I have been performing stunts and prepping cars for the past 30 years. During that time, the movie industry has changed greatly, with safety becoming much more important. I have worked on many movies and was responsible for vehicles starting with the original Grease and including such well-known movies as Twins, the original Gone In 60 Seconds, Cobra, Streets Of Fire, both Fast & Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious (my El Segundo, California, shop prepared over 180 cars in three months for this movie), as well as the GTOs from XXX.
The following is a breakdown of some of the things we have to do to make an ordinary car a movie car. The changes range from mild to extensive. This should give you just a bit more appreciation for the behind-the-scenes attention to details you probably never thought about in that last action movie you watched. But now you will, right?
We normally do everything to increase traction on cars, but for some of the mild action stunts less traction is better. There are a number of ways to do this, but the simplest is to wet down the street. Another way is to bump up the tire pressure a bit, rounding out the tread section and putting less rubber on the ground. This is a subtle way to create less traction, making burnouts and slides much easier to perform.
Most of the time, the number of vehicles used in films is doubled or tripled, and sometimes we even make as many as seven duplicates of the main vehicle. In this way, the lead vehicle can be in many places at once. This allows both the first and second unit to be working at the same time in different locations (first-unit filming is for close-ups with the actors, and the second unit is generally the stunt team). If a stunt calls for something special, such as being rigged for bullet "hits," one vehicle can be filmed in one location while the "after-event" vehicle is being rigged. The point is, the director will not have to wait for a vehicle since he can use the copies.
This is a simple task that allows the driver to do the cool-looking "J" turn, where the rear end slides around the corner, or a reverse J-turn where the car is driving in Reverse and suddenly skids around and drives off. The easiest way to create these stunts is to remove the ratcheting mechanism from the parking brake. I do this by bending the lock out of the way. During the stunt, I start by putting the vehicle into a slide. Once I reach the point where I want the skid to end, I take my foot off the pedal and continue driving.
Anything that gets in an actor's face has to go, and this includes the rearview mirror. What would seem to be a simple task of removing the mirror can be troublesome. Of course, when you want the mirror out, cracking the windshield during the process sometimes happens. When a shot calls for the driver's POV (point of view) to be through the windshield, the mirror is reinstalled. This is done by mounting the mirror on a custom bracket above the windshield to the windshield frame, allowing the mounting bracket to extend down and look as if it's mounted on the glass. In this way, it can be removed easily and replaced at will. EP Industries makes such brackets and supplied hundreds of them for 2 Fast 2 Furious, as well as other films.
Most cars come with tinted windshield glass, but it's next to impossible to shoot actors through a tinted windshield without making them look blue. In most cases, the windshield has to be replaced with clear glass or, in some extreme cases, removed entirely. Total removal of the windshield is just an option, of course, if the car is used only for still shots. Once the car moves, a clear windshield is in order.
The hard part is trying to find a clear windshield. Hollywood studios have a few sources that will make them for about $750 each. These windshields are not mounted in the conventional way, as they must be removed and replaced for any number of reasons, so they are held in place with tape or hook-and-loop fabric connectors. The key here is quick in and out, as down time on the set is costly.
As a safety issue, most movie cars are outfitted with fuel cells. In many cases, the factory tanks are completely removed and the fuel cells installed.
Most new cars have computer chips embedded in the key and, without this special coded key, the car will not start. Only auto dealers can make duplicates, and they can cost a few hundred dollars apiece. I'm not allowed to tell you how we do it, but we have a way of deactivating the "computer key system" so the car will start with "non-chip" keys. If a key is lost on the set, the production company can lose thousands of dollars waiting for a new key to be made by the manufacturer (imagine the high cost of production set time and personnel if they're waiting for a key to be made). We found a way to bypass the computer and use any key cut at our local key shop, and it was a huge breakthrough.
While not the simplest thing to deactivate, antilock means "antistunt" so that applies to any kind of stunt.
This is a connector that's mounted under the vehicle bumper allowing us to charge or start the car without having to use jumper cables directly to the battery. This is a handy feature that quickens car prep time.
We replace all stock seatbelts with Simpson lap and shoulder harnesses, and mount our own eyebolts into the floor with 6x6x1/2-inch steel plates as washers. This is overkill, but with used cars we want to make sure that a little bit of rust will not cause the seatbelt bolts to come out. In addition, the wider belts are more comfortable for the stunt drivers and hold us in place better.
A line lock is a drag-racing device that allows the driver to lock the front brakes while releasing the rear brakes. They are most often used for drag-racing burnouts to heat the rear slicks before a run. Line locks can be rigged to do everything from J-turns to locking up only the front wheels for some impressive movie-type burnouts.
Self-explanatory-hey, it's a stunt. Bigger shocks, sway bars, and springs are a must.
Simply removing the dome-light bulb will achieve the desired result. If you don't, because the temperature of the bulb light is different from the camera lighting, the actors will look red. In the past, we have also added a "gel" (colored film) to the existing bulb to change the coloration back to white light.
We all know what a rollcage is and why it's important, but on some movie cars we have to hide them so they will not be seen by the camera. The easiest way is to tint the windows. On the movie Twins, I had to build a high back seat that was a rollcage decorated to look like a seat so the Mustang convertible could be filmed driving on two wheels with the top down.
Windshields are barely enough protection from wind, let alone stunt materials. I remember one stunt where a tailpipe came through my windshield after tagging the stunt car in front of me. I usually put a Lexan or polycarb panel behind the windshield glass to add extra protection.
Airbags have to be disarmed for even the most minor stunts to avoid any possible injury during filming.
All warning and interior car alarms and buzzers have to be deactivated or the shot will be ruined.
Front 1-inch steel skid plates are bolted to the frame under the engine to protect it from damaging stunts. These skid plates are fairly easy to install, and we paint them black to make them less obvious to the camera.
Stunt people have a tendency to tap the brakes to test them before doing a stunt, and, if the brake lights come on before a stunt, the shot can be ruined. Most of the time, we solve the problem by putting the brake lights on a switch so they can be turned off just before the stunt.
There are a number of fire-extinguisher systems available, and we install them whenever there is any chance of fire.
Many older cars are equipped with rear drum brakes. With the repetitive stopping demands placed on movie cars, the brakes can heat up, causing a loss in stopping power. To give maximum braking potential, we swap out the drums for disc brakes and the problem is solved.