September 29, 2015

Tutorial: Your Car is (Still) Your Best Friend for Capturing Smooth Tracking Shots

Forget using expensive dolly tracks or handheld gimbals to pull off beautiful camera moves. You've got a car, right?

Admittedly, using cars to get these shots is kind of an old school technique that indie filmmakers have been using for a long time, especially before handheld 3-axis gimbals came along. (In fact, you can get some amazing shots using a car and a gimbal in tandem.) But since gimbals are becoming more ubiquitous (though still spendy), it seems like now's as good a time as any to remember one cinematic tool that you might've forgotten -- or hell, maybe you never knew!

So, if you own a car, or at least know someone who will lend you theirs for the sake of filmmaking, you can use it to capture high angles, creative special effects, and (of course) smooth tracking shots. Vimeo Video School offers up a few tips on how to approach these techniques using your ride.

Again, this is a pretty old school trick, but it's important to remember that, no, not everybody can afford a gimbal or dolly track and, no, not everybody has time to shop for, set up, and tear down cheap DIY dolly track.

Using something that you most likely have access to, a car, is a no-brainer for most no-budget filmmakers -- especially the ones who are just starting out and literally only have a camera, a tripod (maybe), and a dream.

Now that we've gotten the vetting out of the way, here are some things you might want to keep in mind when you decide to use your car as a cinematographic tool.

Your car ain't no stabilizer

Remember, though your car may absorb some of the shock from driving over bumps and divots in the road, your camera is still going to be a little shaky (especially if you're zoomed in), so you're gonna want to find something to stabilize your shot. A bag o' rice, a tripod, or even a sweatshirt can help in a big way.

Your audio will most likely be horrible

Like the video says, your "dolly" has a loud roaring engine, so audio recorded anywhere near it is just not going to be useable. However, there are a few options you can try:

  1. Record ADR (dub it in post)
  2. Use a boom
  3. Stick your car in neutral, turn of the engine, and push that ol' gal

Don't be a dummy. BE SAFE!

I feel like I shouldn't have to say this but -- I have to say this. Please use common sense while operating a motor vehicle during filming. Art is awesome and making it is super duper, but damn -- life and living are also those things. Keep your cast, crew, yourself, and everyone around you safe.

Do you have any tips on how to utilize a car in your cinematography? Let us know in the comments below!     

Your Comment

22 Comments

Some good practical effects here. Others somewhat questionable - especially with safety. Using a car to do a short push-in seems somewhat silly and potentially dangerous. Likewise having a car trail only a few metres behind running talent seems a little risky - one stumble and they could be under the car in no time. Also, filming on a road (that hasn't been secured for filming) is always risky. So anyone watching this and thinking of trying it yourselves, please, please exercise caution.

September 29, 2015 at 9:43AM, Edited September 29, 9:44AM

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Definitely go through all the scenarios before going on the shoot. Pre-check the traffic, do a pre-drive before. If there's a intersection, I would make sure I have people standing in the corners with wockies. if you are shooting from a trunk or back of a pick-up I would get a harness from HomeDepot. Price is high in human life. Get some cones and stuff as well. Obviously, we are talking about low budget here if you have the money to pay the city to close the streets that's great! But I agree with Stephen, better safe than sorry and this case it's going to be BIG SORRY if things go wrong.
Most of all get a good driver, a friends who doesn't multi-task when they are driving.

September 29, 2015 at 1:27PM, Edited September 29, 1:31PM

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Keith Kim
Photographer
1644

This is just plan stupid and dangerous. As someone who suffered 3rd degree burns after tripping and falling under a car I suggest no one try any of these techniques. I guarantee that all this stuff doesn't seem very dangerous at all until someone makes one dumb mistake.

September 30, 2015 at 8:39PM, Edited September 30, 8:39PM

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matt
880

Have the car drive to the side of the actors and if you want a shot directly behind them mount the camera on something to stick out the window. If they fall they are not in the path of the car.

October 1, 2015 at 10:24PM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
845

Nice! I shot the opening shots in this piece with an car. https://vimeo.com/109957138 Just try not to dent the hood if sitting on it :)

September 29, 2015 at 9:49AM

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Lane McCall
Producer/Director
524

Good job, Lane! Some interesting angles, I think I will try to use my car next time I need a shot like that. But yeah, a compelling story, heart-felt and well shot. He IS the fastest man alive. Two thumbs up!

