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Monday, May 27, 2024

'Can We Drop Cars Out of the Sky?' – The Evolution of Fast and Furious Car Chases

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Let's not mince words: James Wan had big shoes to fill with Furious 7. Leading the charge on a $190M movie is a daunting task, especially when you need to figure out action sequences that bring something new to an audience that has already devoured six previous entries. Ditto F. Gary Gray when he came in for the eighth film.

In the fourth (and final… for now) installment of our look back at the Fast and Furious franchise's mastery of practical effects when creating its famed car chases, we examine Parts 7, 8, and 9 of the series just in time for the release of Fast X. Buckle in, because a lot of cars are about to be destroyed…

And when you're done reading, check out our video about the car chases of the Fast series at the top of this page!

Furious 7 (2015)

You have to give James Wan credit. When he took over the director’s chair from Justin Lin, he came ready with some absurd ideas. Hell, it's probably what got him the job.

“The very first stunt sequence that I designed was our heroes parachuting out of the back of a plane in their cars,” recalled Wan on the Blu-ray extras for Furious 7.

That idea would germinate into one of the franchise's most sophisticated chases because it provides a ton of interesting challenges. Can we drop cars out of the sky? Will they land right? And is it even possible to drive a bus and flip it on a narrow mountain?

The good news for the gang was that dropping cars out of a C-130 had been done before. The bad news was that they still had to figure out how to actually control and photograph cars that are in freefall.

“They're freefalling at 175 [mph] and so the skydivers could never catch up,” said second unit stunt coordinator/second unit director Jack Gill on the Blu-ray. “They had to be a part of the car when it went out. So we said, you guys grab onto the car. Just run out with them and grab on to it so that its first initial drop, when it's gaining its terminal velocity, you're with it. And that was the key element that made it all work.”

Even though it took a bit to figure out, the second unit got some truly amazing footage… even if a few of the cars didn't survive their jumps. And now that they had all this great footage of cars actually plummeting to Earth, it was time to pair it up with some inserts of actors on bluescreen. Wan really brought a ton of energy to his inserts, like the shot of Vin Diesel with his car on a gimbal that could almost go completely vertical. They also photographed him with a camera truck that dollied in from 200 yards away. This kinetic camera work – even in a completely controlled environment – is what made these inserts feel so seamless, because it matched the hectic motion of the cameras that were free falling at 175 mph.

But what goes up must come down. So a whole other contraption was invented to have the cars hit the ground running. It kind of worked like the zip line in 2 Fast 2 Furious, but here it released the car at a certain height.

Next Dom and the gang were onto phase two, overtaking the bus. The use of the battering ram was a nice touch for the team to get within striking distance. But once Brian saves Ramsey – which, kudos to Nathalie Emmanuel for doing the stunt herself – the chase really goes down hill… in a good way.

Second unit director and stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos has directed enough Fast and Furious action to know that the impact was crucial because it would both sell Deckard Shaw as a big bad and push the chase into the woods.

“Then our heroes got off road, which was something that we've never seen before in this particular franchise, seeing cars going off crazy terrain was really exciting,” said Wan. “I remember [writer] Chris Morgan pitching to me that sequence and saying that it should feel like the speeder bike sequence in Return of the Jedi.”

And just like in Return of the Jedi, one of the goons has to meet their untimely end with a tree. But instead of just crashing into a stump, the stunt team jumped a car 80 feet into a long steel tree that completely impaled it.

Throughout Furious 7, it seems like James Wan was hellbent on trying to make cars fly.


Meanwhile, the action back on the bus was also still going on. While Brain was busy trying to hold his own against Tony Jaa, the second unit was figuring out how to drive a bus at speed and flip it on the narrow mountain roads. And once they did that, of course Wan and company dragged the bus right to the edge of a conveniently placed cliff, setting up a climax that has become all too familiar – but not in a bad way – to Fast and Furious chases: the leap of faith.

A stunt man on cables actually ran and went off a cliff. And they really dropped a bus off another cliff as well. Talk about a leap of faith.

Throughout Furious 7, it seems like Wan was hellbent on trying to make cars fly. The amount of practical effects in the parachute chase was astounding. The Abu Dhabi building jump, however, is frankly impossible, and that's what made it such an interesting challenge for the Fast and Furious team.

If you think the shots of the Lykan soaring through the sky are CGI, it's because they are. You know the film's going to have CGI; they know it's going to have CGI. But the magic of these movies is watching how they blur the line between the fake and the practical, and it's what keeps the audience coming back for more.

And the small moments, like when the Lykan enters and exits the buildings, were actually shot. To do it, the team built a multi-story skyscraper façade set in a parking lot.

“We had 40 feet of trussing deck and then the windows were built on that,” said Gill. “And [we] put the car on one of their mortars and we would shoot it out of that window and into boxes. We would get the exit from one side and then get the entrance on another side. And we did it multiple times for different buildings that [it was] supposed to go into.”

