Forces of Nature Interview: Director of Photography Sean Casey
Date: September 30, 2004
Director of Photography, Sean Casey, speaks with BMZ about his experience filming the large format movie, FORCES OF NATURE, and being face-to-face with natural disasters.
The giant screen film, FORCES OF NATURE, captures first-hand devastating natural disasters as they happen. The film explores volcanoes, earthquakes, severe storms, and their subsequent impact. Director of Photography Sean Casey was in the midst of these awesome spectacles, witnessing nature at its most powerful. Sean talks with BMZ on large format filmmaking and how he examined these destructive events through the camera.
Big Movie Zone: I understand you've been involved in a variety of different aspects of filmmaking, from sound recording and cinematography to directing and producing. How did your first experience as DP (on this film) compare?
Sean Casey: I've been behind the camera for quite a while, making animated films when I was 12, narrative films in college, shooting 12 documentaries for the Discovery Channel, being the second unit DP on the last three IMAX films we've done. So when I was given the job as first DP it wasn't too big of a deal. The only adjustment was that I had been used to filming with a small crew and no large-scale support. So now I keep thinking, "I get to use a crane?" or "All this film is for me to use?" I've had to be less "run and gun" and more patient in deciding what the best shot is and to take the time to get it.
BMZ: Natural disasters do seem to be a great subject for the LF screen. How did the project arise -- and did anyone predict it would take 10 years to see it through?
SC: This was a film about passions. My father loves volcanoes and I love tornados, so really the two of us were trying to stall the production so that we could keep going out into the field and be in the environments we love.
BMZ: The film covers three of the major types of natural disasters -- but a few were left out that I can think of (e.g. tsunamis, hurricanes, floods). Can you touch on the three that you focus on, and explain why they were chosen?
SC: We felt that volcanoes and tornados were strong visual subjects. We didn't have a third for a while and the debate continued for quite some time. It seemed everyone had his or her favorite #3 subject. If I remember correctly, Paul Novros wanted the third element of the film to be floods, George wanted earthquakes, and I wanted to go film locusts in Kazakhstan. Then there was that huge earthquake in Turkey and that pretty much sealed it. I still want to go film locusts though, do a film on plagues, or something.
BMZ: Since natural disasters are so unpredictable, how did you manage to mobilize a crew to capture them in such a timely manner?
SC: With earthquakes we got out there in nine days, a little late if you ask me. For the volcano sequence we had a great situation on the island of Mont Serrat. Its eruptive cycle had ramped up so that there was an eruption every 12 hours or so. The trick was to wait out the weather that would often obscure the mountain and the eruption with cloud cover. With tornados you have to be out in the field chasing them down, so for the last six years I've spent most of the spring in the Mid-west. Usually, we knew the day before what areas looked good for tornadic development. If we weren't close enough to reach that area by 1 pm the next day then we would drive into that position the day before. Usually by 11:00 am you know where you need to be for that day. By 2:00 pm you're looking for the storms to form. And by 5:00 you've targeted a specific storm or set of storms.
BMZ: The filming looks like it must've involved a good deal of risk. Any close calls? As DP, how did you balance the need for safety with the desire to get as close as you could?
SC: "The closer the better," that's the mantra when filming these awesome events. You want to get close but you don't want to die either. The scientists and government officials who are keeping the general public out of harm's way usually make the decision for you. A safety zone had been set up around the volcano, which we couldn't pass. The only way to get closer was by air. So we had a remote camera developed to film the pyroclastic flows for the volcano sequence. The problem was that we had to fly the camera into a position that was extremely dangerous, and then it took a couple of minutes to set up the camera. All the while we were thinking we were going to hear a loud bang from above and then see the helicopter fly away without us.
The remote on/off switch was controlled by a signal beamed by a ham radio. The day before I was to be flown onto the side of the volcano, the electronics quit on us. I was relieved but also a little disappointed. It would have been great to have gotten an eruption coming directly at you on film.
BMZ: The film contains a Turkish earthquake sequence which you coordinated. Can you tell us a bit about the process of filming this sequence?
