Car chase scenes are one of the greatest pleasures of cinema. Metal, asphalt, speed, joy, and fear all rolled into a tight few minutes of screentime. When they're well done, they can elevate your project from the banal to the amazing.
With F9 hitting theaters, we wanted to take a little time to dig into the biggest lessons for doing car chases scenes on a budget.
To be clear, we're not talking about zero dollars; there really isn't a way to safely execute sequences with thousands of pounds of speeding metal safely without spending some money. But even smaller budgeted projects can execute car chases with a bit of prep and research.
Analyze Your Favorite Chase Scenes
First off, analyze your favorite chase sequences in as much detail as you can. One amazing thing to realize is how much can be done with a combination of coverage, meaning that you only need a few key shots that are "wide shots where cars are clearly moving quickly." A wide-angle shot mounted to a car can recreate the sensation of speed with a relatively simple rig.
For instance, if you look at the night DVD player theft from the first The Fast & The Furious film, you can see just how much time can be spent in the cab of the truck (during the fight between the attacker and the driver).
If you set up your vehicle on a projection stage or even against a green screen, then intercut with properly crafted high-speed moments, that's fewer shots you need to try and capture while moving full speed out on the freeway.
Find a Location
Location is key for shooting your car chase, and while we all want the amazing freeway work of the Matrix films or the first film in the Fast franchise, you don't always have the money to do so.
However, there are a ton of locations that you can find, especially if you get outside your metro area, that will be open to you staging a race. One of the obvious ones is defunct raceways; there is no rule saying you can't find an abandoned race track and rent it to stage a chase sequence if you want.
There are also many abandoned airports, industrial parks, and military bases around that will have the long driving runs that you are looking for without being as expensive to rent as a major freeway.
One of the many things we love about Tokyo Drift is the construction site location of the illegal race that gets our hero sent off to Tokyo in the first act. The location is everything you want from a low-budget project (though probably a higher budget than you have, the same rules apply). It's a loop, meaning that it's a smaller amount of ground you have to cover, easier to manage logistically, and if you are lighting or running silks, smaller units to order.
But more than that are all the wonderful cheap things you can destroy. Want a character to drive through a house? This costs a ton if you want a nice, fully finished house that looks real. But you still get all that thrill with a half-built house, and it's way, way, way cheaper for the art department to put up a "half-finished" house that is ready to crash through than to build a "ready to crash" real house, with furnishings and finishes.
Set that up next to a ton of almost finished houses, and you get a bunch of production design for not much money. If you found a subdivision that no one has moved into yet (as they did here), it's an even cheaper rental of a location without worrying about neighbors being annoyed you are shutting down the streets.
That it manages to do all that, and also comment on the looming housing crisis and subprime lending (who do you think is going to be buying all those houses they are furiously building in that subdivision), is one of the many things we absolutely love about this film.
Find yourself a location that works logistically and also thematically.
Never Free Drive
This isn't about the Fast films in particular, but this is a good time to remind you not to ever, under any circumstances, shoot with the camera handheld in a vehicle. It's just very unsafe, and we recommend against it at all times.
Work with Local Authorities, and Hire a Coordinator
If you get outside the major markets, even independent projects should be able to hire a stunt coordinator to work with for staging the action sequences involved in a car chase. A good coordinator should also have relationships with the proper local authorities for all permitting.
If anything goes wrong and you aren't properly set up with your permits in place, that is grounds for your insurance not to cover any claims, and that is too high a risk to take.
Sound Design Is King
While there is a lot to love with the safe dragging chase in the middle of Fast Five, including great use of cutaways to static stage shots (so much of the tension is dragging out continually cutting back to the office, or to a bystander watching the action, safe and easy shots to get compared to car shots), the real star in this sequence is the sound design.
Just listen to the sound of the spike chains hitting the ground at three minutes into this clip. It's pure menace, that jangling sound. It creates a much bigger moment out of what could be a smaller moment. We of course know they'll find a way around it, but that jangling sound comes with just the right hint of threat.
The entire sequence uses sound to anchor us in space. There are sound worlds inside the car, in the office, and in the bystanders' world that all clash against each other to build intensity. It adds solidity. Every time the safe hits anything, we get an exaggerated thunk that lets us know just how heavy the prop is.
Keep Your Approach Evolving—and Inserts, Inserts, Inserts
There are two big takeaways in studying the train heist in Fast Five (we gotta admit, we really love Fast Five). You have to keep evolving. And inserts can up your game tremendously.
First off, look at how much drama and energy is created with the opening inserts. The jump over the gully is built up to with three inserts that show how hard the truck is working to get there, and also to allow for a Fox Shox product placement.
The placement is forgivable since it feels like we're getting extra info: that this truck that looks "junky" actually is a bit of a sleeper, with pro-level suspension working hard underneath to ensure the truck is up to the task.But the bigger lesson of this whole sequence is that you have to keep turning the tension in new directions.
The sequence starts with the audience wondering: how is this truck going to rescue our heroes?
We get the info of how it will work, and we see a driver get away. By the time the second driver does the same thing, it's clear the film knows this is in danger of getting boring. We're not going to watch multiple people do the same thing over and over.
So the filmmaking team twists. A fight now breaks out, and one of our heroes is now dangling from the truck. The tension remains high, but it's a new fresh tension that keeps us going.
Too many low-budget chase scenes think they can keep the same tension going for a long time (will person X catch hero Y, etc.), but it's so vital to keep twists happening in the tension to keep the audience engaged.
As soon as the hero gets off the truck, we have a new tension. How will they get the car to not drive off the cliff? It's all the same big overall tension of "will the heroes get off the train," but broken into beats.These are some of the major takeaways from the amazing car work in the Fast franchise that you can apply to your next low-budget action sequence.
Work with professionals. Take full advantage of sound design. And keep twisting to keep it interesting.
What have you learned from the chases in the Fast franchise? Tell us in the comments!