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Time for a history lesson, kids.

Y'see, even back in the days when woolly mammoths trudged through the streets of Hollywood, scenes still took place in areas where a full film crew would be 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. Obviously, directors couldn't have their whole camera crew perched on the hood of a moving car being driven by someone more concerned with staying in character than with watching the road.

Thus, "rear projection" came to be, 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. These included 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, and a noticeable difference in film quality between the live actors and the pre-filmed backdrop.

Rear projection essentially fell out of use with the advent of the Chroma Key, which nonetheless kept some of its problems. It was finally was sealed up with the prevalence of computer graphics. Used nowadays, rear projection or poorly done chroma key is mostly considered a Special Effect Failure. The title is a reference to how they always end up looking like Conan (O'Brien, not the Barbarian) driving his desk.

Has almost zero overlap with the typical activities of the Desk Jockey

Examples of Driving a Desk include:


Film

  • 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 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 Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster plane.
  • 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 returns into the Matrix for the first time 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 50' and 60' movies.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Used for the famous jungle speederbike scene in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
    • A New Hope actually had a cut rear-projection scene of Luke and Threepio driving in Luke's landspeeder looking for Artoo. It got cut because it was, compared to the rest of the film, Special Effects Failure and didn't really advance the plot.
  • Used in The Man Who Saves the World, with Stock Footage from Star Wars played behind the characters to simulate a space battle.
  • 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 driving being done, 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."
  • In one chase scene in the Don Adams "Get Smart" movie The Nude Bomb, 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 Amelie: One of the things Amelie does not like are drivers in American films who don't watch the road. Cut to a (probably authentic) scene from an American film 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 Bullitt with the famous car chase.
  • 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 here, or when a heavily sedated Stan Laurel drives Oliver Hardy home in County Hospital at 16:15 here.

Live Action Television

  • 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.
  • Conan O'Brien does this, too, but...he's actually driving his own desk, "turning" with a prop steering wheel. See here.
  • 24 still does this.
  • 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.
  • Done in many Sit Coms, including Everybody Loves Raymond and Dharma and Greg. 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.
    • Particularly jarring on Sit Coms shot at a different framerate than what the backgrounds are shot at.
  • 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.
  • Doctor Who did this a few times, but most notably in "The Claws of Axos", in which bluescreen was used. How can we tell bluescreen was used? Someone forgot to add the scenery later!
  • Pee-wee's Playhouse did this with Pee-Wee's scooter in the end credits.
  • 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 Marenghi's 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 Mad TV'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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Web Animation

  • 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.

Web Original

  • Italian Spiderman, in its many homages to poorly-made foreign movies, includes this in the motorcycle chase scene.

Notes

  1. Just...reread that sentence and drink up the Crazy Awesome, if you will.
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