How cars prepare for disaster in movies and TV

  • Car accidents in movies may seem random, but they require meticulous preparation and special FX magic.
  • We visited JEM FX to find out how it prepares cars to be spectacularly destroyed on camera.
  • The team showed us how they carve roofs and replace hinges to set up the cars for optimal destruction.
  • Visit the Insider homepage for more stories.

Here is the transcript of the video.

Narrator: To get a shot like this from “Shang-Chi,” Hollywood prepares cars like this to be dramatically crushed on camera.

Worker: Fall!

Narrator: And that job falls to the JEM FX team, which prepares the cars for optimal destruction in movies like “Shang-Chi,” “Taken 3” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.”

We visited JEM to see how they design cars to spectacularly destroy themselves on screen exactly as planned.

In real life, cars don’t always get destroyed in the most cinematic way. Even when hit repeatedly, a car roof doesn’t always cave in like we’re used to seeing in movies. That’s where the rating comes in — removing the protective sheet metal on a car and removing it from its mount.

Cody: We’re going to start by cutting this pillar from here to here to basically weaken the structure. So, now that we’re done cutting, we’re going to take a pry bar and just remove that little piece of the front A-pillar.

Narrator: Each cut determines where and how the car will fold.

Cody: We’re going to go ahead and make some weakening cuts to help it fold a little easier under a little less weight.

Narrator: They target the A, B and C pillars of the car.

Cody: Now when you do this you have to be careful not to cut the outside of the vehicle because then it would be visible and you would be able to tell that something is wrong with it. So we like to try to hide all our stuff.

Narrator: Then they put it back together.

Cody: So we’ll start by reconnecting our wiring. Then we’ll take our inner cover, put it back on, replace the weather stripping. And now we’re back to the stock interior. It looks like a normal car on the inside, but it will crash.

Narrator: It took four hours to score the car, so it could be destroyed in seconds by a 3,000-pound weight. And the areas that scored were the ones that folded cleanly. The team at JEM does not go all the way with the grading process for every job.

Take this bus accident in “Shang-Chi”. This shot was shot on location in San Francisco and the parked cars being hit are real. JEM prepared them for destruction. The cars had to smash into the bus’s path, but they also had to be strong enough to slow the bus down. Thus, the JEM marked only the top of the vehicles to collapse on impact, while keeping the lower sections strong.

Elias: When the bus carried over the vehicles, if it went down too far, the scene wouldn’t look right. So all we wanted was as much compression and to actually provide a flat platform for the camera to track the hill.

Narrator: They can also focus on some major weak points, such as those car door hinges. Replacing steel hinges with broken hinges makes doors incredibly easy to rip.

Cody: They are made of a weaker compound, which makes them easier to shear. So that way, it will snap the door nice and easy.

Narrator: They then cut those wires to make sure the door has nothing to hang on after the bolts explode. These weaker materials allow for great results.

Some forms of damage can be faked, such as for scenes where an actor crashes into something and the hood of their car pops dramatically. The JEM team can build hoods to do this from scratch.

Elias: So this hood popping rig, we basically took a Crown Vic hood and went inside it. We actually succeeded up to a point. So when we put a roller on it and pulled it, it just bent like soft metal.

Narrator: They managed to do this over and over again in the same hood, reusing it throughout the night of filming. The shop used a similar technique to outfit this truck in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.”

Elias: And the story was that the ghost is chasing this truck and punching the truck.

Narrator: They had to practically make the doors pop as if the ghost, to be added with the CG, was falling on it. To demonstrate the closed-door effect, the Elia team reproduced the GMC pickup’s door panels in a soft-weathered aluminum and attached the panels to a rig that made them snap into place. So when we shot it with a ram inside, it sucked it up and it looked like the ghost was punching those panels.

Narrator: The work is not limited to the car itself. JEM does all kinds of tricks on set to make sure the destruction goes according to plan, with ramps, cannons and cables.

Elias: In our world, you only have so many seconds to tell the story, so they want to make it dramatic. Cars don’t always just explode on impact.

Narrator: So JEM gives them a little help.

Elias: So what we’re going to do is use devices, anything from a gas bomb under a vehicle or a, what’s called a propane popper, and hook it up to the vehicle. We’ll turn it on, whether it’s on a cable, a remote, or an impact switch. Or sometimes even the stuntman will have the button in with him.

Narrator: To make the cars fly at the touch of a button, the shop equips cars with different types of cannons, like in this test run, which asked the team to split a truck in half. They built a twin 10-inch cannon system to shoot it and used that system on a larger scale for that highway chase in “Taken 3.”

Elias: We had to start with a tractor trailer going down the highway and we had to jackknife [with] so much impact that it caused the sea container to fall off the trailer, so much speed that when it hit the ground, it rolled and ran over cars.

Narrator: To perform the move, they used two 12-inch nitrogen cannons, which provided enough inertia to tip over the trailer’s shipping container. And about the rolling part?

Elias: We welded wheels to the end of the square marine container so we could roll it down the highway.

Narrator: A carefully placed ramp can also make cars flip in ways they would never do on their own. Elia: So when they come in and hit that ramp, then the corner, the kick at the end is what’s going to send the car spiraling and flipping at speed.

Narrator: Productions hide ramps on the blind side of the cars and also use set decorations as barricades. When a disaster scene calls for a car to follow a very specific trajectory, the job often involves cable rigs, which can cause the cars to crash or spin in a predetermined way.

JEM manufactures cable accelerators to quickly pull heavy vehicles in the desired direction. And restraint or suspension cables bring cars to a complete stop in a split second, something you can’t do with regular car brakes. They used these cables in “Bright”.

Elias: David Ayer wanted us to have a Suburban go in, hit this imaginary wall and stop on a dime. And it was all shot very, very stylistically, so you had a side profile, and it picks up the hood crease. So what we did is, we did a pull cable forward, but we also had a break cable that went to the front of the nose of the bumper. We really scored and weakened the front end so we collapsed it back and kept the vehicle from going over that fantastic barrier.

Narrator: Cables also helped JEM perform one of the most custom crash jobs for the “Velvet Buzzsaw”.

Elias: The truck had to hit the corner of this building. This was a real building, so we couldn’t damage the real building.

Narrator: And the car could only be hit in a precise area on the passenger door so the audience would believe the driver survived. To achieve this, JEM created an entirely new set element. The team structurally incorporated a fake pole that was strong enough to absorb the impact of the car …

Elias: A fake pole that’s in there hard enough that it didn’t move and it looked like it was a fake pole.

Narrator: And an outer layer of soft aluminum was placed over the car doors. This would help them make more impact with less.

For a crash that can seem random and chaotic, the JEM team will spend hours of testing and experimenting to make sure everything turns out exactly how they want it to. And even if it’s not realistic, it sure looks like it.

Elias: Everything we do defies physics. None of this makes any sense. But we get paid to do it.

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