Aaron Widmar
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Revealed: How Hollywood Stunt Crews Flip Cars in Movies

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need-for-speed- flip cars in movies hollywood action

How do filmmakers launch vehicles into the air?
Pictured: Need for Speed from Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

For all the CGI-filled blockbusters hitting the movie circuit every summer, nothing beats a good ol’ fashioned car crash. Action films these days might not be rivaling the sheer quantity of stunt crashes like those in The Blues Brothers, but their extreme executions are becoming increasingly impressive.

If you’ve ever wondered how stunt crews launch automobiles into the air, flipping side-over-side in the midst of fiery explosions, Car and Driver took an intriguing, in-depth look at the methodology behind how mechanics flip cars in movies.

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John Frazier, 11-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner for special effects on 2004’s Spider-Man 2, has been in the movie business for half a century and has been the special effects supervisor on over 100 films. Studios know his shop in Los Angeles, FXperts, Inc, for its revolutionary pneumatic car flipper. He and his colleagues–Clay Pinney and Chuck Gaspar–even won a Scientific and Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their device in 2014.

The machine consists of a sturdy steel plate attached to a steel lever, with hydraulic accumulator bottles, a heavy valve on the cylinder, and modified hydraulic rams. Using bottled nitrogen gas nearing 2500 psi, it can flip cars in movies up to 20 feet in altitude and spin in any sort of way, depending on where the device is placed–without modifying the original vehicle. It uses hydraulic parts because traditional pneumatic systems conserve pressure carefully, while the car flipper needs a lot of pressure all at once.

Fast and Furious 7 flipping cars in action scene

An example of a pneumatic car flipper in action from Fast & Furious 6
Photo: Universal Pictures

“We sometimes have to weld in a 1/8th-inch steel plate under the unibody cars,” Frazier explained to Car and Driver. “We don’t always have heavy, full-frame cars to flip anymore. But the plate is usually enough to keep the flipper from going through the floorboard.”

How did filmmakers flip cars in movies before the pneumatic device was invented? Vehicles were equipped with a “cannon,” a pole mounted in the car that shot against the ground after an explosive charge, which was both loud and required reinforcement. During production of Michael Bay’s Armageddon, Frazier’s SFX crew needed to stage car stunts quickly and cost efficiently. With a brilliant idea, Frazier’s crew built and used the first pneumatic car flipper. Now his shop has two-dozen machines available for Hollywood studios to rent.

Imagine what blockbuster movies would be like today without the incredible pneumatic car flipper!

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News Source: Car and Driver

  • Aaron WidmarSenior Editor

    Aaron is unashamed to be a native Clevelander and the proud driver of a 1995 Saturn SC-2 (knock on wood). He gleefully utilizes his background in theater, literature, and communication to dramatically recite his own articles to nearby youth. Mr. Widmar happily resides in Dayton, Ohio with his magnificent wife, Vicki, but is often on the road with her exploring new destinations. Aaron has high aspirations for his writing career but often gets distracted pondering the profound nature of the human condition and forgets what he was writing... See more articles by Aaron.