Combine the adrenaline rush of the Grand Prix with the competitive intensity of a globe-trotting, high-stakes reality show and compelling personal stories and mysteries, and you've got "Drive." This new Fox series follows a diverse group of people coerced into competing in a secret, illegal cross-country road race.
In Hollywood shorthand, what "Lost" is to "Survivor," "Drive" is to "The Amazing Race," but with much higher stakes -- there's a $32 million prize and deadly penalties for some -- and one other major difference. Despite the transcontinental setting, very little mileage is added to the odometers of the motley fleet, which features a Ford Taurus, a '69 Chevy Impala and a dilapidated gardening truck. Nearly all the driving in "Drive" is done on a soundstage, with actors suspended in car rigs in front of a green screen.
"Because of technology, we can actually create a cross-country road race and shoot it all in Santa Clarita," quips Tim Minear ("Firefly," "Serenity," "Wonderfalls," "Angel"), co-creator of the series with Ben Queen. "We've created a whole new way of doing things," adds executive producer Greg Yaitanes. "We've created virtual environments, so we do all the driving without taking the cars and people on the road. One of the signatures of the show involves this car-to-car effect that nobody's ever seen on TV and even in film."
Early on, Minear and Queen turned to Zoic Studios, the special-effects company Minear had worked with on "Firefly," "Serenity," and "Angel." "[Minear] wanted to make it unique, visually interesting, with the essence of '70s car chases married to 2007 technology," says Zoic's Loni Peristere, the visual effects supervisor on "Drive." "It took a while to figure it out," concedes Peristere. "We were asked to come up with a way of photographing computer-generated images that was unique to the series, applying cinematic rules to CGI." And in this real-world setting, there was much less room for error. "It's not spaceships and vampires. Everyone is aware of what driving looks like. It had to look real."
Peristere's team eventually devised what he calls the "Drive" effect, the perspective of "an omniscient camera not visibly bound by rigs and able to move from the open road into a close-up of a character and back out to the road without visibly cutting. The original pilot had an opening that was about seven minutes long without a single cut," he notes. But when the pilot was redone after script and casting changes, the sequence was broken up into six pieces to allow for flashbacks with various characters. "It ended up playing better, even though it was depressing for me," Peristere chuckles. "Still, it uses a technique that's never been done before. It introduces a new kind of photography for the world to see."
"They put cameras all the way around a camera car on the highway to get the environment. These background plates are not just rear-screen projections," Minear points out. "It allows you to move anywhere in a virtual environment. You can move across into moving traffic and then into another car." Obviously, cameras can't pass through windshields, so sequences shot with stuntmen in stunt cars on the open road have to be matched precisely when the action picks up on the green screen stage, and this requires specialized equipment and a lot of planning.
Peristere's photographic arsenal includes the aforementioned "picture car that we can mount cameras all the way around, a Caddy Cam -- a Cadillac Escalade with a jib arm on top of it that can go all the way to the ground or reach above the cars -- and numerous specialized lenses. There are also two or three versions of each race vehicle: "an on-the-road version with tinted windows and an on-the-stage version without any glass that we can move in and out of."
The on-stage cars are suspended on specially-built rigs he calls air casters. "These are pieces of steel that the cars are elevated on and on the bottom there are little hydrofoils so the cars actually float -- they turn and move really easily. You can push them with your finger," Peristere notes. "This way we can put two cars side-by-side while they're being moved in any direction and we can go back and forth to the actors inside."
In the next section, we'll find out how the "Drive" actors adapted to driving in front of a green screen.
Adapting to Green Screen
Some cast members adapted to the green screen process more easily than others, reports Peristere, who directed or worked closely with the directors on those sequences. "You have to give them a little driving coaching. When you're on the road it's never straight and narrow, it's always bumpy and fluid. The wheel has little give and you're constantly correcting for the road. We also had to teach them that when you drive you're looking six car lengths ahead of you and when things that are happening in their vicinity they have to track with it," he explains. "I'd say, 'Don't forget you're driving a car!'"
Peristere praises Melanie Lynskey, who plays Wendy Pattrakas, a new mom in a minivan on the run from her abusive husband, as "the world's best virtual driver." The former "Two and a Half Men" actress only learned to drive three years ago. "I had a terrible phobia of driving," she admits. "I lived [in L.A.] for four years and took cabs everywhere I went."
A green screen newbie, Kevin Alejandro, who portrays newly-released con Winston Salazar, found the green screen process intimidating at first, "but they've done a really good job of keeping the urgency and talking us through it."