With the skyscraper façade wrapped, they still needed an interior set for the car to drive through. For the second building interior, Wan wanted it to look like an unfinished office floor. So they built it with open walls and a ton of aluminum framing, and turned it over to the special effects team to prep for the shot. And to get the car up to speed before crashing onto the set, they also had to build a pretty long ramp.

“I built ramps that were three feet tall, 120 feet long, and I had Steve Kelso driving as fast as he could drive it and drop off,” explained Gill. “You had about five or six feet between there in the window, so we could get him dropping, as if he's dropping in, hit, and then just slamming through everything that was in that second building.”

Once they got the unfinished floor in the can, they immediately launched themselves into the final building leap. The set would be populated with stunt people, and that posed a new challenge: They needed to get the hell out of the way quickly, because they might not see the Lykan coming until it was too late.

The last thing they needed to shoot was Dom and Brian bailing from the spinning car. The team built a rig to get the car spinning, but the whole "bailing" thing wasn't as easy as it looked. When they tested it, they realized that if you don't jump out as it's starting to spin, the back tail end would hit you. So the stunt guys had to look for a pinpoint area to jump out on the set – a mark basically so they’d know when to jump.

And then a last-minute note came in from Wan. He wanted Dom hanging on the edge, so that involved some tweaks like putting the character on a cable and rotating the car so that he could jump out and not penetrate the glass. Oh, and for extra dramatic effect – and since this is a Fast and Furious movie – they also dropped the car from 60 feet just to get an in-real-life shot of its impact.

James Wan's stint as a Fast and Furious director might have been short, but it made one hell of an impact. Aside from the memorable stunts and chases, Furious 7 is still the highest grossing Fast and Furious movie ever, bringing in $1.5B at the box office.

Unfortunately all that success didn't come without tragedy. Paul Walker died during the production of the film in an unrelated car accident. Furious 7 would be Walker's last film, but Brian O'Conner still lives on in the Fast Universe. However, in the lead-up to Fast X’s release, Vin Diesel told Total Film that he "couldn’t imagine this saga ending without truly saying goodbye to Brian O’Conner."

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

For the eighth entry, the franchise brought on another new director, F. Gary Gray, whose filmography kind of makes him a low-key perfect guy to direct a Fast and Furious movie because he can juggle so many genres. Need him to direct comedy? He did that with Friday. Need some tense drama? The Negotiator director is on set. He even understands car chases because he directed the Italian Job remake, which is movie that probably wouldn't have existed without the Fast and Furious franchise in the first place.

That's just a long winded way of saying Grey was very capable of taking The Fate of the Furious in a new direction, and that's exactly what he did. For one, this is the only movie in the history of the franchise where the best scene doesn't even involve a car. Shaw saving Dom's son by giving him headphones to listen to the Chipmunks so he doesn't get upset while Shaw wipes out an entire plane of goons is an absolute joy to watch – and in and of itself is a master class in action directing.

But we’re talking car chases here. And the car chases in Fate are very good, even if – with the exception of a few specific moments – they are car chases we've more or less seen before.

F. Gary Gray chose to make a more character-focused Fast (well, as character-focused as a Fast movie can be), and it shows in its action, which relies more on character beats than plot points to drive things forward.

Take Dom's heel turn, where he has to go to New York City to steal the nuclear codes from the Russian Minister of Defense. The plague of self-driving zombie cars that Charlize Theron’s Cipher unleashes on the city to aid Dom is some truly awesome action choreography (and we'll get to it in a bit). Despite all that action, its not the climax of the sequence. That comes when Dom is confronted by the gang, which speaks to those smaller character moments Gray is trying to probe in his film.

This confrontation where the gang uses – you guessed it – car harpoons to try and trap Dom is very well done. We've seen the car harpoon so many times before, but it works this time because it's being used against one of their own. More than that, the scene also does an incredible job using the harpoon tug of war to visualize the emotional undertone of the scene, which is that Dom's villainy is literally tearing them apart.

But back to the stunts. There is some legit cool stuff going on in the zombie car sequence. Essentially, the team dressed the stunt drivers to look like car seats – and hence allow for the illusion that no one was driving. But it was going to take just a bit more ingenuity to pull off the next stunt – the raining cars.

Once they were confident the cars weren't going to crash through the road, they started testing out the stunt itself – by dropping cars from various heights and figuring out the mechanisms needed to have cars drop at specific time intervals. It was very important to Spiro Razatos that he gets shots of seven cars in the air at the same time. This meant pulling the cars out at an exact speed. F. Gary Gray and his team destroyed 65 cars for just one shot.

And then there’s the sub. Despite having an estimated budget of $250M, it wasn't quite enough for them to secure a real submarine. But even without the sub, the sequence has some rad ice driving, the Rock kicking a torpedo, and what might be the biggest explosion in any Fast movie.

After making sure it was safe to put all their equipment on the ice, it was time to bring out the cars. Dom has driven a Charger in almost all of the Fast movies, and for Part 8 they realized they could keep Dom's love of that car fresh by putting it on ice.

