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Do Filmmakers Crash Real, Expensive Cars in Movie Stunts?

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The Surrogates movie car crash explosion vehicle scene

Car crash from the 2009 movie The Surrogates
Photo: Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures

Think back on the action movies you’ve watched over the last couple years. How many of them involved fiery car explosions and intense, metal-twisting crashes? If you’re a gearhead, you’ve probably cringed every time you’ve seen a nice car destroyed on screen and wondered, “Did they really just destroy that expensive supercar?”

We’ll let you in on the secrets of Hollywood magic.

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How car wrecks and explosions are done in movies

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

Car crash from Need for Speed
Photo: Wal Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Most action movies don’t have the budget to destroy streets full of real expensive cars, but filmmakers don’t want to resort to using old, rusted beaters for their fancy-looking chase sequence. So, they make compromises to trick the audience into thinking these ultra-expensive and rare cars are being wrecked.

  • Shells: Just because a car looks fancy on the outside doesn’t mean it harbors standard production components inside. A quick way to make a cheap car look nicer is to replace its exterior with a plastic shell that resembles a classic or higher-end model. Some independent companies will even build and sell bare-bones frames that can be outfitted with shells, kind of like stock cars are.
  • Swapping: What you see being driven around during a car chase or parked on the street might be a fancy, real production car, but what’s wrecked or explodes a split-second later might not be. Using the magic of editing and camera positioning, filmmakers can switch out the nice car for a similar-looking but busted-up one at just the right moment so you don’t notice the sleight-of-hand.
  • Stripping: If filmmakers are committed to using a certain car on-screen–or automotive sponsors want certain models to be featured–an affordable solution is to strip the vehicle of its most expensive components (such as upholstery and technology features) and use a lower-end powertrain. That way, the vehicle retains its identity but is a lot more affordable to procure and destroy.
  • Digital: This is another case in which the real thing is briefly substituted for a fake. The car that explodes–or, in many cases, the hordes of cars destroyed in a cataclysmic disaster–is just a computer-generated digital animation made to look like the real thing.
  • Damaged: Just because a car looks good outside doesn’t mean its pristine inside. Filmmakers can obtain vehicles that have received water damage (for example) from auctions or junkyards for a fraction of what they normally would cost in sell-able condition.

There are some cases in which the real things are actually wrecked, particularly in big-budget blockbusters like The Fast and the Furious or James Bond franchises, where filmmakers pride themselves on and have a reputation for spending tens of millions of dollars wrecking high-end models. But, those are obviously rare instances.

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Sources: Stack Exchange, The Seattle Times