Q&A with Sean Casey (Director)
WHAT SPARKED THE IDEA FOR TORNADO ALLEY?
Back in 2000, I was working on an IMAX film called “Forces of Nature.” And I thought the tornado footage we got was good, but I didn’t feel like we’d really done all we could. At that point, I had fallen in love with chasing storms, and I started thinking about getting footage that no one else had ever gotten. That’s when I came up with the idea of building the TIV, something that could get you as close to a tornado as you wanted.
RUMOR HAS IT THAT YOU CAME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR THE TIV WHEN YOU WERE LOCKED OUT OF A MINIVAN WITH A TORNADO APPROACHING?
Well, actually, we’d come up with the concept the year before that happened, but getting locked out of a minivan with a tornado right next to us? That kind of confirmed my sneaking suspicion that if we were going to be that close we should have something a bit more rugged. The idea for the TIV, though, came from wanting to get right up next to a tornado. There’s a huge difference between filming a tornado from a couple miles away with a telephoto lens and filming one that’s right on top of you with a wide-angle lens. That’s really where all the action is. And that’s the kind of power that I wanted to capture. I wanted to get footage that was as powerful as the subject matter.
HOW LONG DID YOU SPEND GATHERING FOOTAGE FOR TORNADO ALLEY?
We spent eight years shooting dozens of tornadoes, probably eighteen tornadoes for the film. A lot of work went into this. The time we spent in the field over eight, going on nine, years. And all the work that went into the vehicles to get those shots.
YOUR GREATEST HOPE WAS TO CAPTURE FOOTAGE FROM INSIDE A TORNADO, WHICH YOU SUCCEEDED IN DOING. HOW DID THAT MOMENT FEEL?
Of course it’s hard to describe. In the moment, a part of you is fearing for your life. A part of you is just overjoyed and kind of in shock. I think I was in shock at the time, really. It was such an unbelievable experience—to see a tornado forming half a mile away. You pick the right spot, and it’s just coming right at you. To bear witness to that is unbelievable. Another thing is I’m trying not to mess up. I’m really focused on capturing it with the IMAX camera, so I’m focusing on the job at hand. And, of course, that particular intercept was kind of scary, because the turret on our vehicle, which we film out of, was jumping up and down. It had come off about a month earlier, from driving into strong headwinds. And we’d fixed it and made some alterations after that. But all of sudden, with the wind shooting at us, it started jumping up and down, and in the back of my mind I thought, great, we finally got the shot, but the turret and the camera are going to be sucked out of the vehicle.
THAT’S NOT A PLEASANT THOUGHT, CONSIDERING THE CAMERA’S WORTH A HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS.
It’s not just that. I mean, that’s my father’s camera. That’s my father’s camera. And one of the only reasons I could’ve made this film is that he let me use it over the years to go storm chasing with.
YOUR FATHER IS IMAX FILMMAKER GEORGE CASEY, WHO DIRECTED AFRICA: THE SERENGETI AND THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT ST. HELENS, AND WHOSE WORK HAS BEEN NOMINATED FOR FOUR ACADEMY AWARDS. WOULD YOU SAY YOU HAVE CONSCIOUSLY FOLLOWED IN HIS FOOTSTEPS?
Well, that’s how I cut my teeth in documentary films, working on the IMAX projects that my father was doing. And so over a ten-year period I came up through the ranks, I guess you could say. When I was nineteen I’d be carrying cases. When I was twenty-one I was doing location sound. When I was twenty-four I was operating the second-unit 35mm camera. And then, for Forces of Nature, I was operating the IMAX camera. So yeah, my father has definitely been a huge influence on me. I wouldn’t have made this film without his support through the years.
HOW DO YOU LIKE USING HIS CAMERA?
It’s one of the first IMAX cameras that were made. It looks very ungainly—it’s got two mags mounted on the side and it’s forty pounds heavier than other IMAX cameras. It’s a tractor of a camera. But we took a lot of large-format cameras out in the field and they would crap out left and right. And my father’s IMAX camera? We never had to send it away over eight years. Not once did we have to put it in a box and send it to somebody to fix.
THERE ARE LOTS OF CHALLENGES TO SHOOTING AN IMAX FILM.
It’s a really difficult format, because the cameras are so heavy and cumbersome. Also, at the very most you have about two minutes and fifty seconds worth of film. That’s if you have a full load all ready to go in there. Usually, when the action starts you might have between 600 and 400 feet left, so you’ve got roughly a minute and a half of footage to use when things get really, really interesting. There were lots of times, during the making of this movie, when I’d run out of film and need to change my magazine. I’d have the camera down on the TIV, and the TIV would be busting long to stay ahead of or catch up with a tornado. And you’re hearing all the oohs and ahhs from the guys in the vehicle. And a lot of times I’d yell at them. I just don’t want to hear what I’m missing when I’m changing a film. And this year, during a chase, I actually had a camera jam. We were tracking along with this massive, mile-wide tornado. And you glance out the window and you see this big, black thing right next to you. And then you have to change the film in the camera! It’s the stuff of nightmares. Not only the nightmare where you’re at school naked, but your hair’s on fire, too. It’s just awful.
ANY FUNNY BEHIND-THE-SCENES MOMENTS DURING THE MAKING OF TORNADO ALLEY?
Funny behind-the-scenes moments? Hmmm. That’s tough. There’s a lot of, um [PAUSES]. You would hate to think that after eight years of storm chasing you wouldn’t have any funny anecdotes. I mean, there were a lot of funny moments, but I don’t know if they’re fit for print. You know, people drinking out of urine bottles by mistake. Things like that.
