Behind the Trope: The Development of the Car Chase Scene

car chase

From mind-blowing cinematography to stunning computer-generated graphics, car chases are all about speed, power, sound, and emotion. In real life, 3 million people are injured in vehicle accidents in the U.S. every year. In movies, it seems our favorite characters can get away with incredible car stunts a lot more easily than we can on actual planet Earth. However, a deeper dive into car chase and car crash scenes shows just how much effort goes into creating these works of cinematic art.

Limited Special Effects Give Way to Exciting Cinematography

Back in the day, directors used gimmicks such as freezing cameras, switching characters, and shooting scenes backwards. But modern audiences have become hyper-aware of what looks real and what’s clearly a façade. From flashy pyrotechnics to fiery explosions, car chase scenes in movies must connect with a viewer emotionally through intense lighting and fast images. Sometimes, the more a film invests in a car chase scene, the more emotionally invested viewers are in seeing the scene through to the end.

Cameras have also evolved a great deal for modern-day car chase sequences. Cameras are mounted on the outside of vehicles to provide up-close shots and an edgy style of shooting, very much similar to the techniques used by Paul Greengrass in the Jason Bourne series. With cameras attached to the inside of the vehicle, viewers are thrust into the action from a first-person perspective, enjoying the challenges the driver has to endure while battling to keep a vehicle on the road. These adjustments have made it easier for directors to provide viewers with a breathtaking experience.

Real Crashes and Traffic Speed Adjustments

Unlike years ago, audiences look for screeching metal, shattered glass, and real-time damage from cars flipping upside down sidewalks and tearing down street signs. Everything from the moment of initial impact to the secondary crashes thereafter has to appear realistic. That’s why modern directors are choosing to film real crashes using trained stunt actors to prevent audiences from second-guessing.

But where there is speed and mayhem there are also safety concerns and the potential for incredible amounts of damage. Consider a middle-aged Kiefer Sutherland in 24, dodging drone attacks in London and watching video footage of bus bombings unfold in the streets of Los Angeles. On average, a vehicle in the U.S. is parked 95% of the time, certainly not moving at high speed. But in movies, drivers may operate their vehicles slower so that the high-speed vehicle can be filmed moving at a slower speed. Car chase sequences have evolved in clever ways that don’t require expensive technical upgrades.

Awesome Cars Overperforming

Muscle cars perform far differently than sports cars in movies and they look different as well. Directors understood that each kind of car offers its own unique benefits. Due to their heavy engines and significant weight, muscle cars were made for straight-line speed found in drag races. These car-chase sequences are perfect for a Fast and Furious-like scene where two characters can stare at each other while racing to a finish line hundreds of yards away.

On the other hand, compact vehicles may be made for the kind of dramatic sports car finishes where the eluding driver will slide off the grass and duck into a tiny opening the pursuing patrol officer can’t see. They look great in car chase sequences when their paint jobs are customized and their rims, spoilers, windows, and exhaust color are unique. Whereas Class 8 vehicles are heavy trucks weighing between 26,000 and 33,000 pounds, sports vehicles in movies are designed for blistering speed and car chases that leave the cops in the dust.

Car chase sequences have come a long way since the early days of film. Chases are more exciting thanks to newer models of vehicles and well-trained stunt performers. The cinematography and directing techniques from years ago have been replaced with modern computer-generated graphics and clever shooting. No matter what, car chases in movies will continue to delight viewers for years to come.


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