What are precision drivers?


Image Gallery: Car Safety A diminutive stunt driver fills in for Tom Cruise during the filming of "Mission: Impossible III." See more car safety pictures.
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You're on the edge of your theater seat, stuffing popcorn into your mouth and washing it down with a 50-ounce soda. James Bond's Aston Martin tears through the streets of Paris, London, Tel Aviv. It narrowly misses passersby, it clips fruit stands, it shreds cobblestone streets and defies gravity as it shoots up a ramp and over a group of unassuming tourists. Bond fishtails, speeds into a 360-degree spin, goes zero to 60 in mere seconds. Nothing can stop 007 from thwarting the world domination plot of the evil genius and his inferior driving skills. Bond is a force to be reckoned with behind the wheel -- so much speed and destruction without a single innocent victim in his path.

Movie history is chock full of eye-popping car chases. Gene Hackman's classic run through the crowded streets of New York City in "The French Connection." Steve McQueen sailing over the steep avenues of San Francisco in "Bullitt." Matt Damon navigating the narrow alleys of Paris in "The Bourne Identity." These chases are the stuff of movie legend. They allow moviegoers to escape into a world where the good guy hits every turn and nails every angle, leaving the villain wrecked or trapped behind an ill-timed street parade.

­Aside from Steve McQueen, who was notorious for performing his own stunts, the death-defying car maneuvers you see on the big screen are the work of precision drivers. While stunt drivers are putting their lives on the line, Hackman, Damon and all of the James Bonds are probably just relaxing in their trailer. Precision drivers train for years to pull off the death-defying car stunts that look all too easy on the big screen. A tremendous amount of planning and preparation goes into the filming of any car stunt or chase scene.

These master drivers may test the limits of what can be performed in a car, but safety is always the first priority on the set. It takes the work of dozens and sometimes even a hundred crew members to pull off each shot without accident or injury. The center of all of this is the driver himself. There is no room for error, whether it's a big-budget action film or a limit-testing television commercial.

Precision Driving: On the Set

Somewhere in this haze of smoke, a precision driver performs a wicked burnout.
Somewhere in this haze of smoke, a precision driver performs a wicked burnout.
Kai Wiechmann/Getty Images

The first step, whether it's an off-road vehicle ad campaign or a car chase for TV or film, is to determine if a precision driver is needed. This is determined by the production team, more specifically the assistant director (AD). The job of the AD essentially is to manage the shoot, from soup to nuts. This includes ensuring the safety of the cast and crew, first and foremost. At the beginning of the pre-production process, the production manager gets storyboards from an artist hired to put the concept of the commercial spot or movie scene on paper. Storyboards are basically sequential drawings of each shot the director needs to cover in order to edit it together as a single fluid piece.

­The job of a precision driver isn't always as glamorous as a huge action movie or even an eye-popping commercial. Sometimes minor maneuvers require the services of a precision driver. The AD determines if the actor can pull it off safely or if the services of a precision driver or team of drivers is needed. Once the AD decides what the job needs, he'll go back to the production team with the requirements, and the production manager and coordinator will call precision driving teams. Depending on whether or not the camera will need tighter close-up shots, the team will send a driver that loosely fits the description of the actor or actress. Of course, male drivers have been known to don wigs and dresses if they're doubling an actress, but there are plenty of female precision drivers working as well.

More complicated jobs, especially chase scenes, require a stunt coordinator. The low-key jobs can usually be planned out between the driver, the AD, the director and the director of photography (DP). This team will spend hours, days and even weeks planning out the shots they need, depending on how complicated the job is. Oftentimes, the cars also are rigged with mounted cameras for interior shots or multiple angles. This is where the key grip comes into play. The grip department is in charge of safely mounting the cameras onto the car, and it's an important job. A 360-degree spin is no good if the camera flies off the car and smashes to pieces. Of course, it's Hollywood, so if this happens another camera is brought in and they'll give it another go.

