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Driving a Desk
Just another Indian attack on my normal commute to the airport.
Back in the early days of motion pictures, when woolly mammoths trudged through the streets of Hollywood, scenes still took place in areas where a full film crew would be practically impossible. One of the most popular and common varieties of such a scene was when the characters were driving, either for a car chase or for a leisurely chat. For obvious reasons, it was very impractical for directors to have their whole camera crew perched on the hood of a moving car being driven by remote control by someone in the trunk (although today there are such things as cameras that can be rigged onto the hood of a vehicle).
Thus, there was something called "rear window" projection, wherein the moving background was filmed separately, then projected onto a screen behind the actors, who sat in a mockup of a car and acted as normal. This was also known as a "process shot".
Unfortunately, rear projection can cause a number of problems that can ruin the illusion and make it obvious you're not in a car, like:
- The steering of the driver clearly not matching the movement of background
- A conspicuous lack of wind or movement on the part of the passengers
- Characters spending a dangerously long time looking at the person in the passenger seat.
- A noticeable difference in film quality between the live actors and the pre-filmed backdrop,
- On vehicles with an automatic transmission with the gear selector on the steering column, being obviously in the "parked" position.
Rear projection essentially fell out of use with the advent of the Chroma Key
, which nonetheless kept some of its problems. It was finally sealed up with the prevalence of computer graphics and special-built flatbed-like vehicles to carry and film cars (such as the one shown here◊
). Used nowadays, rear projection or poorly done chroma key is mostly considered a Special Effect Failure
, or a special shoutout to films of the past. The title is a reference to how they always end up looking like Conan O Brien
driving his desk.
Has almost zero overlap with the typical activities of the Desk Jockey
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Films — Live-Action
- A relatively recent dramatic example is the taxi ride sequence Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Tarantino had access to better technology but used this technique as an homage to movies of the 1940's, especially noir flicks.
- Given a vigorous Lampshade Hanging (as is everything else) by Airplane!, which moves from speeding and traffic accident backdrops to raiding Indians, with the driver turning the wheel wildly on straight sections and going straight when the background's showing a windy road.
- Similarly, The Naked Gun makes use of outrageous backdrops, such as showing the Colosseum in Rome when Drebin is allegedly driving in "Little Italy".
- Many of Alfred Hitchcock's movies. Especially notable for its rather seamless use in North By Northwest, in the scene where Roger O. Thornhill gets attacked by the crop duster. Also notable for the very un-seamless (seamy?) scenes in Vertigo, where the rear-projection is so bad it sometimes looks like Scottie is driving on the wrong side of the road.
- The Austin Powers movies do also use the technique as a joke.
- Employed in the otherwise-groundbreaking Aliens during the crash of the Dropship.
- Done deliberately in Kill Bill.
- Done as a stylistic choice in The Matrix, when Neo makes his first trip into the Matrix after finding out its true nature. The street outside the car windows looks vague and fake, because it is just that.
- Done deliberately in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, among many other elements (successfully) intended to recreate the "flavor" of '50s and '60s movies.
- Early James Bond films were offenders in this category.
- Dr. No has a particularly egregious shot of a nervous Sean Connery being pursued by a car that appeared at least twice as large as his own.
- This continues until even Licence to Kill, where we see Sanchez and his cronies pretend to drive through long stretches of Mexican highway.
- One impressive subversion occurs in Touch of Evil: a fairly long sequence where Charlton Heston is actually driving (and acting) as he sends his car zipping down narrow back-alleys and blowing straight through intersections.
- Done purposefully in the 1960s pastiche Down with Love.
- Star Wars
- Used for the famous forest speederbike scene in Return of the Jedi.
- A New Hope actually had a cut rear-projection scene of Luke and C 3 PO driving in Luke's landspeeder looking for R2.
- Notably averted in Ronin, with the actors being driven around in right-hand-drive cars (in France, where everyone drives on the right) so they could act in sync with the actual driver, and spliced with external shots.
Even more averted: like Touch of Evil elsewhere on this page, some of the actors (Skipp) did their own driving. Frankenheimer's directorial advice? "I don't want to see brake lights."
- Inverted in the Don Adams Get Smart movie The Nude Bomb. In one scene, Maxwell Smart is literally driving a desk.
- As noted by Tom Servo, Puma Man can rear-project major cities as he flies, like a puma.