"You get used to it after a while, but it's an acquired skill," reflects Kristin Lehman, who plays the secretive Corinna Wiles. "It's like any improv," adds Michael Hyatt, who as Susan Chamblee is one of three Hurricane Katrina survivors racing together. "We all know how to drive. We just do it on stage."
Their performances and other elements of every scene must perfectly match the footage previously shot on the road. "We have to match everything -- lighting, depth of field, fog, road debris. We have to recreate things like reflections. Everything is choreographed," states Peristere. He uses a 3-D computer program called Maya "to pre-visualize what the sequence will look like. We built in the highway, the cars, the characters, and the camera equipment so this cartoon version will have the same constraints as the camera car on location does. It's like a three-dimensional storyboard that lets us know what's possible so there are no surprises."
However, problems do arise that need to be fixed in post-production. This process takes twice as long as on "Battlestar Galactica," Peristere reports, because it's difficult to simulate real life. On the other hand:
However, Peristere continues, "When we need to shoot something very specific we do send a small unit to other parts of the country to take photographs we'll use to create matte paintings. In the first episode we went down to New Orleans during Mardi Gras and in episode three we sent a unit to Georgia. We do those establishing shots so it's clear that we're not in L.A."
Other locations are completely computer-generated, such as the lighthouse destination in the first episode. "A year ago we wouldn't have been able to create a completely CG-environment like that with ultimate photorealism that allows a helicopter to come in and out. You won't see too many of those shots because they're not cheap. But we are using them," says Peristere. "We have another one coming up in episode five where we have a virtual camera flying over Wendy as she's moving through a rural area that we're not able to shoot in."
We'll see how "Drive" competitors are tracked in the next section.
Tracking Competitors in
"Drive" employs another state-of-the art tool to establish where the competitors are in the race: satellite graphics. "Google Earth was definitely an inspiration for it. Our world is GPS; it's a way we understand where we are," notes Peristere. "We've made a deal with a satellite company and we're using real satellite images and we're painting them to take their resolution up so they work for broadcast television."
Pinpointing where the characters will be in the story at the end of the initial 13-episode run is a bit more of a mystery. Minear promises that there will be "a natural stopping point at 13, "and then if we get picked up we'll finish the first race. I don't want the audience to feel like they've wasted their time. After that, there are ways to roll cast members into another race, give them another function. You find out some people were working for the race. Some people will die if they don't behave. Some people will lose. Some people will win and new people can be added at any time. The race will evolve, the players will evolve, and the things that they're racing for can change."
That kind of fluidity has marked "Drive" from the start, since the original pilot was scrapped along with most of the cast. "It's the same story, we're just getting into it a bit differently," Minear explains. "In the original pilot we started on the road, and we didn't really visit the worlds from which these people came. In the new version we do so we're more emotionally connected to who they are. They're just much more clearly defined characters."
In the original pilot, Taryn Manning ("Hustle & Flow," "8 Mile") played Ellie, a character now portrayed by Mircea Monroe; Manning now plays the newly-created role of Hurricane Katrina heroine and struggling musician Ivy Chitty. "We found Taryn so interesting and we wanted to find a place for her," explains Minear, who tapped his "Firefly"/"Serenity" star Nathan Fillion to take the role of Alex Tully, the landscaper searching for his kidnapped wife. "He's Harrison Ford and James Garner put together...[a] quintessential leading man."
"He's just an average guy who's being forced into something that he doesn't actually want to do," Fillon sums up Alex, who is presented with a dire ultimatum: win the race or his wife dies. "Alex's past, which will be revealed over the course of the episodes, will figure prominently into why he was chosen and who chose him," notes Minear. "Every character has either a desperate reason or a mysterious reason that will be revealed over the course of episodes." Adding to the mystery, "There's something that each of them can do, and it's not always necessarily the thing that seems apparent on the surface."
If this all seems rather Machiavellian, it's by design. Unseen puppet masters are pulling all sorts of strings. "Did you ever see that Michael Douglas movie "The Game"? There's a certain element of that to it," references Minear. "There are people behind the curtain that are either allied with or working against certain teams. Sometimes they may seem benevolent, other times they may seem bad. There are monitors along the way, and some people are in their pockets," Minear continues.
He and Queen also took care to avoid being influenced too much by "The Amazing Race," though "there will be certain crossover elements," concedes Minear, who became hooked on the reality show after watching a set of DVDs. Queen says he was more inspired by road movies like "The Gumball Rally" and "Two-Lane Blacktop," but found them emotionally lacking and narrow in scope. "This is the car-chase movie that I never got to see."
For lots more information on "Drive" and related topics, check out the links in the next section.