'Extreme Weather' Film Connects Nature's Fury to Climate Change

The filmmaker behind a new IMAX documentary shares how his team made such stunning imagery—and sometimes it was harrowing.

Extreme Weather: Behind the Scenes With Director Sean Casey

Hear the rumble of ice blocks shearing off the edge of a glacier. See the destructive power of a tornado’s swirling winds. Watch flames devour a forest as if it were so many matchsticks.

These dramatic scenes are presented in the new IMAX documentary film Extreme Weather, produced by National Geographic and appearing in theaters starting October 15.

More than two years in the making, the film takes viewers from Alaska to California to witness the awesome power of the Earth. It offers a front-row seat on a fast-changing and dangerous world.

We spoke with the film’s director, Sean Casey, a veteran storm chaser and filmmaker who's also known for his IMAX works Tornado Alley (2011), Forces of Nature (2004), and Alaska: Spirit of the Wild (1997).

What was the idea behind this film?

Our weather is changing because of climate change. We have a warming atmosphere and ocean, and that affects the weather. But rather than just talk about that, we wanted to show powerful imagery that really does justice to what’s happening.

Extreme Weather makes the case that the weather is an interconnected system, where small changes in one place create changes elsewhere. Can you explain how this works?

No one event is isolated from others. For example, when you have melting ice you have rising and warmer oceans, which means hurricanes have the potential to do more harm. Drought is killing a lot of trees—65 million in California alone—and all that dead wood increases chances for fires. In turn, soot from those fires covers ice, which leads to faster melting of snowpacks.

We tried to connect things to show that each event is not insular; it affects other parts of the planet. Normally, the Earth is so large that those kinds of effects are hard for us to see.

What was the experience of making the film like?

A lot of the events we chose to film are fast, fleeting, and dangerous. They are weather-dependent, and so on that timeframe it was almost like a suicide run, but we got through it.

Initially, we had built an armored boat to film storm surges of hurricanes, but then we didn’t have any hurricanes in our time frame, so we looked for another use. We decided to do a glacier sequence, using the boat to film glaciers calving in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Extreme Weather | Trailer

How did that effort to film glaciers pay off?

We took the camera and our crew right into what we called the “kill zone,” where glaciers were calving directly over you. They shot out ice hundreds of yards. I hope viewers will be able to really feel that power, to share in the visual intensity of ice blasting all around you.

But that shoot also had a psychological effect on us. We put ourselves right on the edge. We worked under the shadow of a 300-foot face of ice that at any moment could topple on top of us, for 14 hours a day, in a little armored boat. You don’t know if the next piece of ice will be the size of a baseball or a car. For months afterward I would wake up in a sweat, look out the window, and see the face of the glacier.

Were there other dangerous or poignant moments that stick out from the filming?

I’ve been chasing tornadoes for 16 years, so I understand what tornadoes can do and what I shouldn’t do. But when we immersed ourselves in filming calving glaciers and wildfires it was a steep learning curve.

We got run over twice by a wildfire, into a zone that is called the ember wash. You just have to sit tight as a massive fire rages all around you. You're being sandblasted by a storm of burning embers and smoke. The radiant heat is unbelievable. I hadn’t been in that situation before, and I felt some panic.

Were you able to use your famous Tornado Intercept Vehicles on this film? (The vehicles are armored like tanks, with bulletproof windows, for protection from even the most severe storms.)

Yes, they were great to have as mobile emergency shelters, allowing us to get much closer to storms and still stay safe. I had built those two armored vehicles for our film Tornado Alley, and then after that they were repurposed as a science platform. Scientists are using them to place wind-sensing pods in front of tornadoes to better understand what the storms are doing at ground level.

What other technology did you use to make the film?

We filmed this in digital, which really worked great. Before, for IMAX you had to use film, with 90-pound cameras that had to change film every three minutes. But digital made us more mobile and flexible to film these dramatic images.

We also used drones, which can give a perspective that is incredible. We tried some technology that didn’t work. We made something we called the “black ball of death,” a crashcam that we wanted to tow in front of a glacier, and have the ice calve on top of it. But we couldn’t get it to work.

What was it like documenting the work of scientists studying glaciers, storms, and so on?

We were following people who are passionate about what they do, and that’s infectious. They want to better understand how things work, to better protect people and property. It was really nice to document that.

What about the firemen?

They were heroes to me—I was a little starstruck by them. They are so professional. Firefighting is an intricate dance between machinery and people, an art form. The bravery of these men and women in the paths of huge fires is incredible.

Given the death of Tim Samaras and his crew while chasing a tornado in Oklahoma in 2013, how do you manage risk?

Originally we were going to do a lightning sequence for Extreme Weather, and Tim Samaras and his crew were going to film it with their special high-speed camera. When they died we lost good friends.

Their deaths put a huge damper on chasing tornadoes for me. Here were people who were extraordinarily experienced chasers. After that I started seguing out of storm chasing [and into] filming other things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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