STORMCHASERS: Interview

An Interview with Director Greg MacGillivray

"At first, the tornado is nearly invisible. Against the sky, it's white on white," observes Stormchasers director Greg MacGillivray, with unusual detachment considering the circumstances.

"Once it passes over a field that has a lot of dirt, it picks that up and becomes black. That's when you turn on the IMAX camera," adds Steven Judson, director of the tornado chasing unit.

And that's when viewers of Stormchasers experience the sight of their lives: a howling, dancing twister tearing up fields barely two miles away. The scene is the climax of the IMAX/OMNIMAX film produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films. Stormchasers is a production of Museum Film Network and NOVA/WGBH Boston.

IMAX cameras use a film frame 10 times larger than the 35 millimeter film used in feature films, and triple the size of standard 70 millimeter. The film is projected on either a flat IMAX screen or a dome-shaped IMAXDome screen soaring 50 to 80 feet above audiences in theaters equipped with state-of-the-art six channel sound systems. But the trade-off for the unparalleled size and clarity of the projected image occurs during production, when filmmakers grapple with cameras on the same grand scale.

The tornado sequence was the first captured in IMAX's 15 perforation/70 millimeter format, and it's no small wonder. Scientists themselves often spend months chasing threatening storms without ever spotting a telltale funnel cloud. And for all the radar and other equipment that researchers carry, even they don't lug around apparatus as unwieldy and technically sensitive as an IMAX camera, which weighs in at 75 pounds -- before lenses and film magazines are added.

Yet producers at NOVA, who conceived Stormchasers based on two highly-popular NOVA programs on violent weather, knew that without a tornado, there wouldn't be a film. "That's why we asked Greg to get a tornado first," says Paula Apsell, NOVA's executive producer. "If he achieved that, then we could move on to hurricanes, monsoons and other larger scale, and hence easier to locate, storms."

"It was like stalking a gigantic, elusive wild animal," remarks MacGillivray, who is a veteran of 17 previous IMAX productions. "We knew that tornadoes were out there, but we couldn't be sure we'd ever see one." And even if his film crew did, tornadoes usually last just three to 10 minutes, making them ephemeral prey for IMAX's short-lived film magazine, which holds only three minutes of the super-sized film and is fiendishly hard to reload.

Undaunted, MacGillivray's commando unit, lead by co-director Steve Judson, set off with the best tornado trackers in the business: meteorologists Howard Bluestein and his associates at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, located in the very heart of Tornado Alley. After 21 days, most of which they spent on the road, filmmakers and researchers finally cornered a vortex churning from a wall cloud. As Bluestein and his group headed straight for the action, MacGillivray's IMAX crew hesitated: just how close should they get for the all-important shot? They threw caution to the tornadic winds and followed on the heels of Bluestein's team as they moved into range to set up their portable Doppler radar. The crew's persistence paid off they got the shot.

Part of the excitement of the sequence is watching scientists go through their drill. MacGillivray mounted a special lightweight IMAX camera -- weighing only about 35 pounds -- on a Steadicam rig, which allowed the camera operator to carry the camera through the scene and document the focused intensity of the scientists up close. "The adrenaline rush is incredible," says MacGillivray. It is hardly less so for the IMAX audience.

With a tornado sewn up, MacGillivray moved on to his next big challenge: a hurricane. Again, no one had ever documented such a storm in IMAX before -- and for good reasons. "Flying through a hurricane is the most fearsome shaking you will ever get," MacGillivray says. "Everything has to be tied down in the airplane. And the IMAX camera has to be rock-steady through all this. We had to design special mounts on the left and right sides of the cabin and in the cockpit to hold the cameras."

While MacGillivray's crew documented a single tornado, they got the chance to fly into the hurricane's eye nine times with cameras rolling, and they emerged with footage that is as grand and awe-inspiring as his tornado sequence is taut and violent. "You're experiencing incredible turbulence. Then you suddenly break into a calm blue sky, surrounded by a curtain of clouds plunging straight down to the ocean. It's the ride of a lifetime!"

MacGillivray also directed a magnificent sequence showing a sailplane's perspective inside a developing thunderstorm in Colorado. For the shots, MacGillivray utilized custom-built mounts which perched the camera behind the cockpit on the outside of the plane. And he went to India to record the arrival of the seasonal monsoon, which is the world's largest storm system -- though a benevolent one that is eagerly awaited by the populace. Nonetheless, shooting a "good" storm posed its problems: "The temperature soared to 110 while we were there. Those were brutal, exhausting conditions," MacGillivray said.

The reward for these risks for MacGillivray, NOVA and the Museum Film Network is on the screen. "At the outset, we didn't know if it was possible to do a film about severe storms in this technically demanding format. Stormchasers exceeds all of our expectations," states Dr. Jeffrey Kirsch, executive producer for the Museum Film Network.

The Museum Film Network is an international consortium of 14 science museums formed in 1985 to provide high quality science films for IMAX®/IMAXDome theaters.

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