The Precision/Performance Driver

Over the years the need in movies and TV commercials evolved for a skill commonly referred to as "Precision or Performance Driving". As far as I know, Tom Anthony developed the first team. Tom and his team spent many Saturdays and lots of money learning to drive in precision formations and in sync with a camera car. Using the skills learned by practicing and using radios, they saved us a lot of film and time. Today there are many precision/performance driving teams and people who call them selves precision or performance drivers. Many can do simple precision driving maneuvers, but there are few adept at high performance precision driving. You must know if the driver that you hire is capable of doing the type of driving needed. Due to the fact that almost everyone drives a car, often what was thought to be a simple shot becomes very difficult because of common misconceptions of what it takes to drive a vehicle under limiting and controlled circumstances.

A generally overlooked problem is that driving a vehicle at normal speeds for camera lacks visual dynamics, so there is a common request for drivers to drive at higher speeds than was though necessary. An over qualified driver is the best insurance in protecting the shoot, not only as a safety buffer for the crew and equipment, but as an instrument to expedite unforseen difficulties and to guarantee getting the desired shot.

The "stunt person", bless their souls, are not necessarily qualified as precision/performance drivers. Some are indeed very qualified, but the skills are different and stunt driving does not necessarily mean precision driving. I rarely take a person's own evaluation of their driving skills. It's a lot of trouble, but it is necessary to verify their capabilities.

If I need an actor to drive a specific vehicle, for example a 4 wheel drive, I ask them what model they have driven. Where reverse is, how to put it into four wheel drive. Where they learned to drive. What problems they have had four wheeling etc. If I am not convinced from their answers, I have someone give them a driving test off road. Finding a place is getting harder close to town (LA). I also test actors for any skills by asking a set of questions to see if they know the terms and basic information, then check their credentials and then test them if necessary.

When it comes to acting AND driving it gets trickier. Many precision/performance drivers are not especially good as actors. Many times, as in stunt work, a precision driver can "double" for the "actor". Sometimes this is not possible and the actor must drive. Here you have to be really careful. I have had good luck training experienced drivers to drive a vehicle that they were not acquainted with, FOR SIMPLER SHOTS. It takes time. I have also had luck finding actors by testing their driving skills that could satisfy the needs of a shot.

The test on a controlled road or parking lot consisted of requiring a driver to start behind me and by radio pull into the passing lane at the same speed as my car. Then accelerate and pull along side and slow down to my exact speed. Then pull ahead one car length and hold that position, then pull in front of me and maintain the my speed. Then if they could do that, I have them do it in reverse. Start in front, pull out into the middle lane, slow down, match my speed, slow down again and pull in behind. All of this at about 20 mph. I found about %10 of the actors tested could do this. I found more women than men could do this well. This situation creates the tension similar to a shooting situation. The actors and actresses that passed this test did very well during the actual shooting.

In the same vein, I have tried to use precision drivers as actors for just "a little acting" with varying success. I feel that there might be a little lack of confidence by some precision drivers that they are also actors, just like the public at large. Many gregarious drivers are uncomfortable when the camera is looking at them and not the car that they are driving. Be a bit pessimistic about what a driver can do. Put them in a casting session to see what they can do. Treat them like "real people" and maybe you will be pleasantly surprised, but don't expect more during shooting than you see in the casting session.

On distant locations it is often false economy to try and save the airfare and cost of a precision driver. They are almost always worth much more than their travel cost in film and time saved. Considering the safety factor, they are often mandatory.

There is no industry qualification test for precision or performance driving and a director must make a choice by reputation and recommendation. During the "car season" it sometimes gets difficult to get people you know, and recommendation becomes the required method of selection. Teams can sometimes recommend their members in training that can do your job if they know what your requirements are.

Think about it like this, one mile per hour is approximately one and one half feet per second. How far can you move in one second?

Many thanks to HUBIE KERNS of DRIVERS INC. for comments about and contributions to this section. I haven't shot cars a 6 years and things may have changed.

© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.