His winter Charger was custom-built from the ground up. Since it would be in the snow, they made it all-wheel drive, and since it would be taking on a ton of jumps, they also really beefed up its suspension. The Charger also needed power to take on snow dunes, push around a rocket launcher, and – most importantly – outrun the surfacing submarine.

Let's get this out of the way right now: The submarine was definitely CGI that was added later. But the ice explosion that the sub created? That's 100% real. The effects team was asked to “bend” the surface of the ice into a shere shape directly underneath the bad guys. To pull this stunt off, they set-up tow cables to pull four of the vehicles up to 30 mph, and when they hit a specific rigged patch of ice… Boom!

Cipher ultimately gets away, but when Dom blows up the sub – which is an insane thing to say, considering seven movies ago he was a DVD player thief – his fam swarms him to protect him from the blast. It's a nice visual callback to earlier in the film, where the gang surrounded him but he ultimately pushed them away.

Cut to the obligatory dinner scene, where the Fast Family becomes just a little bit bigger – and they can sit around and laugh all the way to the bank. While this wasn't the biggest Fast movie at the box office, it was the second to clear $1 billion. It also launched the pretty solid Hobbs and Shaw spin-off (which we'll be skipping since its not a mainline Fast and Furious movie).

F9 (2021)

These movies are just so popular now, they don't even need titles. This is the first movie of the series that just sounds like it's named after a car model, the F9.

Anyway, it seems that Justin Lin just couldn't stay away. He came back to direct his fifth film of the franchise, so of course he was going to try some crazy new stuff, like sending Roman and Tej into space in a Pontiac Fiero. Consider that it’s obligatory mention. I love that scene, but it's all CGI and blue screen. We're here for the good stuff – the practical stuff. And F9 had plenty of that too.

For starters, Lin decided to turn Dom’s memory of his dad’s death from the first film into a flashback here (and the inciting incident that generates the rift between Dom and his newly acknowledged brother, Jakob, played by John Cena).

To pull that race accident off took a ton of planning and multiple setups to get in the can. First they shot a stunt driver driving Jack Toretto's car to make it slide out sideways. Then they built two rigs: One attached Jack's car to the front of Kenny Linder's and a pipe rail, so when Jack's car (which was being pushed by Kenny's) hits the rail, the back end would flare up. And the other had a cannon in it with the same push mechanism, so that when activated, the cannon shoots the car in the air.

That crash might have been the big bang that eventually sent Jakob in to exile, but the first time audience's met him was in the jungles of the fictional country Montequinto. This jungle chase was actually shot in Thailand and was extremely difficult because pretty much everything needed to be built from scratch. That involved making over a half mile of their own roads.

For the Armadillo scene, the effects team rigged up something called 'car shooters.'


The most memorable part of this scene is Dom's rope swing with the car. To nail this sequence, they actually shot Dom's car doing the jump and hitting the post. Of course the wide shots are all CGI, but Dom and Letty are pulling some g's here because they actually were shot in a rotating car on gimbal.

And the landing was real too. To do it, the team rigged cables to the front and back of the car to violently pull it right where it needed to be. The Charger Tarzan jump is a classic execution of Lin's ability to create a realistic-feeling stunt even when everyone knows it’s absolutely impossible. He's able to do it because he understands how to cleverly sandwich some CGI excessiveness in between practically-photographed bookends.

But what about the magnet chase, you’re asking?

Enter the "Armadillo." This 26-ton behemoth took four months to build from scratch and is one hell of a visualization of an unmovable object that is about to meet an unstoppable force.

“Not only does a magnet pull things in; it also repels things,” said Razatos. “So we wanted to come up with some cool ideas repelling it. One of the ideas we had was two bad guys chasing Dom and he pulls the cars in with the magnet at the same time. He pushes them away right when he sees parked cars on either side.”

To pull the shot off, they modified the parked cars to severely weaken their structural integrity, so when the trucks hit them, they tore right through them. But the scene also needed one of the trucks to flip over for dramatic effect, so the stunt team hid a wall in a van: When the car hit it, it did exactly what they expected it to do.

And to get these shots, where they use magnets to pull parked cars into the path of the Armadillo, the effects team rigged up something called "car shooters." These are basically big air motors, and the cars are on casters, parked on the sides of the road. As the trucks come in, the shooters start firing… cars, basically.

The casters on the cars are a nice touch, because they allow the car to move in a direction that isn't oriented with the car's tires; it really sells the lie that the car is being pulled against its will.

For over 20 years, the Fast franchise has been pushing the envelope on what a practically photographed car chase can actually do, and action movies as a genre have been better for it. I've always found irony in the fact that to make these big, dumb action movies (which I love), it takes a ton of smart and talented people to not only conceive and execute the impossible, but to do it safely.

With Fast X now arriving, I'm excited to see how that steel ball chase is going to build on the 20-year legacy of practically photographed car chases that have come before it. But what are your favorite stunts and chases from the Fast movies? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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