Camera Cars & Trailers – The Real Movie Cars
From high-speed car chases to luxury car commercials, camera cars are secretly driving alongside capturing all the action.
Cover Image via Camera Car Industries
Camera cars come in all shapes and sizes. They are classified as self-propelled vehicles engineered for mounting and manning cameras and equipment. They are often painted or wrapped in a matte black finish, so they don’t reflect light while shooting.
Their history goes all the way back to the first mass-produced vehicles. In this photo from the 1925 film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a camera car prepares to film the chariot race sequence.
By the 1930s, picture cars (the cars that are on camera) were commonly placed in front of rear-projection screens. That technique of process photography has been adapted and is still used today, but with green screens. Action films of the 1940s and 1950s started using cameras on and inside moving vehicles, and by the 1960s we would see the beginning of the modern camera car.
The insert car (which is actually almost always a truck or van) is a vehicle with a series of platforms that hold a camera crew and their equipment. It is a camera crew’s fully functioning mobile set.
It allows an array of different camera and lighting setups, like plate-shots or crane-shots. The insert car also has an on-board generator used to power any camera equipment or light kits. Typically, the film’s director is sitting inside the cab watching footage, while camera operators stand on the platforms filming.
The insert car can be driven in front of, behind, or to the side of a picture car. Most frequently they are used to tow picture cars. They are also used to film establishing shots, often just driving through city streets.
The process trailer is a low rise platform that holds a picture car. The trailer moves along roadways, allowing the camera crew to film a natural-looking car movement. They can also be referred to as an insert trailer or a low loader.
These are frequently used if no other vehicles will be visible near the picture car. If other vehicles pass by, the height difference will make it apparent that the picture car is on a trailer.
Most insert cars can tow the process trailer with a rear trailer hitch. However, there are some insert cars that can also side-tow the process trailer, allowing filmmakers to have camera in front and beside a picture car simultaneously.
A tow dolly is a specialty trailer that only holds the front tires of a picture car. (These are the types of trailers you frequently see movers using, like U-Haul.)
These are usually used when the camera crew is relying on car-mounted rigs, rather than standing beside the vehicle. They also offer a more natural look when driving through traffic, as there isn’t much of a height difference next to other cars on the road.
If pulled by an insert car, the most common setup is a camera on the insert car facing the picture car straight on while an additional camera is mounted to the side of the vehicle.
Camera Car – Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV)
SUV camera cars have become the most well known among people outside of the industry. These camera cars are flashy, usually a modified Porsche Cayenne or Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG.
These high-end SUVs are not only chosen because of their looks, they can seat five crew members and are built for speed. They also feature a solid braking system, which allows them to keep up with high-speed shots and then stop on a dime.
Camera Car – Cars
Though the SUV has become the most well-known camera car, there are still plenty of camera “cars” used on set. Camera cars are used for high-speed chases or close-up follow shots of vehicles.
The Mini Cooper featured above was specifically designed for the Fast & Furious franchise. It was used to film the races inside of parking garages.
Camera Car – Custom
Just like the world of custom cars, there are plenty of custom camera cars as well. Many companies build original vehicles for specific films. One of the most popular is the Go Mobile.
Go Mobile is a flat vehicle that allows a film to use any type of vehicle body. The above feature taxi frame can be replaced, and another body type put it its place.
Another custom vehicle was the one above, built for Children of Men to capture the incredible long take. The custom camera car actually has two drivers, depending on which direction the vehicle is moving.
Camera Car – Carts
Camera cars are not always the fastest or most powerful vehicles. Often times a production may need a silent vehicle or a low-impact cart. These carts can be either gas or electric.
By “low impact” we are referring to a vehicle that will not damage a surface, much like in the above photo. The camera car used on the field will not damage the playing surface, whereas a car or truck could weigh it down and leave tire tracks.
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