Entertainment

How They Get Military-Grade, Ready-to-Smash Tanks for Big Movies

fury tank
Columbia Pictures

Without people like Alex King, your favorite action movies might look a little bare.

"A lot of people don't know my job exists," King says. "They watch a movie, and they just think all the cars turn up, stunts drive everything, and it's all fine."

He's a picture vehicle coordinator -- the person who equips directors with the cars, trucks, and even tanks they need. The 46-year-old industry veteran has done so on more than a dozen projects, including The Bourne Ultimatum, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. His most recent gig? Wonder Woman, for which he helped build the Ehrhardt armored car that gets obliterated.

You might only see King's work on-screen for a minute or two, but his job takes months of planning. To learn what's needed when a frickin' tank rolls in, we called King and got his process:

the man from u.n.c.l.e. tank
Warner Bros.

Figure out what kind of frickin' tank you need

The call for a tank usually comes from the script (e.g., "Wonder Woman picks up a tank") or from scene breakdowns with the director. Once King learns what's needed, he researches for historical accuracy, assesses whether he needs to rent or build -- if the tank isn't doing anything crazy, "you're rentals all day" -- and budgets. A tank rental alone can cost between $2,600 and $5,000 per day (based on rarity). And custom builds, while more creatively fulfilling and easier to control, are even pricier. "I always over-allow because I guarantee that [producers will] over-want," he says. "Over-want" meaning blasting through a fleet of opposing tanks in Nazi Germany or getting thrown into a building by an Amazon warrior. "Over-want" also usually translating to build, because, as the old tank adage goes: Don't break thy neighbor's shit.

Buy your frickin' tank

Once King knows what he wants, he contacts his go-to guy for green elements -- whether it's a jeep, an armored car, or, yeah, a frickin' tank -- and negotiates a fee that fits his budget. "Thankfully, there are fanatic nutcases out there" who supply military vehicles, he says. "I pay homage to them because without those people it would make our jobs much harder." After you get your tank, it's imperative to brush up on the laws in the areas around your production hub. Most tanks require the owner to get transport permissions and clearances for any graphics, signs, or typefaces being put on its body. Most importantly, you'll need proof that the turrets have been decommissioned -- you want authorities to know your tank is essentially a moving prop, not a World War III threat.

saving private ryan tank
Dreamworks Pictures

Plan for the unexpected with your frickin' tank

Since movies shoot in non-sequential order, action involving tanks is often all over the place. In Wonder Woman, for example, the Ehrhardt had to be shot flipped on its side, post-crash, first. King, drawing on past experiences, predicted the backward flow of production in the early stages of his build and called for extra safety measures to protect the armored car -- which he reproduced using a stripped-back flatbed truck that had been adjusted from the chassis up. King and his team built side feet so when it came time for a crane to lift and turn the car over, it could sit safely, covered in dust, looking like it had just been smashed and spun.

Afterward, King and his team got the Ehrhardt upright, unbolted the side legs, and cleaned it so it would look brand new for its pre-catapult scene. "You need to see the unforeseeable," when working with tanks, King says. "You need to cover yourself in Teflon."

Don't actually kill anyone with the frickin' tank

Safety is key: You'll need your people on the inside, effectively blind, communicating via radio with the first assistant director to slow down, speed up, turn left, and, when applicable, wreck shit. They'll need helmets ("Everything's metal, everything's hard," King says, "so you've only got to turn your head in the wrong direction and you're braining yourself on a corner of steel"). And you'll need banksmen -- personnel and safety measures vary depending on the scene's requirements, but King says you'll want a front banksman and a rear banksman at minimum -- to ensure production flows sans human pancakes.

the interview tank
Columbia Pictures

Do cool shit with your frickin' tank

You can use a tank a number of ways: to move in the background, to crush something up close, to make something go BOOM. Moving and crushing? Easy. The latter "is like treading on a cardboard box," King says. If you're squashing cars "just make sure you own the car and it's not the producer's car. That would be a career-changer." If you want more of a BOOM option, King works with the armorers, who essentially turn inactive tanks into faux-active tanks, dressing them with guns the same way a costume designer might adjust someone's outfit. Then the tanks either fire blanks (as was the case on Wonder Woman)… or, more often, CGI takes care of the blasts during post. To do a real blast, you'd need to work out a deal with a real military and go to one of their firing areas. "No studio would ever allow live rounds on any set," King explains. "Never, never, never, never."

Get rid of the frickin' tank

Custom builds usually become the property of the production once the shoot's over, going into storage for future use. (They paid for the man hours and the materials, after all.) Standout pieces might go to a museum, or similar place, for fans to see. Or, rarely, a certain special tank might be put it up for sale -- the proceeds of which would go to the studio to recoup money spent during production. "If it's a rental," he says, "you treat it just like you would a rental car." Restore to its original form -- no more signage or number plates -- and return it to its nice nutcase.

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Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. Find him on Twitter: @srkfitzgerald.