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Building the Storm for Into the Storm

COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Tim Wilson : Building the Storm for Into the Storm
CreativeCOW presents Building the Storm for Into the Storm -- TV & Movie Appreciation Editorial


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If you're going to build the storm for a movie called Into The Storm, you better be on top of your game -- especially if it's an unprecedented mile-wide monster of a tornado. Method Studios created the storm and its aftermath, building on the kinds of things you expect from a tornado, to create some things you've not seen before.

A team of 80 artists from three Method Studios offices (Los Angeles, London and Vancouver) working under Method's Supervisor on Into The Storm, Nordin Rahhali, put together nearly 200 shots in only six months. We spoke with Nordin about the team's work, and their approach to creating a persuasive, compelling storm of unprecedented scale.


Nordin Rahhali. https://www.flickr.com/photos/rahhali/4674355966/in/photosof-rahhali/
A self-portrait from Nordin Rahhali's Flickr page
Creative COW: How was the job described to you?

Nordin Rahhali, Method Studios: The creative brief was that the director, Steven Quale, wanted to make an extravagant storm that had never been seen before. Especially in a tornado: there are lots of YouTube videos of tornados in this day and age, but he wanted to create a spectacle -- and what's more of a spectacle than a giant, mile-wide tornado that has winds over 300 mph. It was impressive just in scale and scope.

One of the challenges we had is that there's no reference for a tornado this large. The sense of scale and the sense of danger on something of this magnitude took a little bit time for us to figure out. How fast should the tornado be spinning, how fast things move through the air, how quickly noise patterns and cloud-like structures change -- not just spinning, but evolving over time. All of this has a direct impact on how you as a viewer perceive the scale of something.

A lot of the reference clips we saw were of much smaller tornados, so they would move more quickly. We had to find that timing to set the mood, and establish the size of the thing, so that it would feel the way you would expect, and keeping upping the threat level.

So that's where it started -- a lot of reference footage, and curating the best parts of those references into categories. For example, thinking about the evolution of the tornado: the beginning sequence starts here, and as it reaches a crescendo, we'll match these references, and so on.

Steven was very into that. He provided a lot of references, and was very excited to receive things from us that he hadn't seen before. Then, as we started to build the look of the tornado, our references became self-referencing: we would start to have shots that would be the template for other shots that would follow.

A storm of this size and power is picking up everything. It demolishes a school, it goes through a forest and uproots the trees, it goes through an airport and picks up the planes and luggage transports -- and all that stuff becomes part of the storm, becomes part of the actual danger in it.


(c) 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. - - U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda and (c) 2014 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited - - All Other Territories. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Method Studios
(c) 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. - - U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda and (c) 2014 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited - - All Other Territories. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Method Studios
Top and directly above, the finished shots with school bus approaching and then crashed and on its side, and middle shots, the before plates.

Then inside the tornado, we tried to reuse a lot of those components. Just in terms of continuity, it's nice to know that something was previously is pulled up into the storm so you could see, but more importantly, it became a scale reference.

The storm is sooo large -- almost a mile worth of width to contend with, so how do you establish that? The cars, trees, buses and buildings all became scale references against the immensity of the tornado itself, so it worked out well to have a lot of flying debris.


VFX Hero Shots for Into The Storm by Method Studios

What was the relationship between the CG elements you created and the shots that were created practically?

They shot the film in Detroit, and they really didn't have much cooperating weather. There were some overcast days, which was fantastic for us. We could replace the sky to make it stormier, but the lighting would be somewhat consistent on the characters, and especially the backgrounds.

Unfortunately, it was not quite so smooth as that. Most of the plates wound up sunny. Some of them looked like California! They moved in cranes and set up a fairly large tarp to block out the sun, so at least the foreground plate was in shadow, Then they had some huge wind and rain machines that were hitting the actors and things in the foreground -- but that was about it. The background was largely untouched.

That's where we came in, with the challenge of making this sunny, midday background look like it belonged with this stormy foreground -- and then, of course, making those backgrounds look like it was windy.

In a lot of cases, that meant replacing the trees completely. That was one of the key indicators of the wind -- watching the leaves and branches sway in the wind. Then there was a field of grass, so we came up with a system to move wind through the grass, to make it appear like it's being blown around in waves.

Then on top of that, depending on where you are in the sequence, we needed to have stuff flying through the air on top of what they shot practically. Steven really wanted to amp up the danger of all this. The branches and twigs and lots of leaves provided the first level, but then we added construction equipment. At one point some of the characters are trying to escape, but the road is blocked by construction, so they end up taking shelter in a storm drain. Being able to add components of varying sizes from inside that construction yard, combined with the bits of trees and leaves already in the air, add to the practical elements to make you believe that you're really there.


