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.
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