Any car maneuver performed by a precision driver can be dangerous business. This is when the production assistants (PA) jump in. PAs are the unsung heroes of any film set. They've got the entry-level position on a film crew and they're the first to arrive and the last to leave any set. PAs, under the direction of the AD, second AD and sometimes third AD, are responsible for something called "lockup." This is the process of ensuring that everybody is where they're supposed to be and that no one is somewhere they shouldn't be. Each street corner is manned, and PAs are responsible for holding pedestrian traffic from walking into a shot and into harm's way. Auto traffic requires the help of hired off-duty police officers. Permits are required to lock down any street, much to the dismay of commuters in cities like Los Angeles and New York.

Because of the dangers involved in a precision driving stunt, the AD is required by the Director's Guild Association (DGA) to cover specific safety measures with the entire cast and crew before a stunt is performed. Any concerns are brought up during this meeting, and the shot won't happen until the AD is convinced that it can be performed without a hitch.

How to Become a Precision Driver

The driver of this car puts the precision in precision driving.
The driver of this car puts the precision in precision driving.
Martin Barraud/Getty Images

There isn't one path to becoming a precision driver. If you're interested, you can sign up for one of the many precision driving schools all over the world. The classes generally run three to five days and cover the maneuvers most often used in film production, such as the following:

  • 180- and 360-degree slides -- half and full rotations with wheels locked
  • Hard braking to a mark
  • Forward and backward slides -- locking the wheels
  • Fishtails -- the rear of the car swings from side-to-side
  • Threshold braking -- hard stops without locking the wheels
  • Box 90s -- sliding 90 degrees into a parking space

These are just a handful of the moves a precision driver must master. Driving schools charge anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, and you typically get what you pay for. They can't place you in jobs, but you can make relationships that might lead to work. The same thing holds true for pretty much any freelance film professional -- you are your own boss and the only way to get jobs is to meet the people that hire or get recommended by someone.

In order to work on union commercials and films, a precision driver needs to be a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). Even if the face of a precision driver is never seen onscreen, he's still paid as onscreen talent at SAG rates. This means a minimum day rate of about $500 for 10 hours of work before overtime kicks in. The hours count from the time the driver is required to be at the location until they're released by the AD, not the hours behind the wheel. In fact, the vast majority of time is spent waiting for the driving sequences to be shot.

Precision drivers, like regular actors, also get residual payments if they work on a commercial or TV show that's shown multiple times. And stunt driving requires additional money in the form of a higher rate or pay bumps, depending on the level of difficulty or danger. This is typically determined by the stunt coordinator and can be negotiated by the driver.

But it's not about the money. A driver who works a lot can make well into the six figures, but a small percentage of drivers get the bulk of the work. The others do it because they love driving, and let's be honest -- where else can you perform a 180-degree slide between two parked cars without getting arrested? Most precision drivers are car junkies who live on adrenaline. That's not to say that they live for danger though -- their job is to avoid danger and be in control at all times.

Not all jobs require chases and skids. The word precision really says it all. It's more about working in concert with the camera or camera car that's following you. Oftentimes, it requires landing the car on an exact mark so the camera can film it from dead center. Start paying attention to car commercials and see if you ever notice a slide into a stop that's off-center or askew. Dozens of people work hundreds of hours to make sure that nothing is ever off by even one inch.

You might be cut out for a career as a precision driver if you're young, fit, have exceptional driving skills and you're less than six feet tall. Why? Most of the actors you'll be doubling are young, fit and many of them aren't exactly giants. Plus, being smaller in a commercial picture car means the interior looks roomy and spacious. And that helps sell cars, the only objective of any car spot.

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Sources

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  • Sahadi, Jeanne. "Six-figure job: Stunt driver." CNN. July 19, 2005. http://money.cnn.com/2005/07/18/Autos/funonwheels/sixfigs_fourteen_prodriver/index.htm
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