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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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