The Grand Tour has arrived. Fans around the world have awaited this moment for months while executives at the Amazon hold their breath. This is an unprecedented investment into a proven team, albeit one transitioning from old school to new media. Millions of dollars were poured into the production, matched only by the marketing dollars used to promote it.
As we enter the age of online a la carte programing, the highly anticipated new Amazon Prime Series marks a fundamental shift of old school entertainment entering a new chapter of online consumption. Have the series producers and Amazon executives found themselves the show we all want to watch? In order to answer that question, we need to examine the first episode of The Grand Tour in-depth.
My earliest concern for The Grand Tour was how they were going to tackle music licensing. As the series would be comprised of key members from the last generation of Top Gear, we can’t ignore the expectations for something similar.
Under the wings of the BCC, Top Gear film editors had access to a vast collection of music for their films. It has always been my belief that sound and music make up a majority of a great film. If you have great visuals with no supporting sound, you’re likely going to have a undesirable segment.
Luckily for The Grand Tour, Executive Producer Andy Wilman has built a great post-production team who seemed to pay close attention to music. The debut episode, “Holy Trinity,” even used tracks from Jóhann Jóhannsson and the Oscar nominated score of Sicario. A pleasant surprise. (The dad-rock cover of “I Can See Clearly Now”? It was fine, just fine.)
A rushed production can easily be spotted by how little sound design you find in a final edit. For the BMW M2's Eboladrome track test segment and the Holy Trinity McLaren P1/Porsche 918/Ferrari LaFerrari track battle, it was obvious a ton of time and effort was spent in the edits.
The hypercar audio was properly captured and mixed, with loads of work spent on the Portuguese road segment between the P1 and 918. Nothing stands out as being out of place, as I suspect the post production team of W. Chump and Sons have a lot of talent sourced from the old BBC and Bedder 6 days. Bedder 6 was the former production company of Top Gear owned by A. Wilman and J. Clarkson.
But it was the final studio segment where the boys review the lap times between the hypercar trio which should be regarded as the highlight for sound design in the episode. Matching the 16-bit style lap-time graphics straight out the 1986 arcade game OutRun, The Grand Tour features sound effects straight out of the era too.
It’s a subtle yet brilliant cue for why this new Amazon series is something special: little things inspired by arcade games from the 1980s that we all love.
After more than 20 seasons of Top Gear under the helm of Wilman and Clarkson, we’ve always expected a high level of cinematography from the team. This can be attributed to good writers and directors on set, not just the camera crews. When shooting cars in motion, you need an abundance of shots to cut together even a short sequence. The faster the segment, the more diversity of shots required.
The Holy Trinity segment at Portimão had a great usage of long-lens shots, playing with the elevation of the track. These shots are much more challenging than it may seem; finding the right placement of cameras to give layers in frame is a time consuming effort. Seeing the LaFerrari rise over a crest, showing neutral slide as it becomes unweighted, then dives down the crest on the opposite side—that doesn’t come easy, and the people behind the camera nailed it.
My only criticism would be one too many forced, frantic shots. It feels a bit contrived when the camera operators are purposefully hunting for three cars going around a corner we’ve already seen them go around twice before. It’s an old trick we’ve seen for the past decade of Top Gear, something they invented, but also something I wish the elite of our industry would move away from. It’d be wrong of me not to point that out, but at the same time, very few viewers would even notice such a detail.
Finally, the aerial cinematography in The Grand Tour has set the bar high for everyone else looking to produce car films. An absolute aerial ballet we would be lucky to see performed; probably more impressive than the cars on track.
The Grand Tour clearly is an leap forward for the production team capturing the stories. Shooting and editing in 4K is no easy task. But when faced with one challenge in the left hand, a gift is handed to the right.
The Grand Tour has no time constraints for episode length like you would find on traditional television. This is best seen in the opening segment of the Holy Trinity film featuring the P1 and 918 on the mountain road. It breathes. The pacing brings you into a moment that feels special, something we strived for with APEX: The Story of the Hypercar.
With my shameless self-promotion out of the way, it is important to recognize that the editors and script writers of The Grand Tour have left their fingerprint on the final edit. They’ve set the bar for what we can expect in the series episodes to come: Polished, beautiful, and powerful moments that make us care about the vehicles and the journeys the three hosts take us on.
