so complicated that it takes a team of four or more people to operate.
But perhaps the most fascinating camera car of all is what is called a pod car, and is actually both a picture car and a camera car in one. This strange invention is how you shoot real in-car driving scenes instead of using those cheesy cropped-in backgrounds you see in movies and TV about 80% of the time. It might work in a romantic comedy but that crap wouldn’t cut it for NFS.
Unlike the regular picture cars, the interior is a lot more elaborate on a pod car; since the actors will be filmed up close, it becomes increasingly more important to nail the details. Additional cameras and sound gear can also be mounted inside to record the action.
On the back is the pod where a professional driver will actually pilot the vehicle. This way the actor can focus on his lines while the cars are driven at speed in an actual pack. Since not every actor is Steve McQueen, this solution provides the next best thing, especially when you have the right drivers behind the wheel.
And just who might these drivers be, you might ask. Well a lot of them you may just recognize, like Rhys Millen. That’s right, for you drift fans that have wondered why he wasn’t competing in Formula D this year, it’s because Rhys is doing a lot of precision driving these days.
But he’s not the only one who’s switched from drift to glitz. In fact the set was like a reunion for former FD drivers, including Tony Brakohiapa.
And also golden-child-turned-television-host Tanner Foust. Indeed, the people involved in the film are critical to creating a realism to the action.NFS does all its own stunts
But we mustn’t forget the equally important role of the stunt driver. Although the precision guys account for the majority of the high-speed footage, every time a car is crashed, it’s up to one of the trained stunt men to flip, spin and explode the vehicles on film.
In this business you get used to doing a lot of takes. Dialogue can be acted again and again until the director is happy, but with real live stunts you only get one shot. In order to make sure that one shot goes according to plan, a lot of people have to work very hard.
Planning can take months and nothing is left to chance. Everything is calculated. Everything is rehearsed.
But no matter how many times you run something through your brain, or double check the numbers, there’s something downright terrifying about driving a car at sixty miles an hour up a ramp and into an exploding van! It’s incredible.
Yet I think the most amazing part is seeing all that hard work pay off in an instant. It’s months of preparation with hundreds of people gathered round and for what… maybe five seconds of footage!? You’ve got to love it.
It’s pretty crazy to think how much effort goes into such a short piece of the film. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the budget is spent on crash scenes that account for less than 1% of the final movie. But my god, what an exciting >1%.
During my time on set, I pretty much hung out with the stunt coordinators the whole time, and as it turns out, most of them were car guys. They told me that they had practiced all of the stunts for weeks ahead of time to calculate the exact speeds and forces required to pull off the action the director wanted. It’s pretty mind boggling to be honest.
Fast forward to the set and now the stunts are being performed for real. Here we see Rhys and Tanner being instructed on what should hopefully happen during the scene. This time around, Rhys and Tanner will be following closely behind a Veryon that’s going to get T-boned by a police car. You can see from the look on Rhys’s face that timing is critical.
But so is speed and proximity. The cop car will be launched via compressed air and triggered by one of the stunt coordinators, but only if the Bugatti is doing exactly 60mph. During rehearsal, the throttle cable was constantly being adjusted until the car could repeatedly make passes at that speed. But when it came time to shoot the scene, the desired speed wasn’t reached so the shot had to be pushed to the following day.
After more rehearsals and more adjustments, everything eventually went according to plan. In order to make the most of this one-time-only scene, a ton of cameras were set up to capture different angles. Unfortunately, because of this I was unable to get very close to the action but I assure you it’s going to be gnarly in the film!
What unfolded in those few seconds once again went exactly as planned. The cop car T-boned the Bugatti right on time, sending it spinning down the road and off into a ditch right on its mark! It’s truly remarkable the precision with which these stunts are performed.
It’s a lot of pressure, time and energy compressed and released in an instant, and when it goes right there’s a uniform sigh of relief followed by smiling faces all around. Here you can see a very stoked Rhys Millen, perhaps even more stoked than he is atop a podium. Although it was just a brief glimpse into what was a very long production, I have a new respect for filming action sequences and hopefully I’ve shared a bit of that enthusiasm with all of you. It was really interesting seeing how a shared passion for cars had led many of us to the set that day, myself included and I can’t wait to see the end product in theaters later this year.