How to do Scenes on a Moving Train

Behind the scenes of “Last Passenger”

The publicity machine is ramping up for Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express remake, and it’s got me thinking about the challenges of a script set largely on a moving train. There are a number of ways of realising such scenes, and today I’m going to look at five movies that demonstrate different techniques. All of these methods are equally applicable to scenes in cars or any other moving vehicle.

1. For Real: “The Darjeeling limited”

Wes Anderson’s 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited sees three brothers embarking on a spiritual railway journey across India. Many of the usual Anderson tropes are present and correct – linear tracking shots, comical headgear, Jason Schwartzman – but surprisingly the moving train wasn’t done with some kind of cutesy stop-motion. Production designer Mark Friedberg explains:

The big creative decision Wes made was that we were going to shoot this movie on a moving train. And all that does is complicate life. It makes it more expensive, it makes the logistics impossible. It made it incredibly difficult to figure out how many crew, what crew, what gear… but what it did do is it made it real.

Kenneth Branagh has stated that at least some of Murder on the Orient Express was shot on a real moving train too:

They painstakingly built a fully functioning period authentic locomotive and carriages from the Orient Express during the golden, glamorous age of travel. It was a train that moved… All of our actors were passengers on the train down the leafy lanes of Surrey, pretending to be the former Yugoslavia.

 

2. Poor Man’s Process: “The Double”

Director Richard Ayoade

Although best known as The IT Crowd‘s Moss and the new host of the Crystal Maze, Richard Ayoade is also an accomplished director. His last feature was a darkly beautiful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s classic identity-crisis novella The Double. 

Unlike the other movies on this list, The Double only has short sequences on a train, and that’s a key point. So named because it’s a cheap alternative to rear projection (a.k.a. process photography), Poor Man’s Process is a big cheat. In order to hide the lack of motion, you keep the view outside your vehicle’s windows blank and featureless – typically a night sky, but a black subway tunnel or a grey daytime sky can also work. Then you create the illusion of motion with dynamic lighting, a shaky camera, and grips rocking the carriage on its suspension. Used judiciously, this technique can be very convincing, but you would never get away with it for a whole movie.

Poor Man’s works particularly well in The Double, the black void outside the subway car playing into the oppressive and nightmarish tone of the whole film. In an interview with Pushing Pixels, production designer David Crank explains how the subway carriage set was built out of an old bus. He goes on to describe how the appearance of movement was created:

We put the forks of a forklift under the front of the bus, and shook it… For the effect of moving lights outside the train, it was a combination of some spinning lights on stands, as well as lights on small rolling platforms which tracked back and forth down the outside of the bus.

Part 2 of the Darjeeling Limited featurette above reveals that Poor Man’s Process was also used occasionally on that film, when the train was stuck in a siding due to heavy rail traffic. I used Poor Man’s myself for night-time train sequences in two no-budget features that I made in the early noughties – see the BTS clip below – and I’ve also written a couple of blog posts in the past about my use of the same technique on a promotional video and in a fantasy web series.

 

3. Green screen: “Source Code”

Duncan “Zowie Bowie” Jones followed up his low-budget masterpiece Moon with Hollywood sci-fi thriller Source Code, a sort of mash-up of Quantum Leap and Groundhog Day with a chilling twist. It takes place predominantly on a Chicago-bound commuter train, in reality a set surrounded by green screen. In the featurette above, Jones mentions that shooting on a real moving train was considered, but ultimately rejected in favour of the flexibility of working on stage:

Because we revisit an event multiple times, it was absolutely integral to making it work, and for the audience not to get bored, that we were able to vary the visuals. And in order to do that we had to be able to build platforms outside of the train and be able to really vary the camera angles.

In the DVD commentary, Jones also notes that the background plates were shot in post from a real train “loaded up with cameras”.

Director Duncan Jones on the set of “Source Code”

Cinematographer Don Burgess, ASC discusses lighting the fake train in a Panavision article:

It’s difficult to make it feel like natural light is coming in and still get the sense of movement on a train… We worked with computer programs where we actually move the light itself, and brighten and dim the lights so it feels as if you are travelling… The lights are never 100% constant.

When I shot The Little Mermaid last year we did some train material against green screen. To make the lighting dynamic, the grips built “branch-a-loris” rigs: windmills of tree branches which they would spin in front of the lamps to create passing shadows.

 

4. Rear projection: “Last Passenger”

Perhaps the most low-budget film on this list, Last Passenger is a 2013 independent thriller set aboard a runaway train. Director Omid Nooshin and DP Angus Hudson wanted a vintage look, choosing Cooke Xtal anamorphic lenses and a visual effects technique that had long since fallen out of favour: rear projection.

Before the advent of optical – and later digital – compositing, rear projection was commonly used to provide moving backgrounds for scenes in vehicles. The principle is simple: the pre-recorded backgrounds are projected onto a screen like this…

Rear projection in use on “River of no Return” (1954)

Hudson goes into further detail on the technique as used for the Last Passenger:

To capture [the backgrounds] within our limited means, we ended up shooting from a real train using six Canon 5D cameras, rigged in such a way that we got forward, sideways and rear-facing views out of the train at the same time. We captured a huge amount of footage, hours and hours of footage. That allowed us to essentially have 270 degrees of travelling shots, all of which were interlinked.

Because rear projection is an in-camera technique, Nooshin and Hudson were able to have dirt and water droplets on the windows without worrying about creating a compositing nightmare in postproduction. Hudson also notes that the cast loved being able to see the backgrounds and react to them in real time.

 

5. L.E.D. Panels: “Train to Busan”

Enabling the actors to see the background plates was also a concern for Yeon Sang-ho, director of the hit Korean zombie movie Train to Busan. He felt that green screen would make it “difficult to portray the reality”, so he turned to the latest technology: LED screens. This must have made life easier not just for the cast, but for the cinematographer as well.

You see, when you travel by train in the daytime, most of the light inside the carriage comes from outside. Some of it is toplight from the big, flat sky, and some of it is hard light from the sun – both of these can be faked, as we’ve seen – but a lot of the light is reflected, bouncing off trees, houses, fields and all the other things that are zipping by. This is very difficult to simulate with traditional means, but with big, bright LED screens you get this interactive lighting for free. Because of this, and the lack of postproduction work required, this technique is becoming very popular for car and train scenes throughout the film and TV industry.

This brings us back to Murder on the Orient Express, for which 2,000 LED screens were reportedly employed. In a Digital Spy article, Branagh notes that this simulated motion had an unintended side effect:

It was curious that on the first day we used our gimballed train sets and our LED screens with footage that we’d gone to great trouble to shoot for the various environments – the lowlands and then the Alps, etc… people really did feel quite sick.

I’ll leave you with one final point of interest: some of the above films designed custom camera tracks into their train carriage sets. On Last Passenger, for example, the camera hung from a dolly which straddled the overhead luggage racks, while The Darjeeling Limited had an I-beam track designed into the centre of the ceiling. Non-train movies like Speed have used the same technique to capture dolly shots in the confines of a moving vehicle.

“Last Passenger”s luggage rack dolly

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How to do Scenes on a Moving Train