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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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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