Racing movies have always been popular in Hollywood, often featuring thrilling, high-speed chases, intense rivalries, underdog stories, and emotional challenges that audiences can relate to. Successful movies like Senna, Rush, and Ford v Ferrari all have storylines centred on famous rivalries. They have contributed to motorsports’ growth by telling exceptional stories and inspiring new fans.
However, this was not the case long ago. In a 2008 article, writer Randy Williams noticed that there are only a few classic racing films in film history. Historically, the genre has failed to create excitement over the years and was losing its audience. So, what changed in the last 15 years?
For one, the films started to look real. Capturing the realism of motorsport involved a combination of factors: competitive rivalries, technical accuracy, and the emotional connection between athlete and audience that is found in the sport itself.
It is extremely difficult to keep the balance between these three factors and deliver a quality product that is likely to succeed. Usually, in the past, good stories couldn’t be matched with the required visual effects due to the inadequacy of the technology of the time. On the other hand, movies like Renny Harlin’s Driven (2001) tried their best to show a wide range of high-adrenaline action scenes but did not accurately reflect the reality of racing.
Williams also mentioned that racing movies’ future depends on the use of visual effects (VFX). VFX helps to make racing movies look real by creating dynamic camera shots, adding environmental elements, simulating car damage, and seamlessly integrating computer-generated imagery (CGI) with live-action footage, all while enhancing the safety of action shots.
Gran Turismo (2023) uses VFX to create an almost perfect reality, never making the audience feel that it is a visual effect. Some of the most important racing sequences were shot using CGI, and, surprisingly, the film crew never went to some of the real tracks to shoot. Gran Turismo is probably an example of what the future of VFX holds for us.
Yet there are other elements that could also make a racing movie look real. The 2013 film Rush tells the story of a legendary competition between Formula 1 (F1) icons James Hunt and Niki Lauda. To ensure authenticity, the production team photographed and scanned genuine cars from museums and private collections. When stunts were not possible, an F1 simulator was brought in to help create a replication of the reality. Even though Rush misses or changes some details about their friendship to preserve the feeling of opposition between drivers, it presents a very realistic movie with its story and visuals.
Released in 2021, Ford v Ferrari — unlike Gran Turismo and Rush — used CGI sparingly on track, only to help populate the stands. The majority of racing sequences were shot with experienced crew, drivers, and highly advanced technical equipment. It was still as expensive as VFX, but was an example of a different and effective decision made by the director. With its desire to maintain historical accuracy, the film needed an accurate image of the racing world. As a result, it uses real cars and professional drivers to capture the intensity and realism of Ferrari’s clash with Ford in the 1960s. Ford v Ferrari has been regarded as a realistic race movie.
In the last 15 years, racing movies have experienced a remarkable renaissance, largely driven by the perfect fusion of compelling storytelling and advanced VFX. This resurgence marks a departure from the genre’s earlier struggles when technological limitations hindered its ability to deliver a realistic racing experience.
Today, visual effects play a pivotal role in racing movies. The future promises to be filled with even more thrilling and authentic experiences for both racing enthusiasts and cinema lovers. Racing movies evolved from being imitations of reality to a gateway for an interest in a new sport. Racing movies are in their peak and set to continue their grand journey, captivating audiences far and wide.