Advances in Hollywood's technology make filmmakers go “Hey, let's see how well we can make tornadoes now!”
The “silent era” saw Buster Keaton actually risking his life along a collapsing, cyclone-struck riverfront in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” and Lillian Gish driven crazy on the frontier plains by “The Wind,” aided by airplane propellers whose racket was a moot (and mute) issue.
By 1939, advances in photographic effects enabled Dorothy to ride a tornado from Kansas to meet “The Wizard of Oz.” And the early era of digital effects blew forth the most elaborate tornado sequences seen to date in “Twister” (1996).
Now, many evolutions in computer-generated imagery later, we have ... “Sharknado.”
But we also have “Into the Storm,” a feature film that strives for the most realistic and terrifying cyclonic depictions yet.
Directed by Steven Quale, a veteran second unit and special effects director for a number of James Cameron's spectaculars, the movie follows a variety of individuals in an Oklahoma town beset by multiple tornadoes.
“I remember seeing ‘Twister' when I was young and really enjoying it,” Quale says. “The big difference between that movie and our movie is that ‘Twister' focused mainly on storm chasers following the tornadoes, whereas our film has everything from high school students to some crazy YouTube video guys to our storm chasers and even a professional video guy who's just obsessed about getting the shot.
“It also is told with a first-person narrative,” Quale points out. “We live in a YouTube/Instagram society; everybody has video cameras, is taking pictures, blogging today, so that's why I wanted to incorporate that first-person narrative.”
It's graduation day in fictional Silverton, Okla. Senior Donnie Morris (English actor Max Deacon) has been tasked by his widowed dad, assistant principal Gary Deacon (“The Hobbit's” Richard Armitage), with making a video blog of his classmates for a time capsule. But when his longtime crush Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam-Carey) needs help on her own senior video project, Max takes off with her to an abandoned paper plant and hands over video blog duties to his annoying little brother Trey (“iCarly's” Nathan Kress).
Meanwhile, storm documentarian Pete (“Veep's” Matt Walsh) and his crew have been driving up and down Tornado Alley in his armored storm-chasing vehicle, The Titus, on a fruitless search for big, bad weather. Trailing that is a van equipped with the latest tracking gadgetry, but meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies of “The Walking Dead” fame) hasn't been able to find the vortex for Pete.
Until today, when they head into Silverton.
So, pretty much everyone's got a camera, even the two local daredevils (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep) who idiotically attempt to become Internet sensations by heading toward the funnel clouds.
Though he never experienced a tornado firsthand, Quale remembers the terror of the warning sirens and hunkering in the basement during his youth in Madison, Wis. To prepare for “Into the Storm,” he pored over documentary footage and YouTube shots of cyclonic destruction. He passed these on to the multiple special effects houses that would create the storm imagery, along with marching orders to re-create them as faithfully as possible.
“Today allows a much more realistic and immersive experience because the technology has evolved so much, you can simulate these things in the computer and make them look as real as you can,” he notes. “In the past, it was just too difficult to do those sorts of things. It's a very liberating time we live in.”
Tell that to the cast members. They had to work through water, dirt and plant particles being shot at them at up to 100 mph by giant wind machines during “Into the Storm's” principal photography two summers ago.
Though the atmospherics would be digitized-in later, foreground action had to be convincingly captured first. Which meant that, contrary to standard filmmaking practice, Quale and company prayed for, if not rain, cloudy skies over their locations outside Pontiac, Mich.
Their prayers were not answered, threatening that sunshine on actors' faces and shadows cast across the flat ground would not match up with the eventual overcast skies.
Not to worry, though. On his feature-directing debut “Final Destination 5,” Quale and cinematographer Brian Pearson faced a similar problem that they solved by hanging a truss covered in dark cloth above the action. For “Into the Storm,” they just went bigger with that idea — a 40-by-60-foot silk sunblocker held up by 120-foot construction cranes shaded a 20-foot diameter area in which they could film.
Another amazing, practical device employed was the eliminator spray deflector. Water drops on lenses, which are pretty much unavoidable on any movie with heavy precipitation, were eliminated by placing these 5,000 rpm rotors in front of the lenses. They spun so fast, their blades were not even visible to the cameras' eyes.
Of course, wind-whipped trees, flying vehicles and buildings blasting apart were mostly created in computers — although, had Armitage not precisely hit his stop mark while running during one particular sequence, a real falling pick-up would have squashed him.
Human nature also made for a slight glitch in this technologically proficient movie.
“The actors had no eyeline references for the approaching tornadoes,” Quale recalls. “They had to just make sure they were looking at the right part of the sky. What was really funny was that the first day we were filming, they all get out of the van and see the first tornado forming, and they all started pointing. I said, ‘Guys, it's OK if one person points, but it looks a little silly to have six people pointing up.' ”
The hardest part of the whole production, Quale says, was keeping the human point of view persuasively present while still making a good-looking, elementally insane movie.
“The toughest thing to get right was just trying to get the camera technique to feel loose and improvised, but not too radical so it's hard to watch,” he explains. “The only way to do these shots were to rehearse them and have them planned to the exact angle that every second was going to happen. There was no spontaneity in it because we couldn't with all of the wind machines and the rain towers and everything.
“So the camera operators and the crew had to make it look like it was just grabbed at the moment. If somebody who sees the movie thinks it was just shot by some people with some camcorders, then we've succeeded.”