September 29, 2015 at 10:49AM

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nolan merchan
Writer-Director
175

Thanks Nolan!

September 30, 2015 at 7:45PM

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Lane McCall
Producer/Director
524

Those shots are great - what camera did you use?

September 30, 2015 at 10:07AM

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George Peck
Filmmaker
154

The car shots were shot on the GH2 in 720p 60. The rest of the short was shot on the BMPCC. Actually every slow mo shot was with the GH2. The super low angle was using the GH2 hanging upside down on a mono pod out the side door... then i flipped the image in post.

September 30, 2015 at 7:45PM

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Lane McCall
Producer/Director
524

Just seems dangerous.

September 29, 2015 at 10:13AM

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X
114

haha, that was a fun video! and educational! I have thought of shooting out of my car's sun roof. I think I will try that soon! Thanks for posting!

September 29, 2015 at 11:00AM

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nolan merchan
Writer-Director
175

Just had a shoot where I had to use this technique. I've always loved a tripod shot from a minivan, and Ronin stabilized works great, too. When in Rome you have to use what's available: https://instagram.com/p/7LZUs8NQ9b/?taken-by=tarproductions

September 29, 2015 at 12:23PM

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Tim Ryan
Filmmaker
246

There is just too much wrong in this video to take seriously. Low budget or not there are much better ways to do this without risking someone getting hurt or killed. Do not follow their advise because they don't know what they are doing - and I don't care if they give a warning at the top of the video. Someone will see this video and get hurt. No Film School should take this off their site.

September 29, 2015 at 2:05PM

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Dan Montenegro
Director/Producer
125

Agreed. This is dangerous. People do not understand how quickly something can go wrong with a vehicle. Once it does, it's too late.

V Renée, how can you tell people to use common sense while showing a video of people not using common sense? I'm sure the producers and crew thought they were using common sense the day Sarah Jones was killed. Let's do everything possible to prevent anything like that from happening again.

September 29, 2015 at 8:07PM, Edited September 29, 8:14PM

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Charlie K
1396

FUGK USING CARS
I WAS IN THE TRUNK OPERATING CAM AND MY FRIEND DECIDES TO 'SPEED UP' AND I FALL OFF. OF COURSE SACRIFICED MY BODY FOR THE CAMERA.LUCKY NO DAMAGE TO ME OR CAMERA
AND MY FRRIENRED SAID 'IT WAS AN ACCIDENT'
HOW THE FUGK DO YOU ACCIDENTALLY POWER STEP ON THE ACCELERATOR
AND ESPECIALLY AFTER TELLING HIM NOT TO GO FAST CUZ I MIGHT FALL OFF
AND I KNEW BECAUSE EVERYONE WAS GIGGLING RIGHT BEFORE I FELL OFF

September 29, 2015 at 10:47PM

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People might try using a pickup truck or van. Use a restraining belt for safety. Can do the same in a trunk if you think it through.

September 30, 2015 at 7:42AM

2
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Or rig some remote controls for the camera you can operate from the back seat. Some string and pulleys wouldn't be hard to set up to pan/tilt the tripod head.

October 1, 2015 at 10:33PM

0
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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
845

Get a friend that knows how to drive.

September 30, 2015 at 11:25AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
1146

Love these guys. Lots of energy.

September 30, 2015 at 2:56AM

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One thing I learned from off roaders and sand runners...you can deflate your tires to reduce bumps (usually between 15 to 18 psi). Just keep it at 15mph or slower and have an air compressor handy to re-inflate them.
Do have a safety plan in place. Do try to use some sort of restraint to avoid falling out.

September 30, 2015 at 7:46AM

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I've been using cars for tracking shots for over 45 years.
Never had a problem.
Must be some pretty shitty drivers out there to make this such a contentious debate.

September 30, 2015 at 11:24AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
1146

Oh, my God, what a refreshing video! Yeah, there are easier ways to get some of the shots like the pull-in shot (e.g. fold-out table and skateboard or the two-leg tripod method where you don't open the third leg and the two legs act as a pivot) but I don't see why the majority of comments were saying it was negligent. Weigh the risks, plan, don't film with assholes or idiots, don't drink and film, oh, and don't shoot on top of your car or its roof/trunk (denting happens). Also, where possible, use a thing attached to other things instead of using yourself as a clamp. You dig?

October 2, 2015 at 6:22PM, Edited October 2, 6:22PM

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Suzie Park
Director & DP
85