To say the IMAX movie “Tornado Alley” is long-awaited is to say a tornado is just a gusty prairie wind.
For 8 years, filmmaker Sean Casey roamed the U.S. plains in his self-welded, armor-plated Tornado Intercept Vehicle, or TIV. For the past 4 television seasons, millions of viewers watched Sean and his crew labor on his movie over 28 hour-long episodes of the Discovery Channel series “Storm Chasers”. Sean built his TIV so he and his crew could safely drive into the middle of a tornado and film the head-on encounter, in all its IMAX glory. That’s one of the 2 predominant storylines in his film.
Tornado Alley is showing at the Great Lakes Science Center, and you can find schedule and ticket information on the theater's website.
The other thread chronicles the long journeys of an army of tornado scientists working for the Vortex 2 research project. Prominent characters include: Joshua Wurman, a Colorado-based tornado scientist with the Center for Severe Weather Research who pioneered the long-standing Doppler on Wheels mobile radar project; Don Burgess, a 40-year veteran of severe storms research based at the University of Oklahoma; and tornado researcher Karen Kosiba, also from the CSWR, who blogged Vortex 2 field research in 2009 and 2010. Scientists say the field observations collected in Vortex 2 will support tornado researchers for years to come, with the goal being a better understanding of how and why tornadoes form. That will, they hope, lead to more accurate storm warnings, with more lead time, to keep more people safe.
The overwhelming, immersive nature of an IMAX movie is the format’s key drawing card. Thus, you would think IMAX is a perfect format for taking in the full experience of being swallowed up by a tornado – a larger-than-life occurrence of nature on a larger-than-life screen. But in “Tornado Alley”, the most compelling images didn’t come from the tornadoes, and that was a surprise.
Tornado Alley movie trailer:
Don’t misunderstand, tornadoes on such a big screen are grand. A couple of them in this 43-minute film were outright terrifying, especially in one scene where a tornado became the hunter and the TIV its prey. And the final climactic intercept was satisfying, even if we wished it would have lasted a few moments longer. But that’s the nature of chasing tornadoes – the best encounters last only a few moments, and then it’s over.
Watching “Tornado Alley” points out two enormous technical challenges that Sean and his crew had to overcome: 1) shooting in the general grayness of a tornadic environment, and 2) working with a demanding film format where both physical space for the camera and the photographer and the time they had to get the perfect shots were miniscule.
If you’ve seen a lot of tornado video (check out our Video Vortex page), you know it’s almost always cloudy near a tornado. Thus the sky is gray, and ambient colors are muted. Even IMAX can’t fix this. The most vivid and color-rich scene in the movie was %page_break% the stunning view of homes blown apart, under the light of a sunny sky. It was a heart-wrenching moment because you felt like you too were left with shambles all around you.
The second technical challenge becomes apparent when you read through the production notes in Press Kit on the “Tornado Alley” official website. Each reel of IMAX film loaded in the TIV’s 92-pound camera allows only a minute or two of shooting before Casey has to change out the magazine. Talk about pressure! For each intercept, he has to measure precisely the location of the TIV vs. the timing and track of the tornado (difficult for even the most experienced tornado chasers), and also the exact moment he begins filming, while still considering his personal safety and that of his crew. If he starts filming too early, he’ll run out of film when the TIV and tornado collide.
Unlike today’s digital video, the film’s not recyclable. And it’s not cheap. Now the 8 years of chasing for 43 minutes of film makes much more sense. Here’s hoping a future DVD release will include longer cuts of the best footage.
“Tornado Alley” is a family movie as much as any movie about tornadoes can be. Indeed, there were many families with small children in the theater with us on a Saturday afternoon. In an Internet-driven world where small-screen tornado video borders on ubiquitous, “Tornado Alley” in all its IMAX grandeur is a welcome change of view.
“Tornado Alley” debuted March 2011 in 22 IMAX or Omnimax theaters, with additional theaters scheduled to show the movie later in the year.
If it takes another 8 years for “Tornado Alley 2”, can we build a new TIV that can go airborne inside the funnel? That would be the ultimate ride on IMAX!
YOUR TURN: Did you see "Tornado Alley"? Post
your own review in the comments below.
Chip Mahaney is a life-long storm enthusiast and Tornado Alley native with 30 years of television and internet journalism experience, covering news and extreme weather. Among his weather-writing credits is a 1997 retrospective of the 1957 Dallas tornado for StormTrack magazine, and a 2005 Emmy-winning story, "Tornado Targets", produced for KDFW-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth. Chip now works for Scripps Media in Cincinnati and directs content for TornadoAlleyLive.com.
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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