Automotive artists in Norcross put makeup, costumes on cars that star on screen

Cinema Vehicles General Manager Ron Cerven fits a rubber seal around a replacement window for a classic Volkswagon bus. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

In the belly of the Cinema Vehicles shop in Norcross, Georgia, Andy Cerven is working on a shiny, black Model T. It’s one of those old-timey Fords with a small windshield and tires that look like they belong on a mountain bike.

Cerven, a mechanic whose level of comfort lies more with his head under a hood rather than in front of a microphone, flicked a few switches behind the steering wheel. Even though it’s 100 years old, the car started up.

“Back when I was a kid, watching my dad create Eleanor kind of gave me the path to get into loving classics,” he said.

Andy Cerven, a mechanic for Cinema Vehicles, looks over his shoulder as he maneuvers a custom-built armored SWAT vehicle that Cerven helped construct. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Eleanor is the classic Mustang built by Cinema Vehicles specifically for the action film “Gone in 60 Seconds,” released in 2000 and starring Nicolas Cage. 

Cerven, whose specialty is older cars, is part of a team of seven that creates the vehicles here in Georgia. Cinema Vehicles also has a Hollywood facility. He works alongside his dad, general manager Ron Cerven, who emphasizes that his team has taken on creating a multitude of specialty builds through the years.

“We’ve done everything, including building spaceships … I mean, if it’s going to be on the screen, and they can dream it up, we’ll figure out how to build it,” the eldest Cerven said.

Cinema Vehicles General Manager Ron Cerven fits a rubber seal around a replacement window for a classic Volkswagon bus. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Part of the shop is an enormous warehouse that stores vehicles grouped by decade, allowing Cinema workers the opportunity to make modifications as they go based on what may be needed for a specific project.

The Georgia operation has been behind many of the cars we’ve seen in some of our favorite movies and shows for over 40 years. Over the past few years, Atlanta’s role in Hollywood productions has grown significantly. 

Cinema Vehicles’ warehouse is filled with a fleet of vintage and modern cars, trucks and motorcycles to fit any time setting that a production might take place in. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

It can cost up to $100,000 to build up a single vehicle. While the price may be expensive, according to Ron Cerven, the right vehicle can make or break a scene.

“[For example], there might be 15 cars from the 1920s running around the block to make it look like a street scene,” he said. “They’ve all got to run and drive and, you know, do what they do.”

When Hollywood productions stopped because of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in 2023, work across the entertainment industry slowed down. Today, it seems like every Georgia film and television project is back in swing. And that all of them need a car.

“Chaos, absolute chaos,” said Tyna Wall, who does a little bit of everything at the shop. “We do have more stuff coming in, so it’s been a change of pace, a change of dynamic, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Wall’s primary job can best be described as costuming for the cars and trucks on property.

Tyna Wall cleans one of the fleet police cruisers in preparation for it to be sent out to a shooting location. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Imagine a movie scene in which a vehicle gets shot up and then explodes on a remote stretch of highway. Beforehand, Wall might remove the gas line, strip the car of flammable material and drain all the fluid. And because directors often need multiple takes, Wall might prep the same vehicle over and over. 

Working at Cinema Vehicles can be fast-paced and stressful, but Andy Cerven said the job has its perks.

“It can be fun, especially when we’re stunt prepping cars,” he said. “I go out and cut doughnuts and make sure that they’re doing that, slide breaks, a little bit of drifting.”

It’s also fun, the younger Cerven added, to see his work on the big screen when his cars get their 15 minutes of fame or ride off into the sunset.