But it did, and it was still spectacular.
Everyone remembers the ‘gap in the freeway’ shot in Jan de Bont’s Speed. It’s an extraordinary effect, achieved by launching a real bus off a 100’ long and 8’ high ramp (complete with 16’ kicker) on a then unused section of Los Angeles roadway, with digital effects called upon to remove the unwanted sections and reveal the ‘gap’.
To celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary, befores & afters goes back in time with practical and visual effects team members to spell out how the shots were achieved, even if the original intention wasn’t to have the bus land so gracefully.
Planning a bus jump
Boyd Shermis (visual effects supervisor): One of the beauties of working with Jan de Bont, of course, is that he had been a cameraman, so his sense of where to put a camera and how to use the camera for storytelling and to get those ideas across visually was incredible.
John Frazier (special effects supervisor): It was actually the only stunt that Jan was a little disappointed in. When we launched the bus for the ‘gap in the freeway’ shot, he didn’t want it to land like a 747. He wanted it to nose-in. We had this kicker ramp that made the bus go up in the air, and we were just a couple of notches off. But I don’t think it ruined the movie one bit, but Jan just wanted it to dive in more.
Boyd Shermis: The shoot was so great. The freeway interchange where we shot it hadn’t been opened yet. And it was kind of surreal, because you don’t very often get to stand in the middle of a freeway. It was one of those things – even though there’s no cars, there’s not going to be any cars, it’s just a weird feeling to be on a freeway and having a movie company take control over it. There was something in the back of your head that was saying, ‘There could be cars any second coming down this road, 60 miles an hour. Just be on the lookout.’
John Frazier: What we did for these ramps was, we made the skeleton of the frame. And then we rented road plate, the trench plate that they put on the roads. We just rented that for the day, and they come out and they put it on the ramp for us. And then what he had on it was a kicker ramp, and that’s in the front. And that’s just a little, mini ramp. It’s another trench plate, but it’s on a hinge and it’s set about 15 degrees.
As soon as the bus hit the kicker ramp, you drop that ramp. So the front wheels are in one plane, but the back wheels are in the same plane as when it entered the ramp. The back wheels are not on the kicker ramp and the kicker ramp is laid flat now, so it’s just another part of the ramp. But it doesn’t lay flat until the front wheels have left it so it kicks up the front wheels, but the back wheels stay in the same plane they were in.
‘We had no time for take two, we only had one bus!’
The driver was rigged up in a bungee cord setup, and when he landed he did bite his lip, but it went well. The thing is, when we set the ramp, we were just a few degrees off. And with the motor being in the back of the bus, it just kept the bus down. If I ever had to do it again, I would eliminate the kicker ramp altogether. It was the only shot in the whole movie that Jan was just kind of like, ‘Oh, well I’d rather have it augur.’ But you know, we had no time for take two, we only had one bus!
Making the gap
Boyd Shermis: John Frazier would ask me, ‘Well, how are you going to make the gap?’. And I would say, ‘We’ll do a matte painting here. We’ll put a bird in there and it’ll distract people.’
Ron Brinkmann (CG supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks): Imageworks did the gap shot where the camera follows the bus as it leaps into the air and lands. We started with the plate where it was doing a short jump. Then our matte painter, David Douglas, started gathering footage of bridges under construction and painted all that stuff that had to go behind the gap and the rebar and everything pretty much entirely from scratch.
David had some reference material – now, a lot of time when you see matte painters, they’re combining stuff, but I know David did this one all from scratch. It was shot VistaVision, so we had room to go ahead and punch in a little bit and do a post camera move on it. The hard part of that shot, too, was adding shadows for the bus and also the dust and debris from the plate.
Boyd Shermis: In the edit, they came up with a couple of angles that proved to be much harder ‘gap’ shots – these were POVs from the driver’s point of view through the windscreen of the bus. And, man, they were shaky cam, really blurry. So, it was a very difficult track. VIFX did such a great job on those [VIFX also worked on the long zoom in onto the freeway gap that is seen as the bus approaches – more on this shot in an upcoming #speedvfxweek article].
Ron Brinkmann: I drive over the freeway interchange a lot. Whenever I’m on that I can’t help but think of Speed – that somewhere along the line somebody had set up a bus up there and done the jump. It’s crazy.
Explore our in-depth ‘Speed’ 25th anniversary coverage during #speedvfxweek, Coming up: smashing a baby carriage, making miniatures, and blowing up a plane…Get bonus VFX material by becoming a befores & afters Patreon member