So you want to mount a camera to a car? There are so many ways to do it, it’s overwhelming, and it’s easy to get wrong, only to find out later your footage is ruined. I’m making this post because I didn’t have a guide when I started—I figured it out through trial and error, so I’ll share my experiences, that way you don’t have to relive all my mistakes.
The Most Basic Mount
This is the absolute most simple low budget car mount you can muster. It’s a suction cup with a ball mount tripod head on top. You can re-create this set up for a cinema camera as well, but you'll need a much larger suction cup with a professional level tripod head and bowl to support the additional weight.
This setup will get you the shot for your student film, but for anything professional, it will be too shaky. To stabilize the camera, we need to prevent its movement on every axis.
Suction cups are made of rubber, and they flex with the movement of the car. A tiny flex in the base of the suction cup translates to a much larger movement when it gets up to the camera body. To add rigidity, use C-stand arms with baby pins and additional suction cups to lock the camera in place.
You’ll get the best result from positioning the C-stand arms at a diagonal, so each one is acting on all three axes. You’ll also want to attach the baby pins on the camera as closely as possible to each other. For example, if one baby pin is on top of the camera body and the other is screwed into the bottom, you will be introducing flex into the setup. When you’ve got it rigged up, you can test that you’ve done it correctly by pulling on the camera in every direction to make sure there’s no flex.
Getting Even Smoother
Now even if there’s no flex between the camera and the car, the footage will still be a little rough due to the car itself shaking over the bumps in the road. For a car commercial where you want a shot like this:
that’s fine. You want it to be hard mounted to the car. Any dampening of the vibrations will cause the part of the car that’s in the shot to move around in relation to the frame.
However, if you’re shooting a dialogue scene inside a car and the focus is on the actors, not the car, you’ll want to isolate vibrations as much as possible. To accomplish this, you’ll want to add vibration isolator between the suction cup and the tripod head.
Obviously we don’t want to have C-stand arms locking the camera down if we’re using a vibration isolator, as they would just reintroduce the vibration we’re trying to eliminate. If you don’t have a vibration isolator, try hard mounting and shooting at a smaller shutter angle. This will reduce motion blur, making the footage easier to stabilize in post.
The general setup we’ve discussed so far allows you to capture some basic angles, but it’s limited by the fact that the suction cup attached to the camera can only mount to a broad, flat surface. To have the flexibility to put the camera anywhere you want, you’ll need to utilize speed rail. For some setups, building speed rail becomes more of an art form than it is a simple template to be followed. All I can say here is you need to experiment. It's best to build the speed rail rig at least a day before your shoot. That way, you'll have plenty of time to tweak it to be the best it can be, and then you can take photos to facilitate building it quickly on the shoot day. Just keep in mind that when you're building speed rail, you use the same concept of stabilizing it on every axis.
Other Car Mount Devices
- Gimbals provide their own stability with the additional feature of being to pan, tilt, and roll the camera from a remote control. Unless it’s a smaller gimbal like the DJI RS2 where you can just slap a suction cup on, you’ll be using speed rail to mount it. It’s common practice to have two pieces of speed rail coming from the roof and meeting in a ‘V’, at which point they connect to a vertical piece of speed rail that connects to the car body towards the ground. The gimbal connects to a vibration isolator that is suspended by a dampening arm, which attaches to the vertical piece of speed rail.
This is a common way to mount a gimbal, but certainly not the only way.
- Hostess trays are the standard way to shoot in-car dialogue scenes. It requires less planning than a speed rail setup, and it also allows actors to open and close the door a hostess tray is attached to.
- Russian Arms are like a gimbal, steadicam, and jib all in one package. You have the freedom to move 360º around the camera car for maximum flexibility.
- At the highest echelon of car rigging, they’ll actually modify the cars, build custom mounts, and bolt them to the picture cars for maximum stability. But if you’re doing that, you’re probably not reading this.
Tricks of the Trade
With any of these methods, there are some crucial steps you need to take for the best outcome
- Use two screws for your tripod baseplate
Whether the camera is a little handheld mirrorless or giant cinema rig, you need to have two points of attachment. If you only use one screw, no matter how tight it is, the camera will likely rotate around on the plate as you go through turns in the car, potentially even unscrewing itself!
- Clean the camera car. The suction cups may come loose if stuck to a dirty car. I like to wash the camera car the night before to make sure any surface can be mounted to. If you’re in a pinch however, you can use glass cleaner/detailer spray/water and a rag to clean the surface where you’re sticking the suction cup. (Warning: This will most likely scratch the paint)
To garner even more adhesion, you can pour water on the car before putting the suction cup down, or alternatively, you can put a thin coat of vaseline around the edge of the suction cups. (I’m not a huge proponent of vaseline because it has the potential to damage paint)
- Stay away from matte boxes. This is especially true if the camera will be mounted to a gimbal that’s mounted to the car. A matte box is the most un-aerodynamic thing you could put on your camera and is likely to introduce shakiness to your footage. When filters are required, opt for screw ons.
- Safety straps. You don't want your camera coming loose and hitting the concrete. Not only would your camera be damaged, but you could also cause a car accident. The lowest budget version of a safety strap would be tying rope to the camera, feeding it through a door or window, and then closing said door or window. A better option would be ratcheting safety straps specifically made to hook onto edges of car body panels:
Lots of good information in this post. Personally I prefer to use silicon grease rather than vaseline to help seal suction cups as it won't degrade the rubber components or damage paint work. Silicon grease is also a good lubricant for the O rings in the pumps of the suction mounts which will improve their operation and sealing. When using suction mounts on expensive cars or just to generally protect the paintwork I recommend applying a good quality ceramic polish, preferably the day before the shoot. This will also help your suction mounts seal.
Safety straps must be very short. I've seen suction mount cameras come loose but then bouncing off the ground, flying up in the air battering the car and smashing the windows as it flies around on the end of the tether. A long safety strap may be more dangerous than no safety strap.
I would just add that you should also make sure that you are not breaking any laws with cameras that extend beyond the normal extents of the car, could increase the likelihood of injury to anyone in an accident, obstruct the drivers vision or could deemed to be a distraction to other road users. Plus check that your liability insurance covers this kind of work.
Love it, thank you for this! I was just talking to DP David Wells about how he did a car shot on a spec commercial for Rent the Runway. It's a really cool shot (with the Tokina Vista Prime 35mm on FX9) with two lead actresses dancing out the top of a car. I asked him how he did it, and he said suction cups. He and his key grip + gaffer built a speed rail and put a cheese plate and mounted it to the hood of the car. It looked great, super smooth. (Although he did say that they cracked the windshield of the car...luckily it was the Directors!)
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