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Sean Casey Heads Deep Into “Tornado Alley”

Sean Casey Heads Deep Into “Tornado Alley” (photo)

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When Sean Casey set out to make an IMAX movie independent of any of the traditional ways such large-format films are made, people probably thought he was nuts. Then again, Casey does a lot of crazy things.

As one of the stars of the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers,” he demonstrates this on a weekly basis as he criss-crosses the Midwest in a tricked-out armored behemoth known as a Tornado Intercept Vehicle (or TIV for short) actively searching for ways into the eye of the storm to bring it to viewers. The start of production of “Tornado Alley,” Casey’s directorial debut, actually predates his time on television, but has well exceeded it since Casey has spent the last eight years with his team driving 400 miles a day during the height of tornado season searching for the most ferocious ones to put on film. The result is both a chronicle of efforts by the scientific community to better understand the formation of tornadoes — represented by the VORTEX2, which races with the TIV — to extend the warning time the denizens of the area have to clear out, and a document of both the beauty and devastation that results from the funnel clouds.

Still, on the list of things to be possibly committed for, filming a project close to a decade without knowing if and when it would ever be distributed might place a close second to huddling inside a tank and hanging on for dear life while trying to capture that perfect shot for Casey, who recently took time to explain his reasoning, what it’s like to film inside a storm and making an indie IMAX film.

How did this film come together?

I was actually working on an IMAX film called “Amazing Journeys,” so I was actually on a little, teeny island in the Indian Ocean called Christmas Island and we were filming these red crabs that were migrating from the interior jungles of the island down to the sea shore to deposit their eggs. I was there for about 10, 12 weeks and I started to go insane because this island was only four miles by two miles. But they had a public library, so because I was waiting for these little baby crabs to return from the sea, I checked out a book about storm chasing and the idea of this extended road trip chasing extreme weather across the United States really sunk its hooks into me.

It was something I desperately wanted to do, so when I got back to the States, I did some research and found a gentleman by the name of Dr. Josh Wurman, who seemed to be the most active severe weather meteorologist in the field. So I just cold-called him and said, “Hey, I’ve got this IMAX camera. Can I come out and storm chase with you?” He said, “Yeah,” but I’m sure at the time he didn’t know that I’d be a thorn in his side for the next 12 years.

03292011_TornadoAlley2.jpgYou spent eight years on this film alone – was a lot of that just about finding the right tornadoes?

It takes awhile to get extraordinary footage out there not only because we wanted these incredible tornado shots, but we wanted shots of hail bombarding a town – all these shots that can happen out there. That’s why it took so long because not all that stuff happens in one season. It’s very rare you see the kind of hail that’s in the film and it’s rare to see these big, beautiful rotating supercells when they have really nice structure. And then of course seeing these tornadoes, that’s a challenge to film. When you have this IMAX camera because that’s the most unwieldy tool you could ever use to make a documentary, but the great thing about it is the images that it captures and its only saving grace is the stuff that you film will be on a very large screen and the detail in those images is really special.

Is it tough to edit these films since you probably can’t watch the film on an IMAX screen until it’s finished?

We’re editing on relatively small monitors, so it’s quite a different experience when that’s projected and the cost associated with trying to project all that film is cost prohibitive, so you’re taking a very big gulp when you finally start cutting the negative because there’s really no way to gauge how the editing will change when it’s projected on a big screen. You wish there was a process where you could do a cut and then project that cut onto a large screen and say, okay, this shot’s got to be longer. This shot’s got problems, we’ve got to change that.” You really can’t do that in this format. So after you do your cut on the Avid and you cut the negative, you pretty much have to live with what you’ve got up there. There’s a lot of instances where I was thinking, “man, we should’ve stayed on this shot for another 10 seconds or…” But that’s part of doing these IMAX films.

You had previously worked on the IMAX doc “Forces of Nature,” which was also about natural disasters. Did you learn anything from that film that you could incorporate to this one?

