Tornado Alley filmmaker Sean Casey on life in the eye of the storm

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Most of us here in Colorado can relate to the rush of skiing down a mountain of fresh powder. But that rush is nothing compared to the heart-stopping, breath-seizing thrill of entering a tornado's destructive vortex of violently rotating winds. But for the past eight years, that was the mission of IMAX filmmaker, cinematographer and professional storm chaser Sean Casey. Westword caught up with Casey to discuss his feature-length,3D directorial debut, Tornado Alley, which opens at the Museum of Nature & Science this week.

Westword: How did you come up with the idea for Tornado Alley?

Sean Casey: We had been doing an IMAX film called Forces of Nature covering tornadoes. That was back in 1999. In that production I fell in love with the whole environment -- going underneath these super storms to get next to these tornadoes. I wanted to get footage we hadn't already gotten. So there was this idea to build a tank to drive straight into the path of a tornado. A part of me thought, "If you're going to spend all that time and money chasing storms, it would be nice to have the potential to capture the actual power that exists out there."

Were you able to successfully capture that power in Tornado Alley?

Yeah. That was footage taken over eight spring seasons. It was expensive to shoot in IMAX, so I'd only pull the trigger on the really severe weather events that I couldn't resist not filming. These storm structures, the hail and the lightening, with the IMAX format -- I think we really captured what its like to be next to these monster storms.

Can you talk about the Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV) you designed to capture these up-close visuals?

TIV 1 was very simplistic. Every year we were trying to perfect it -- we wanted to make a better tool to film these weather events.

TIV 2 is pretty much a movable 14,000-pound tripod: an armed vehicle we can take a crew of four people and the IMAX camera into a tornado. It's incredible imagery where the tornado is just about to hit you. Before we were chasing storms in a mini van, and usually you had to leave right when things were getting really exciting. There's a huge difference between filming a tornado from a few miles away and filming one that's right on top of you. So building something that would allow us to safely film those last moments of the tornado, that's what we needed to do to capture such glorious violence.

Does TIV 2 have any room for perfecting?

Yeah, it does. It would be nice to build a TIV based on a true off-roading platform, something that doesn't rely on all that weight. So, yeah, building an extraordinarily lightweight vehicle -- that would be ideal, because then you're going off-roading, too. I mean, there were so many times when we'd get stuck in a ditch and our chase was over right then and there. The more options you have to get closer to a storm, the more success you have out there.

A lot of people can't even fathom what it's like going straight towards a tornado; your first inclination is usually to run for safe grounds. Can you explain how you mentally prepare yourself for something like a tornado chase?

First of all, you're in a tank with four guys. Four guys in a tank will do things you normally wouldn't do. I purposely made the TIV look aggressive, so it puts you in the state of mind to do something risky before going in. You usually know it's about to happen, you're racing to that spot on the road. My adrenalin is really kicking at that point. But then you don't want to get too excited -- you don't want that emotion to override your performance. You want to be as clear-minded as possible to make the right choices, you know? You want to have the IMAX camera up and ready, there's a lot of buttons and things you have to prep before you film, you're getting your exposure ready. So I try to focus on the job. And then you're thinking, "Okay, what's the next road to take to get back on that tornado?" There are so many things to think about, so that keeps your mind off second-guessing things.

(Laughs) But sometimes you're like, "Wait! Why are we doing this again? That tornado that just happened just toppled a terrain." So everybody in the vehicle has a say in the matter; there's an informal vote prior to going into the tornado.

So why chasing tornadoes, anyway? What draws you to such a dangerous line of work?

There are a lot of things that are going on that makes it a compulsion to chase them. One is the challenge of it. It's one thing to film a tornado, but to pick the right spot on the road in IMAX format of one passing by you -- if it was a HD camera, I don't know if I'd risk my life for that. Catching it in IMAX seems to rationalize the risk. As a filmmaker, it's not like you're in a blind, waiting hours for animals to do something to film. It's more of an adventure -- you're driving on these roads, into these supercells. It's a very exciting environment.

Also, the tornado itself is such a crazy event. You have this tornado in front of you and it's getting stronger and more violent every second. It's like you're witnessing the birth of this monster and seeing it develop into such a violent thing. It's a real thrill ride. And you never know what you're going to get. You're always trying to keep your mind open. One day you could encounter a baseball-size hailstorm, and another day, a beautifully lit storm with a sunset lighting around it. There's always something to film out there.

Eight spring seasons, that's a long time. Did you ever get exhausted of that lifestyle? Were you happy when it was finally over?

It was something that I love to do and that's a huge part of it. I always imagine how difficult things get done -- someone doing that endeavor just loves the process. For me chasing storms is like Christmas for two and half months out of a year. And everyday you don't know what Santa will bring you. Even though it was eight years, it was incredible.

The only issue: I have two kids -- they're four and six.

Young kids. Did they understand what their dad was doing out there in the field?

Yes and no. Yes, they know Daddy has a tank and Daddy chases tornadoes, but that's about it. They associate it with me being gone, so they sort of have a negative outlook towards storm chasing. But they do like Daddy's tank. I obviously don't take them on chases with me (laughs). It would be like a chase dream -- you look back and your kids are in the tornado. They do like it when I take the TIV to school for show and tell, and their whole class climbs through it.

Tornado Alley marks your feature-length directorial debut. Did your enjoy directing?

Yeah...

That didn't sound too convincing.

Well, you get into this mood of just wanting to chase. The last two years of the filmmaking process became more or less about the logistics and trying to make the other team successful along with the TIV. It's crazy, here you have a tornado and you want to get in it but you're waiting for your second team to get ready. The tornado isn't waiting. So it was a lot of headaches and drama when you have so many other entities involved in the process.

And then there was the editing process; it was a lot of editing, a lot of editing. But I wanted it all to be right. Like they don't have hail sound effects and I wanted all those sounds exactly how they were in the field. So for the hail I filled up hundreds of water balloons and dropped them off the tops of buildings on different surfaces to capture that hail bomb sound. I wanted the people to have the experience of what it was actually like out there.

Is Tornado Alley doing as well as you'd hoped?

It's doing very well. IMAX theaters are picking it up, people are going to see it. And people have really enjoyed the film. You're always bashful to show up to these premieres because this was your baby that you worked on for years.

Any chance of a Tornado Alley 2? Maybe a TIV 3?

It's something I want to do. I still think the TIV hasn't been perfected. It would be nice to really design a vehicle to get into stronger tornadoes. I always wonder what it would be like to be in a larger circulation on the ground and be able to look up. That'd be interesting to try and go for.

All of these ideas -- TIV 3 -- are only in my mind at this point. Since Tornado Alley's release in March, it's been a lot of travel. This spring I don't know how active we'll be chasing. As we're crisscrossing the country in the TIV promoting the film, we'll probably do some chases, just not two and a half month-long ones.

Tornado Alley opens at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on Friday, January 27. Find schedule info here, and read more about the movie on the Tornado Alley website.

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