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Q & A: car scenes in the movies

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
Q:
why in movies or shows when you have people in a car with the picture moving behind them it looks so fake? you would think it would work... its just using a computer to put one picture behind another. but it always ends up not being realistic at all (espicaly in older films). so why is it that way and what might help to make it more realistic?
- James
U.S
A:
Movie equipment, particularly the good stuff used to make theatrical-quality films (35 mm or 70 mm) is very heavy. You don't want it to shake, blurring the picture, and since it has shaking parts inside to move the film, the whole camera setup is very very heavy. Things are less cumbersome these days, and you can shoot with a digital camera now which helps to shrink the cameras.

In the old days, with the big, heavy cameras, the easiest kind of shooting that could be done was inside in a big soundstage. That way you can control the lighting, noise, and all the other variables.

People put cars in the soundstages, took the windshields out, and filmed actors sitting in the cars. To make it look a bit as if the car was moving, some scenery was projected on a screen in back of the car. This gives a really really hokey effect as you well notice. The main problems are that the actors are a little too stationary as the scenery bounces up and down. Or worse yet, the actors are told to bounce up and down, and their bouncing has nothing to do with how the scenery moves. If the scenery indicates a turn is happening, and the actors don't seem to show the effects in how their hair blows or moves, or their bodies move, you notice the problem right away. I don't think using computer image compositing would help, if it were done with the same kind of thing in mind.

Even worse tricks were used in some of the lower-budget movies of yesteryear. Sometimes if you look at the background scenery, you can see it repeat and repeat and repeat. Yick. Or the magnification wouldn't be right -- say the background was shot with a lens with a different zoom setting than the people in the car.

You can make more realistic car scenes by selecting a lighter weight movie camera and attaching it to the car as it moves. Usually you have to remove the windows or the windshield (which introduces its own problems). Then there's motion blur to worry about. Also, it's well known that panning scenery around as cars turn can make audience members feel sick.

Watch a few movies and TV shows, and see how you like the car scenes, and try to figure out how they did it!

Tom

(published on 10/22/2007)

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