That’s when I cut my teeth on “Storm Chasers.” I spent those three years collecting footage for “Forces of Nature” and it was during that project I felt like you know what? In these rented minivans, when that tornado’s coming right at you, we’ve got to get out of there, but you’re seeing the most amazing things right when you have to leave. That’s when the idea came that we need a better tool than a minivan for some of these tornadoes. We need a vehicle that we can film the hail pounding around us and can get in front of these tornadoes and film them and have trees crash around us and feel okay about that. So from “Forces of Nature” came [that] idea…and I wanted to keep chasing. I wanted an excuse to stay out there, so of course, the obvious thing to me was do an IMAX film just on tornadoes [with] footage that no one has ever gotten before.

What is it like to direct something where there’s so many elements you can’t control?

It was huge…because the weather changes so quickly out there, just cutting scenes that were shot in the same day – some of it didn’t match because the lighting changes so drastically when you’re underneath a storm or you’re just off to the side of a storm. There’s so many different variables out there and it’s all happening very, very fast.

03292011_TornadoAlley3.jpgIt’s described in the film what modifications you made to the vehicles to protect yourself in the middle of a storm, but what concessions did you make to actually film things outside of it?

I had to learn how to weld. When we started this project, I had no funds, no money at all. The only thing I had was my father [George Casey, the longtime documentary filmmaker] owned an IMAX camera, so I knew I wasn’t going to have to pay rent on it. That’s the only way this film got made. All I needed now was the right tools to get the footage, so I had to learn how to build TIV 1 and I had to build TIV 2. There was a huge learning curve because I didn’t know how to weld before this. I can build stuff, but these were some big projects. There’s nothing off the shelf that you can buy [for these vehicles], so you have to make it yourself. Just the turret alone, that took me six weeks to make – just the first one, but after I figured out how you make a turret that can rotate and hold an IMAX camera, then the second one only took me about two weeks to make. It was little things too. How do you lock your door? You’re not going to install a normal car lock because it just doesn’t work. You want to make as everything as simple as possible out there because the more complicated the tool you make, the more things can go wrong.

You were doing this all without knowing whether the film would ever see the light of day too, since it was a completely independent production, which is unusual for IMAX since there are so few screens. What was navigating that process like?

That was very difficult. Usually, people start making an IMAX film and they have their funds in place. They’ve got, say, a corporate sponsor, maybe a [National Science Foundation] grant, maybe they have IMAX theaters that have all kind of pitched in and are helping fund a film. For me, I had none of that and I wasn’t aggressively looking for it. People knew what I was doing and in the first two years, I was talking to people, but who’s going to invest in kind of an odd idea? A guy’s going to build a tank and drive into a tornado and film it?

I think a lot of people had concerns about the viability of it and the wisdom in funding a project that’s like a kamikaze operation, so it wasn’t really until two years ago when I had gotten all this footage and I think people got a little used to the madness and thought it was a good idea. So I finally got this company called Giant Screen Films to sign on as the distributor.

The other thing was we really didn’t have a good science element in this film because I was waiting for this VORTEX2 project to get out into the field. They were supposed to get out there in 2006 or 2007, but [the National Science Foundation] didn’t give them funds, so it was only 2009, 2010 that we had the natural science for our film because that was the largest field expedition ever put out there.

03292011_TornadoAlley4.jpgHowever, the central storyline of the film is how the VORTEX 2 and the TIVs race to find the tornadoes — did the film in your head have to evolve considerably when that came into the picture?

When I first started on this idea, I had no idea about VORTEX 2. I just wanted to keep chasing and trying to push my comfort level as far as filming these tornadoes and I knew the story would finally come. Initially, I didn’t really want the TIV to be in an IMAX film at all, but then with “Storm Chasers” and showing what I was doing, at that point, the TIV had to be in the film [since] in a way [it’s] an iconic image.

Still, you have to admit, it’s pretty amazing to see on one of those humongous screens.

They are pretty cool looking. [laughs] I say that now, but hopefully they don’t look dated in 10 years. But we’ll see. I [just] fell completely in love with the power that these storms create – how they miniaturize everything around them in this dramatic, violent fashion. I wasn’t used to that kind of aliveness in the sky. I wanted to capture [that] excitement, and the excitement of the chase and how beautiful weather could be.

“Tornado Alley” is now open in IMAX theaters. A full schedule can be found here.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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