In the studio, the aforementioned OutRun arcade style graphics used for studio segments give the warm and fuzzy feeling for car enthusiasts. Any car enthusiast between the age of 30 and 50 who doesn’t recognize the style should rethink calling themselves a car enthusiast; an Easter-egg which we can all tip our hat to.
But the most impressive elements in the debut episode would be the level of detail obtained by the motion graphics used on the static hypercars while sitting in the garage at Portimão. In previous Top Gear episodes, we’ve seen editors use manufacturer supplied animations, cutting it into segments in the most seamless way possible to make them look custom while they most frequently are not.
For The Grand Tour, this is a whole new level of motion graphics for a scripted entertainment show. My guess is they got help from the manufacturers to provide their computer models to recreate and display the hybrid powertrains beneath the skin of the cars. Bravo to the producers for that move.
The concept of a roving studio that visits different countries for each episode is genius in concept, but must be a logistical fucking nightmare for the team behind the scenes. Considering how sterile and controlled of an environment you need to film such segments, the cost must be staggering to get the tent perfect.
From the onset I love the concept, although I think the unfamiliar space may have thrown the team and trio off. It could also be that they’ve been out the game for a few extra months, but it feels as if a few more rehearsals could help tighten up the jokes and pacing. Also, the in-tent audio mixing was one of the weakest parts of the entire episode, with some errors making the final edit.
The opening sequence was built up by the press in the weeks leading up to the premiere as being something epic. A bit of an exaggeration, but a necessary evil: The throat clearing to transition us from the old to the new. It was executed properly, and the concept was solid. Although as much as I know it was needed, with a new age of social media already telling most of the stories, we could’ve skipped it entirely.
THE HOLY TRINITY TEST
It took a while and the anticipation was high, but finally the holy trinity; a track battle between the three top-tier manufacturers and their hypercars: The Porsche 918, McLaren P1, and Ferrari LaFerrari.
Certainly it wasn’t the first review of all three. In fact, my friend Chris Harris shot his review of all three the same week and at the same location as The Grand Tour, and his video was out months prior.
But the Amazon team did an excellent job finding the balance between performance testing and entertainment, favoring on the side of entertainment. The genuine moment of seeing both the LaFerrari and McLaren P1 look a bit out of control under heavy braking into Turn 1 at Portimão told more than the words being spoken; proper story telling.
The writing within the segment was spot on, especially the moment where Hammond returns to pit lane stating something completely contrary to what he had just said moments earlier. Well thought out and executed in the edit.
Its pretty clear this is one of the earliest segments filmed for the new The Grand Tour series. Clarkson, May and Hammond each feel comfortable in their old Top Gear voices, something I’m sure will be addressed in future segments after they had time to digest their new home and platform. My hope is that their new voices, voices that the series needs, will be better defined in future segments.
THE BMW M2 TEST
Seeing the new benchmark track for the series was a pleasant surprise. The new track has a defined character and charm that the old Dunsfold airfield lacked. It was a smart move by the series producers to retain such a benchmark, using the first episode to properly establishing its place in the show. The “Your Name Here” Corner will certainly fill a sponsorship by series end, as much as it looks to be a joke, we can expect Amazon to take the cash much like we already see DHL sponsorship.
What impressed me the most about the M2 segment was actually the tracking, car-to-car shots. They’re fast, much faster than we’ve seen elsewhere. The low-angle perspective and movement of the BMW M2 while chasing the camera car is impressive and more challenging to capture than one would expect.
The series debut was well-written, beautiful, and enjoyable to watch. It is a show that gives you the warm and fuzzy feelings we’ve all missed over the past two years. We’re going to see this series grow over the coming years and that is what makes me want to continue to watch.
Is it ground-breaking? Not really. But it is the next evolutionary step in automotive entertainment that, like its name suggests, is a tour we should not miss.
J.F. Musial is a New York based producer and director of automotive content. He founded TangentVector, the automotive-centric production company that spawned /DRIVE. He now makes content for automakers and racing series like WEC and F1, and documentaries like APEX: The Story of the Hypercar.