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Surviving ‘Into the Storm’

Covering a single tumultuous day, the film plays witness to the fictitious town of Silverton as it’s assaulted by a series of fierce tornadoes.

The powerful and unusual weather events that have torn through the continental United States in recent years serve as an apt setup for Into the Storm from New Line Cinema. Shot in Michigan nearly two years ago, the movie finally heads for an August 8 premiere in North American theaters. It’s distributed by Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures.

Covering a single tumultuous day, the film plays witness to the fictitious town of Silverton as it’s assaulted by a series of fierce tornadoes. Featuring Richard Armitage (the Hobbit films) and Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead), the action is presented from the point of view of the film’s professional storm chasers and their cameras, as well as a handful of local heroes.

While director Steven Quale (Final Destination 5, Aliens of the Deep) has worked on cutting-edge 3D films with James Cameron and others (he served as second unit director of Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic), he decided to keep Storm at the 2D level for a variety of reasons—including the intricacy of some of the required camera work, including simulated POV footage from a range of different groups.

Director Steve Quale on the set of ‘Into the Storm.’ Photo by Ron Phillips.

“What’s unique about this film is we were making a huge tent-pole movie and virtually all of it is handheld,” Quale says, noting that no dollies or camera cranes were used in the production. “I said I wanted a handheld aesthetic, but I didn’t want a really shaky handheld aesthetic. These were [supposed to be] professional storm chasers who are also cinematographers who know how to shoot footage of these disasters. But they are, after all, in the middle of a storm. So I wanted just a little bit of that handheld edgy feel to it. ‘Choreographed chaos’ is what I’d call it.”

Prior to the shoot, Quale deployed a digital virtual camera system similar to one he used on Avatar to create all the handheld shots before the start of principal photography. “So through digital simulations I worked out the logistics and details of the shots. We even placed low-res tornados in these [simulated] sequences to give the actors a sense of what the scenes actually would look like. Then during the actual shoot I’d just have to maybe mention to the camera operator to tilt up because there’s this huge tornado in the background, even though there was nothing but blue sky when we shot it.”

Quale’s crew used 100-foot rain bars and up to four wind machines simultaneously, enabling both crew and actors to be housed within a bubble of man-made wet, windy, non-CGI tornadic effects. Meanwhile, everything beyond the bubble in the bright Michigan sunshine was extended in post with visual effects.

“By the way,” Quale adds, “working with wind machines is one thing, and working with rain is another, but working with blowing wind and rain together was a nightmare! The rain becomes like tiny projectiles hitting the actors in the face and the equipment. It looks amazing but it’s very difficult to work with.”

What’s worse, combining wind and rain makes it nearly impossible to keep the lenses clean. “You cover a digital camera with plastic and pretty soon it fogs up. So our camera crew came up with the idea to use compressed nitrogen. We rigged up a piping system to the lenses.”

A scene from ‘Into the Storm.’ Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Brian Pearson (Drive Angry, Final Destination 5), Quale’s director of photography, says that knowing they were going to lay in a lot of the effects in post is where his decision-making process began as DP. “We knew there’d be layers of rain, a lot of blowing hair, a sky with no tornado in it yet, and we wanted a camera that was very robust—one that would perform in the elements—because we really did film within a lot of ‘rain’ and 100 mile-per-hour wind machines.”

Pearson says the first priority was choosing a camera that could withstand being wrapped in a rain cover without overheating. “We did a number of tests and considered using different cameras for different parts of the film. In all, we tested about 30 cameras—everything from high-end cinema cameras to tiny lipstick cams. In the end, looking for the best resolution, dynamic range and compression artifacts while not overheating, we wound up using the ARRI Alexa,” Pearson says.

While most of the footage was shot with the Alexa, Pearson says the team turned to a Nikon D800 so shoot in tight spaces. “We experimented with the idea of using some of the [consumer-grade] cameras the actors playing storm chasers were using. I needed to use a sun cover over the actors, so we used these special charcoal-gray covers, sometimes using these 130-foot construction cranes—covering the cast in the foreground, using digital effects to cover the sun in the background, painting our shadows and extending the clouds. So we didn’t want to start using different cameras with various resolutions, and just went with the best video we could get, and that was with the Alexa,” Pearson said.

While cast and crew didn’t run into any real tornadoes during the rural Michigan shoot, Quale said by pure serendipity Mother Nature provided a real lightning storm as a suitable backdrop on the very day the crew had planned to shoot a big school evacuation. “It worked out fantastic because I was doing aerial shots from a helicopter and we shot these great stormy vistas … and we didn’t have to do anything to get it.”