Before gimbals, drones, segways and motorized dollies, documentary filmmakers relied on the old standby for much of their moving footage: cars.
To this day, getting into the passenger or back seat of a car can open you up to all sorts of camera motion. And we’re not talking about car mounts or elaborate rigging. Simply shooting outside the window, while hand holding your camera, is all it takes to capture some great moving pictures for your documentary. And if you already have to drive from location to location, shooting from a car is something you can try immediately. Just ask your subject if you can ride with them, and keep your camera in your lap.
Shoot Video from the Passenger Seat
Sitting shotgun gives you an ideal place to capture what’s happening outside the car and what's going on inside. You can roll down your window and shoot landscapes, neighborhoods, people, and other vehicles, using a variety of focal lengths.
To help stabilize your camera on smooth stretches of road, try resting your hands and the camera against something. You can use a sandbag, sweatshirt, or a small pillow on top of the window frame, or you can also hold the camera against the car’s ceiling and shoot down. On really bumpy roads, however, holding the camera against the car might actually introduce even more shake than your best attempt at shooting handheld. If you have an eyecup, shoulder or chest rig, use it. Otherwise, just press the camera against some part of your body and do your best.
Shooting from the passenger side window is great, but it can limit the variety of shots in your sequence. Essentially, everything is moving in the same direction. So to mix it up a little, try shooting through the front windshield. It can be challenging to avoid seeing the dash reflections in the windshield, or the dirt on the glass, especially if you’re shooting while driving into the sun. Try to remove all objects sitting on top of the dashboard, maintain a clean windshield, and shoot more zoomed in and at a wider aperture to keep the glass out of focus.
The best thing to shoot from the passenger seat is actually the driver. That is, if they’re one of your subjects. You can shoot them quietly driving, along with cutaways of their hands, face in the mirror, feet on the gas pedal, and closeups of their face. It's a sequence you’ll see quite often in documentaries. You can also shoot dialogue, whether they’re talking to you while driving, or perhaps they're talking to someone on the phone or another passenger. But be aware that the driver's primary duty is to drive safely.
Shoot from the Backseat
The major limitation of the passenger seat is you can’t shoot anything happening outside the left side of the car (or the right side if you drive on the left). You could try to zoom past the driver and shoot out their driver-side window, but that’s difficult to achieve without zooming in quite a bit. So the backseat is great if you’re using the car to shoot something more than just driving shots.
For example, you can use the car as a giant dolly. As long as the car is moving slowly, you can capture subjects walking or running on either side of the car. In this case, shooting from the backseat gives you more flexibility because you can shoot from both the left and right windows.
Shoot Through the Sunroof
As long as you keep safety in mind, the sunroof is a really great invention for filmmakers. Several times, I have placed a camera on a monopod, set it on top of the center tray, raised the camera up through the sunroof, and shot some decent footage as the car drives through busy streets. The footage can look a lot better than trying to shoot through a dirty windshield. You can also turn the camera around and shoot the scenery from behind the car.
Shoot Sitting in the Trunk
For scenes that happen off major roads, you can get away with sitting on the back of a pickup truck, or opening up the hatch of a wagon or SUV. You have the freedom to shoot landscapes, or your subject walking, biking, or driving toward you, without having to shoot through glass. If the car needs to drive a little too fast to comfortably dangle your feet from the back, the best kind of car or truck canopy is one where the trunk door stays shut but the upper window can stay open.
Shooting from a minivan side or SUV trunk is one of the most common ways to shoot other cars or vehicles. It’s often called the “follow car” for a reason. If you’ve ever watched the show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” you may have noticed the black SUV with the top window part of the back trunk open, with cameras shooting through it.
How to Use a Gimbal in a Car
Adding a camera stabilizer to your car shots can dramatically improve your footage. But a normal gimbal/camera rig is usually too big and unwieldy to use inside a small car. There are also technical limitations, like the gimbal not being fast enough to follow your car’s turns.
Essentially, the gimbal is a great way to smoothen your car shots, but the execution is not simple. For a documentary shoot, it may end up being too much hassle for the payoffs. However, if you have a small one-handed gimbal with a small camera, the car trip is one of the best times to get it out and use it on your documentary video. There's more info on using a gimbal in a car in this video tutorial.
GoPros and Cars
GoPros or other action cameras are ubiquitous for shows or segments that take place almost entirely inside of cars. But for a documentary video, it might make more sense to use your normal camera for your standard car shots, and whip out your GoPro for the more creative, specialty shots.
The simplest and most reliable way to mount a GoPro to your car is with a suction mount. You can attach it to the hood of the car and face it back toward the windshield, or face it forward toward the street. Or do the same thing but attached to the back of the car. I like to attach a GoPro somewhere on the car where it's low to the ground, to shoot the road surface or car tires. Just make sure there’s no chance of a speed bump sending your camera flying.
Above all, it’s extremely important to prioritize safety when shooting from inside a moving vehicle. It’s easy to lose sight of what you’re doing while concentrating on getting a good shot. For example, sticking your camera too far outside the window. More importantly, you may be tempted to direct your driver to speed up or slow down, or weave around traffic, in order for you to capture a good shot. But no shot is worth getting into an accident for, or forcing other cars on the road to make poor decisions due to your shooting.
Slow Motion in Cars
Finally, the ability to shoot in slow motion can make all the difference for your car shots. Even the most bumpy roads, when slowed down, can appear smooth and easier to watch. This is especially true if you’re shooting landscapes passing by, and subjects inside or outside the car. But if you capture other cars or vehicles while shooting in slow motion, you may confuse viewers because it will appear other vehicles are driving incredibly slow. So if you’re shooting slow motion, it’s best to avoid capturing other moving cars in your frame.