When action’s going on we don’t stop for anything, unless we need fuel, so there are a lot of portable urinals rolling around in the vehicle. And it’s only a matter of time before someone picks the wrong one.
WERE THERE OTHER STRANGE ADJUSTMENTS YOU HAD TO MAKE WHILE YOU WERE STORM CHASING? IT MUST BE HARD TO EAT THREE SQUARE MEALS A DAY, SAY, WHEN YOU’RE LIVING ON THE ROAD?
You kind of forget about eating. We’re on such a mission out there that food really isn’t on the top of your mind. You get to eat in the mornings, of course, because the days usually start a little later. Lunch is usually fast food. Ninety-five percent of the time it’s fast food. And then you’re usually done storm chasing around ten o’clock at night, so a lot of places have closed. I’d say half of the food you’re getting is from a convenient mart when you’re out there.
GAS STATION DINNERS?
Yeah. A lot of frozen burritos.
NO ONE EVER SEEMS TO BE LISTENING TO MUSIC INSIDE THE TIV. DO YOU GUYS EVER CRANK TUNES?
Oh no, no. There’s no tunes. I’ve never had any radios. There’s no air-conditioning, either, really. There’s not a lot of comfort in the vehicle, because you want your crew members to be in a really bad state of mind, so that they’re much more willing to drive into a tornado to get it all done, rather than stay all nice and comfy. If you’re mad because you don’t have AC or music, you take risks, it turns out. So yeah, there’s no AC, no music. People have iPods. When we’re not chasing people have iPods going. Every off season I get suggestions from the crew members. They want an Xbox 360 in there, or at least cup holders. And I always promise them that yes, yes, in the off-season I’m going to put in the cup holders.
SO HAVE YOU?
No, there’s no cup holders in there. There’s a lot of spilled liquids in the vehicle. And after two months of four guys living in this space together, there’s what we call the man stench. The TIV also leaks when there’s a good rain falling, so there’s always this accumulation of water in the carpet and underneath the pads of the vehicle. And things grow in water. So yeah, it’s an interesting smell.
IT MUST’VE BEEN HARD TO REGISTER THAT THING?
It’s true. You can’t just walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles, there’s no box to check that says you’ve built a tank, you know? I made the mistake when I went to the DMV of bringing a picture of TIV2. And, at that point, it was game over. They said, “I’m sorry, sir, you’re going to have to take this matter to California Highway Patrol.” And so I was very nervous, because, you know, it’s the California Highway Patrol. Your pulse always quickens when they pull up behind you on the road. But they were actually fine about the whole thing and they didn’t see anything wrong with it. They give it a classification of a special-built vehicle, a multi-purpose vehicle code, which was the most lenient classification they could have given it.
THEY WERE PROBABLY THRILLED TO HAVE SUCH AN INTERESTING DIVERSION IN THE MIDDLE OF THEIR WORKDAY.
They did seem very happy about it. There were two guys in charge of the test drive, and they just took off in it. I was left standing there. And I was a little like, Hmmm, all right. I wonder how long this is going to be?
YOU’RE ONE OF THE STARS OF THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL’S STORM CHASERS SERIES, SO YOU SPEND A LOT OF TIME IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA. DID THAT IN ANY WAY INFORM THE WAY YOU DIRECTED TORNADO ALLEY?
You know, I forget I’m being filmed on Storm Chasers. I don’t have a problem with cameras around me. I don’t really care that I’m being filmed. The reason I agreed to do the Storm Chasers thing is it allowed me to be out there. It helped pave the way. Even though I had a free camera, I had to have a crew and I had to pay for gas and motels. It’s expensive if you’re going to do that for two straight months. I doubt there’s any other IMAX film that supported a crew out in the field, financially, for what turned out to be, I would say, twenty months. It’s not realistic. So by working with the television aspect, it allowed me that time to really capture the imagery that we got.
IN ADDITION TO TELLING YOUR STORY IN TORNADO ALLEY, YOU ALSO TELL THE STORY OF VORTEX2, THE LARGEST TORNADO RESEARCH PROJECT IN HISTORY. THERE WAS A LOT OF SCIENCE TO WORK IN.
This was uncommon for an IMAX film. IMAX films usually have a science angle, but there are so many moving pieces to the VORTEX2 project. It was very hard to try and capture the scope of that. It was kind of like a documentary filmmaking style for most of it. It’s not like we were doing double takes or telling the scientists to stop, so we could get a better shot. All that stuff had to be caught on the fly and that was extraordinarily difficult.
ASIDE FROM CAPTURING FOOTAGE FROM INSIDE A TORNADO, WHAT DID YOU MOST HOPE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS FILM?
The reason this film was made was for people to experience what it can be like in Tornado Alley. That was the main thing on my mind, and I didn’t want to mess it up. Whenever we could I would want to go to weather footage, so that the audience wasn’t seeing people crammed into science vehicles or crammed into the TIV. Even though I think these stories stitch all the leather together well, to me, the storms are the main characters in this film.
ARE YOU RELIEVED NOW THAT ALL THE HARD WORK IS OVER?
Look, I enjoy doing this. I love storm chasing. I do. It wasn’t like we had to go out into the desert and film a tortoise two months out of the year to do a lifecycle of a desert tortoise—not to say there aren’t people who would love to make an IMAX film on desert tortoises—but it was very exciting work. It was very enjoyable out there. And even though there were a lot of hardships and a lot of heartbreak, we stuck to the quest. I feel really fortunate that I was able to work on a project that I felt full-heartedly committed to and full-heartedly passionate about.