2011-01-23

Filming cars.

Anyone who has seen the movie "Ronin" will remember that it had some of the best car chase scenes you have ever seen in a movie.  The car chases seemed more real, more intense and more exciting than in most movies. Sure, there are some of the usual boring clichéd crashes with cars that spontaneously burst into flame, but for the most part, the scenes feel much more real than you are used to in action movies.



I'm what one might refer to as a petrolhead -- someone who loves cars and driving.  Strangely enough, I find most car chases in movies utterly boring and I am not beyond fast forwarding past them when I watch movies alone.  This is because most movie directors do not understand cars or indeed driving.

Driving a car at speed is not an intellectual challenge -- it is something that is felt.  It is about feeling balance, momentum, smoothness for orienting the car and it is about listening to how the engine breathes for managing power.  This is the realm of your senses and lower brain functions. Hence the frequent mention of one's nether regions when describing how car imparts information to driver.

Many directors strip away or artificially manufacture part of the sensory experience when filming cars. They focus on the visuals and often tamper with the sound -- not understanding how important the sound of the engine is.  In particular a lot of commerical shots of cars have compromised soundtracks or the sound of the engine is left out altogether.

Take the following shot. This is some of the raw material for the movie Michel Vailant. When you see it in its raw form with the natural engine sound you can pick up that the driver is holding back. The car has a lot more to give, but the driver is hesitant and tentative -- or simply just lacking the testicular fortitude to do the job properly.



Remove the sound and put some music on top, and the same clip tells a completely different story.

If you know how to drive a car fast, you also know that he engine noise is vitally important. It communicates a lot of information to the driver. In fact, when Audi started racing their diesel-powered R10 LMP1 car at Le Mans, one of the big problems for the drivers was the fact that they could no longer hear the engine. The diesel engine was so silent that the drivers had to learn how to drive, not by ear, but by instruments. The only thing they'd hear was the wind and the tyres.



I happen to like Alfa Romeo cars. Which is why I absolutely hate their marketing material.  The people who market Alfas know nothing about filming cars and they quite obviously do not have the faintest idea why Alfisti are Alfisti.

When the Alfa 8C was introduced all of the marketing material featured completely sterile shots of the car being driven -- but without any engine sounds.

If you have ever experienced the Alfa Romeo 8C up close and personal, the first thing you notice is the noise it makes.  It may be one of the most beautiful cars in the world, but the noise it makes is otherworldly.  Put a Ferrari, almost any current Ferrari, next to an 8C and start up both cars.

The Ferrari will, by all means, sound good, but the 8C makes the hair at the back of your neck stand up. And if you find yourself inside one; buttocks firmly cupped by expensive handmade italian leather seats: you will get that funny feeling in your unmentionable bits that usually means it is time for a change of underwear.



I talked to one of the chief design engineers at Alfa Romeo a couple of years ago, and he told me how they spent a lot of time getting the exhaust note of the 8C just so.  How they carefully designed the exhaust system to get those low rev purrs and gurgles, and the lovely scream at the top of the rev range.  It even has a button that says "sport" on it -- but it doesn't really turn the Alfa in to more of a race car: it just ups the noise level so you can have even more of that lovely noise.

Alfa Romeo continued doing this when presenting the MiTo GTA Concept.  There's a brief shot at the beginning of the marketing video where you can hear the wonderful snarls of the GTA's engine -- and then the rest of the video is defiled with quite possibly the most annoying music you have ever heard.  It completely ruins the experience and it makes you more than a little cross that Alfa Romeo would allow such philistines defile their engineering achievements.





So, if you are a director or a producer and you are going to shoot cars, I suggest that you take a couple of weeks off to learn how to drive a car at a track. Get a track-prepared car, put some masking tape over the rev counter and spend some time learning how to drive fast.  If you are not afraid of dying, you are not going fast enough.  Push harder.

Then, when you are shooting, and later editing your footage, focus on recreating the brutal sensory experience of driving cars at speed. And take some of that with you even when shooting for more mainstream commercial work.

Cars have engines and engines breathe.

If you belong to the Alfa Romeo marketing department that does commercials: I have no idea why you still have a job. Please punch yourself in the face and stick to filming vegetables, scenic vacation destinations for people who have a tendency to turn pink or products for the demographic that drools a lot and is excited by bright colors and wind-chimes.  You are the weakest link.  Goodbye.

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