- Parodied in Amélie: One of the things Amelie does not like are drivers in American films who don't watch the road. Cut to a scene from the American film Father's Little Dividend where the actor drives a desk and looks at his passenger 99% of the time.
In the DVD director's commentary, Jean-Pierre Jeunet comments on how difficult it is to find a clip exhibiting this trope when you're specifically looking for one.
- Used in The Wizard of Oz to create the view out Dorothy's window during the tornado.
- Notably averted with the famous car chase through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt.
- Also averted in The French Connection, which was shot entirely on location and mostly in one take. There were even a few unscripted collisions with other vehicles.
- Lampshaded in Strange Brew. Doug takes his hands off the wheel and turns to Bob. He asks if he ever notices how in movies people can drive without looking at the road and without the background matching their steering.
- Bad rear projection can look positively surreal in some old comedies, like when W.C. Fields goes out to milk the elk in The Fatal Glass of Beer (seen at 3:20 on this extract), or when a heavily sedated Stan Laurel drives Oliver Hardy home in County Hospital (at 16:15 on this one).
- Oddly averted in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou. Most of the driving scenes are real, and scene in medium long shots. An early scene of Ferdinand driving Marianne home, though, has no bluescreen and no attempt at realism. The two simply sit in front of a plain black background while colored lights flash across them and the prop steering wheel.
- Casablanca uses this as Rick and Ilsa drive through Paris, then through the French countryside. Roger Ebert admitted that despite his love of Casablanca, this scene looked like the worst rear projection effect he ever saw.
- In Charade, scenes of Audrey Hepburn's and Cary Grant's characters riding cars and a boat have rear-projection effects. When they ride the boat through tunnels, their dialogue has an echo effect added for realism.
- Results in an obvious goof in Topaze, when the cars visible in the street behind Topaze and Coco's taxi disappear into thin air, presumably due to a bad splice.
- Some Like It Hot uses this when Osgood helps Joe, Jerry, and Sugar escape the last Chase Scene in his motorboat.
- Parodied in Black Dynamite where the rear projection shows Chicago Wind's car making some pretty big turns, despite him not looking at the road or moving the steering wheel. Then he turns to look at the road and instantly screams as he's about to run over a cliff that wasn't in the rear projection.
- Used for comedy in Saturday Night Live, due to the necessity of churning out a new, live show every week. Notable offenders include the recurring "Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive a Car" and "Butabi Brothers" sketches. Here's an example of sorts.
- Conan O'Brien does this, too, but... he's actually driving his own desk, "turning" with a prop steering wheel.
Subverted when he actually drove a motorized desk around the Universal Studios lot and had a drag race with a guy in a forklift.note
- 24 still does this.
- The Dukes of Hazzard anybody?
- An episode of The Goodies (Punky Business) parodied this and then subverted it, the three Goodies are in the back of a van and we see the road in the vans back windows via backscreen projection, then it starts playing footage of punks. The subversion comes when Bill shoves Greame and Tim out of the back of the van and we see a screen being watched by several policemen with the punk footage projected onto it.
- The surfing scenes on Gidget.
- Done in many Sit Coms, including Everybody Loves Raymond and Dharma and Greg.
Particularly jarring on Sit Coms shot at a different framerate than what the backgrounds are shot at.
Or when the footage is rather grainy and of obviously lower quality than the main footage, like in Joey's Big Break on Friends, when he and Chandler are driving out of Manhattan for Las Vegas. The footage is also of the Queensboro Bridge, not the George Washington Bridge.
- Nearly all car scenes on 3rd Rock from the Sun budget-savingly took place at night with a car mockup simply placed in front of a black background.
- Lampshaded and played for laughs in a Public Service Announcement starring Selena Gomez and her mom.
- In Pushing Daisies, an episode featured a flashback of Olive as a horse jockey. The racing scene was so obviously green screen they didn't even bother to hide it.
- One host segment from Mystery Science Theater 3000 parodied this, with the footage being projected the incredibly long driving sequence from "Manos" The Hands of Fate.
- A staple of The Mighty Boosh starting with series 2.
- Parodied several times on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, with the Green Screen suggestion.
- Seinfeld did this all the time in its later seasons. It looks especially cheap because the backdrop footage is shot at a faster framerate than the bluescreen footage.
