- Car crashes in movies may look random, but they require meticulous prep work and special FX wizardry.
- We visited JEM FX to find out how it primes cars to get destroyed spectacularly on camera.
- The team showed us how they score roofs and replace hinges to set cars up for optimal destruction.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: To get a shot like this from “Shang-Chi,” Hollywood primes cars like this one to get crushed dramatically on camera.
Narrator: And that work is up to the team at JEM FX, which sets cars up for optimal destruction in movies like “Shang-Chi,” “Taken 3,” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.”
We visited JEM to see how it designs cars to get spectacularly destroyed on-screen exactly as planned.
In real life, cars don’t always get destroyed in the most cinematic ways. Even when hit repeatedly, a car roof won’t always cave in on itself like we’re used to seeing in movies. That’s where scoring comes in — stripping away the protective sheet metal in a car and gutting it of its support.
Cody: We’re going to start by cutting this pillar from here to here to basically weaken the structure. So, now that we’ve finished our cut, we’re going to take a pry bar and simply remove this small chunk of the front A pillar.
Narrator: Each cut determines where and how the car will fold.
Cody: We’re going to go through and do some weakening cuts to help this fold a little bit easier under a little less weight.
Narrator: They target the A, B, and C pillars of the car.
Cody: Now, when you’re doing this, you have to ensure not to cut the outside of the vehicle, because then it’d be visible and you could tell something’s up with it. So we like to try and hide all of our stuff.
Narrator: Then they put the whole thing back together.
Cody: So, we’re going to start out by reconnecting our wire harness. Then we’ll take our interior cover, put it back on, replace our weather stripping. And now we’re back to the stock interior. It looks like a normal car from the inside, but it will crush.
Narrator: It took four hours to score the car, all so it could be destroyed in seconds by a 3,000-pound weight. And the areas they scored were the ones that folded cleanly. The team at JEM doesn’t go all the way with the scoring process for every job.
Take this bus crash in “Shang-Chi.” This shot was filmed on location in San Francisco, and the parked cars getting run over are real. JEM prepped them for destruction. The cars were supposed to get crushed in the bus’ path, but they also needed to be strong enough to slow down the bus. So JEM only scored the upper portion of the vehicles to collapse on impact, keeping the lower portions strong.
Elia: When the bus would carry over the tops of the vehicles, if it went down too far, the scene wouldn’t look right. So all we wanted is just so much compression and actually provide a flat platform for the camera to track down the hill with.
Narrator: They can also just focus on a few major points of weakening, like these hinges on car doors. Swapping out the steel hinges for breakaway ones makes the doors incredibly easy to rip off.
Cody: They’re made out of a weaker compound, which makes them shear easier. So that way, it’ll snap the door off nice and easy.
Narrator: Then they cut these wires to make sure the door has nothing to hang on to after the bolts blow out. These weaker materials allow for big results.
Some forms of damage can be faked, like for scenes where an actor crashes into something and the hood of their car dramatically pops up. The team at JEM can rig hoods to do that on cue.
Elia: So, that hood-popping rig, basically we took a stock Crown Vic hood, and we went inside it. We actually scored it to a point. So that way, when we put a cylinder on it and we pulled it, it just bent just like soft metal.
Narrator: They were able to do this over and over again on the same hood, reusing it through the whole night of shooting. The shop used a similar technique to rig this truck in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.”
Elia: And the storyline was that the ghost is chasing this truck, and he’s punching at the truck.
Narrator: They had to make the doors dent practically, as if the ghost, who would be added with CG, was crashing into it. To get the effect in camera, Elia’s team replicated the door panels of the GMC pickup in a soft conditioned aluminum and attached the panels to a rig that made them buckle on cue. So that when we pulled it with a pneumatic ram on the inside, it sucked it in, and it looked like the ghost was punching these panels.
Narrator: The work isn’t limited to the car itself. JEM pulls all sorts of tricks on set to make sure destruction goes according to plan, with ramps, cannons, and cables.
Elia: In our world, you only get 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.
Elia: So what we’ll do is use devices, everything from a gas bomb underneath a vehicle or to a, what’s called a propane popper, and attach it to the vehicle. We’ll have it fired, whether it’s on a wire, remote control, or an impact switch. Or sometimes even the stunt guy will have the button inside with him.
Narrator: To make cars go flying at the press of a button, the shop retrofits cars with different types of cannons, like on this test run, for which the team was asked to split a truck in half. They built a 10-inch dual-cannon system to pull it off and used this system on a larger scale for this highway chase in “Taken 3.”
Elia: We had to start with a tractor trailer coming down the highway, having to jackknife [with] so much impact that it caused the sea container to fall off the trailer, so much speed that when it did hit the ground, it rolled and ran over cars.
Narrator: To execute the move, they used two 12-inch nitrogen cannons, which provided enough inertia to flip the trailer’s shipping container. And for the rolling part?
Elia: We welded wheels on the end of the square sea 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 they hit that ramp, then the angle, the kicker at the end is what will send the car spiraling and flipping over at speed.
Narrator: Productions hide ramps on the blind side of cars and also use set decoration like roadblocks. When a destruction scene calls for a car to follow a very specific trajectory, the job often involves cable rigs, which can make the cars crash or spin in a predetermined fashion.
JEM builds cable accelerators to pull heavy vehicles in a desired direction fast. And limiting or suspender cables make cars come to a full halt within a split second, something you can’t do with regular car brakes. They used these cables in “Bright.”
Elia: David Ayer wanted us to have a Suburban come in, hit this imaginary wall, and stop on a dime. And it was all shot very, very stylistic, so you had a side profile, and it picks up the crumpling of the hood. So what we did is, we did a pull cable forward, but we also had a stop cable going to the front of nose of the bumper. We actually scored and weakened the front, so we collapsed it back and held the vehicle from crossing that imaginary barrier.
Narrator: Cables also helped JEM execute one of its most customized crash jobs for “Velvet Buzzsaw.”
Elia: The truck had to slam into the corner of this building. That was a real building, so we couldn’t hurt the real building.
Narrator: And the car could only get hit in a precise area on the passenger door, so that the audience would believe the driver survived. To pull it off, JEM built a whole new set element. The team structurally embedded a fake pole that was strong enough to absorb the impact of the car …
Elia: A fake pole that’s in there hard enough that it didn’t move and give away that it was a fake pole.
Narrator: And over the car doors placed an outer layer made from soft conditioned aluminum. This would help them show more impact with less.
For a crash that might look random and chaotic, JEM’s team will spend hours testing and experimenting to make sure everything happens exactly how they want it to. And even if it isn’t realistic, it sure looks like it.
Elia: Everything we do defies physics. None of it makes sense. But we get paid to do it.