SC: For the actual earthquake sequence in the film we originally had wanted to film a series of buildings being demolished and then alter them in the computer so they looked like an earthquake was destroying them instead of explosives. It turned out that it's hard to find buildings which are slated to be demolished that can pass for the Turkish ones devastated in the '99 earthquake. Another problem with buildings that are torn down by explosives is that they usually detonate the building so it collapses with all the floors coming down at the same time. In Turkey, the buildings would usually have the bottom floor cave in first and as the building comes down, each floor that impacts with the ground then collapses.
So I decided to build five or so models that we could completely control the destruction process. I hadn't done this before so I erred on the side of caution and built each five foot building with as much detail as possible. I hand made the bricks, 20,000 per building, and mortared them into wall templates that were placed in between the floors. Each floor was a 90 lb piece of concrete that had been formed in a mold and reinforced with metal wire. Once the buildings were up I would take a hammer and pound the brick walls so that they would just reach their failing point but not fall over. Then I plastered the exterior so that the cracks were not visible, painted, put in windows, doll furniture, curtains, miniature satellite dishes, and potted plants.
For the day of filming each building was hoisted onto a shake table I had welded together. The charges placed in the building were wired to the blast switches, the high-speed cameras we rented were ready. All we had to so was start shaking the buildings and then hit the switches. The problem was that the support columns would only partially disintegrate. The buildings would not collapse.
So I took out a sledgehammer and went to work. When the cameras rolled I would hit the bottom floor as hard as I could. And then magic. The first floor collapsed dropping the building straight down with the second floor collapsing, and so on. Just as the last two stories were reaching the ground the building toppled over onto the crash camera. Perfect.
In fact whenever you're making an IMAX film you should always have a sledgehammer handy.
BMZ: I understand you worked with your father, Director George Casey, on this film, and I believe you've worked with him on previous films as well. What's the working dynamic -- just like any 2 colleagues, or different?
SC: Well, we would have our problems at times due to the fact that you've injected a father/son relationship into the film crew. So at times my youthful impetuousness would bubble up and burst into a spat here and there. But on the whole it was a wonderful experience to work so close with my father, who is a generous and loving person.
BMZ: Can you tell us a bit about the vehicle you're developing to film inside a tornado? Will we be able to see it in use in a future Large Format film?
SC: I believe that a Large Format film on tornados can be wildly successful if we can accomplish two things. First of which, we have to get jaw-dropping footage of tornados. The tornados in this film, entitled Tornado Alley, have to be so amazing that people will watch the film just to witness the spectacle. To do this we've made a tank that can take a direct hit from a tornado with winds less than 200 mph, roughly 97% of all tornados. For the past two years we have been road testing the TIV (Tornado Intercept Vehicle) and have already got some footage of tornados that is the best I have ever seen. The vehicle will be ready next year to actually go into a tornado. That's the shot we need now, footage of a tornado coming directly at the camera and then impacting the TIV, crew, and audience.
The second element for a successful film is creating a storyline that is organic to the subject matter and puts people and tornados into the same frame. To do this, the TIV and crew will be apart of the film as well as a collection of scientists that put themselves in the paths of tornados to collect data.
There is a video clip played in a panel during the credits for Forces Of Nature which exemplifies the sort of gritty, real-life action that we want to infuse throughout the entire story line of Tornado Alley.
Our adventures in tornado alley this May and June will be posted daily on the film's website TornadoAlleyFilm.com.
BMZ: Do you plan to continue working in the Large Format medium? Are there any future projects we can look out for in LF and/or other media?
I plan on remaining a part of the IMAX community; making films, get into the distribution side of things, who knows, if things go right, one day I could become president of the GSTA. Kidding aside, ideally I'd like to do films that really interest me, and hopefully things will come up. Just this morning I got a call from my father. It seems that Mt. St. Helens is about to erupt again, and he asks me if I could be ready at a moments notice. So this could be the beginning of another IMAX film, one called "Volcano" or, maybe the story of George Casey, entitled "Man and Fire: A Love Story", I don't know which yet. But I'd go to see either of those films.
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