- Pee-Wee's Playhouse did this with Pee-Wee's scooter in the end credits. It was a combination of this trope and the Chroma Key regularly used by the show.
- Police Squad! did this, and would employ some sort of gag nearly every single time. Some were obvious, like the "Little Italy" gag (which was reused for The Naked Gun), or the bit where Lt. Frank Drebin narrates that he "drove back to the office" and is then shown driving his car in reverse. And some were more subtle, like the times Drebin drives through red lights and barely avoids getting hit by cross traffic, or the bizarre scene where Drebin is seated in the backseat of the car with his disembodied hands steering.
- Garth Marenghis Darkplace, being one of the most thorough examples of Stylistic Suck out there, HAD to do this, and they didn't even bother with the backdrop, just lights moving on an obviously non functional car. Seen at the beginning of that clip. Plus there's that awesome motorbike variant.
- In MADtv's parody of Trapped In The Closet, there's a scene where R. Kelly drives in front of a green screen image without a car (he at least still has a steering wheel).
- Aussie variety/comedy show Hey Hey Its Saturday had host Daryl Somers occasionally driving his desk around the studio. Unlike the Conan O'Brian example above, though, he didn't just have the desk mounted onto a normal vehicle, but had the wheels and engine built-in while he stood on a small platform jutting out of the back and using a pair of recessed dials to control it. This troper tried to find the clip on YouTube, but no luck.
- The more-than usually surreal The Prisoner episode "The Girl Who Was Death" has a car chase sequence in which the title super-assassin tries to make Number Six crash his car by making the back-projection road behind him spin around.
- Done extensively in Perry Mason.
- Done in The Aquabats! Super Show! episode "EagleClaw!" with Eaglebones' motorcycle ride, mixed with real time footage of Eaglebones actually driving down the road.
- A truly glaring example in an early I Love Lucy episode; there is no "desk," usually there is at least the windshield frame between the viewer and the characters, usually with windshield removed, whence no rear view mirror, portions of the upper dash may even be visible. In this case there is nothing between Lucy and Desi in the front seat except a steering wheel and a steering column which is visible below where it would be hidden by dash or even engine compartment. In fact the passengers are visible down to, and briefly past, the waist line. Possibly Rule of Funny.
- Played straight in Wizards of Waverly Place.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because Real Dreams Are Weirder this is seen in Xander's dream in "Restless" when his girlfriend Anya is driving their ice cream truck. "I think I've figured out how to steer by gesturing emphatically."
- Like everything else in Bottom, the back projection when Richie and Eddie are "driving" was sped up to such a ludicrous rate that it couldn't help but be hilarious.
- Commonly observed in Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, usually when the minister is being driven from the airport to his office.
- The MythBusters have done this a few times, though generally they show the chroma key background to the audience at some point as a Lampshade Hanging.
- Used surreally in Pepe Deluxe's "Go Supersonic" video. The racecar drivers are just sitting in chairs, holding steering wheels that aren't attached to anything, sitting in front of a projected backdrop... and every camera shot is positioned to draw attention to this. Then, in some scenes, the chair actually do move as if they were cars. At one point, a chair even breaks down and starts belching smoke.
- In the video for "Vacation" by The Go-Go's, they're supposed to be the water skiers seen in the video (and on the album's cover). The band members were actually filmed standing on boxes, invoking this trope.note
- Played for Stylistic Suck in Devo's video for "Through Being Cool".
- H.R. Pufnstuf: Witchy-Poo drives her Flying Broomstick with a steering wheel, except her movements of the wheel don't seem to affect which way the broom goes at all.
- Homestar Runner features an especially low-tech variation. For any driving scenes in the various in-universe Dangeresque movies, Strong Bad would film himself in a stationary car, outdoors. To simulate the car's motion, another character would repeatedly run past the window while wearing a prop on their head.
- Italian Spiderman, in its many homages to poorly-made foreign movies, includes this in the motorcycle chase scene.
- Taz-Mania: In "To Catch a Taz" (an homage to Alfred Hitchcock films, especially North By Northwest), this is revealed to be happening during a chase scene when Wendal gets out of his car (which is on rollers) and casually walks up to Taz as the scenery continues to race by in the background.
- Parodied in the South Park episode "Mecha Streisand" when Chef's driving and the background behind him is a live action mountain road.
- Spoofed in Carrotblanca, where during a flashback the rear-projection is actually live-action to further distract from the animated characters.