You mentioned a grass system that simulated wind blowing it in waves. What other kinds of R&D did you have to do?

The tornado was a big part of it. Saying "tornado" covers a lot of different aspects. What makes the tornado threatening is not just the tornado itself, but the environmental effects around it. We spent a lot of time making sure that the tornado connected to the ground, and also connected to the sky.


(c) 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. - - U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda and (c) 2014 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited - - All Other Territories. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Method Studios

(c) 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. - - U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda and (c) 2014 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited - - All Other Territories. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Method Studios
Above: before and after shots. The sunny, midday background -- this one with a rainbow! -- had to be given menacing, stormy backgrounds.


The sky itself was its own development cycle. We researched a lot of super cells, and those giant systems that start in motion as a lot of tornados are formed, and how they develop. These cloud formations really look like they're from another planet, but they're beautiful.

That would also twist and rotate, not at the speed of the tornado, but in a way that would connect to the body of the tornado, which was turning much more quickly. The tornado itself was made up of different layers of different densities of clouds moving at different speeds, that, combined, would give you the structure of the main body of the tornado.

The ground where the tornado connected was also made up out of multiple layers. We had a dust cloud surrounding the base of the tornado, and then larger chunks of earth as the tornado picks it all up and churns everything below. We had to show how much weight and mass that these dust, particulate, and earth layers had, so that adding them to the storm would also help establish the weight and mass of the storm as well.

We also had to develop models to simulate the speed of the winds that aren't necessarily right next to the tornado, but that are reaching out from the tornado. The tornado itself is moving at 300 miles per hour, reaching beyond half a mile away, starting to pull dust and debris up from the ground at a very different rate than the ground right underneath it.


Method created a dust cloud surrounding the base of the tornado, and then larger chunks of earth as the tornado picked up debris and churned everything below. Left, the completed frame, and above right, the before plate. Click images for larger views.

The trees were also a big system for us to research and develop. We had to not just replace a couple of trees: we had to replace an entire forest. Thousands of trees, with millions of leaves.

The film was shot in suburbia with a lot of forests and trees that weren't moving. There was no wind at all! We replaced a good section of the plate, knowing that the tornado would block out a good bit of it -- but everything in front of the tornado was up to us. We had thousands of trees that needed to sway in the wind and feel real.

The last thing that had to be developed was also what made it all gel together, which is the atmospherics -- mist layers, twigs, debris, rain, and specifically, rain off the ground. A lot of the reference movies of hurricanes would show this sheeting aspect, creating a kind of ripple or sweeping pattern. So it was a lot of attention to the detail of what actually exists, and trying to extend that into something that doesn't exist, and make it feel real.


Tornados and hurricanes are much different, but I guess it makes sense that as the scale of your tornado leaves any traditional tornado references behind, you have to start looking at hurricanes to see how a big storm should look.

The hurricane references definitely worked better for us than some of the tornado references for some of those kinds of things. The main difference is that the wind in a hurricane is fairly constant over a wide area, whereas a tornado is this almost unimaginable force contained in a much tighter area that falls off pretty quickly.

When we were doing our tree research, we noticed that the tornado is incredibly powerful, but 100 meters away, the trees are barely moving. And we thought, "Great! We don't need to do as much animation on all these trees!"

That's the reality, but that's not what you visually expect. That's what led us back to the hurricanes. For a mile-wide tornado, the atmospherics, and how far the effects of the storm reach out, worked more like hurricanes.


Into the Storm VFX Breakdowns



How did that factor into your approach for the eye of the storm?

There's one video reference that Steven was able to find for an eye of a tornado -- a medium-sized rope tornado. Someone was videoing from a little bit away, but the storm turns away from the viewer and starts to break up. It's interesting, because there's a brief moment that gives an indication of a smaller, tighter tornado inside it.

Steven loved that: a smaller tornado inside this monstrous, giant one! That became our problem -- how to make that look believable. And we did.

The original reference video actually didn't look exactly like our tornado at all, though. It just gave us the idea. So the final result that we used was heavily art-directed, and came from a lot of work by our team to come up with something that looked believable and cool.

There's one sequence in particular that's going straight up into the tornado. The stormchasing vehicle at one point gets lifted up, and we're on the vehicle, which is shooting a GoPro camera. We travel into the wall of the tornado, until we break through the inner wall, and then we're on a ride going allll the way to the top. I think it's an extremely trippy shot, a lot of fun. The fact that it's 100% CG, but doesn't look CG, is a testament to the work that everyone did on this. I'm proud of the work. I look at those shots, and I'm excited by them.


What did you learn from Into The Storm that you'll be taking forward with you?

We probably won't have another mile-wide tornado to do any time soon, but there are some things that are applicable to other shows -- rain, mist, and all those things that set a storm environment. The tree systems we developed, we've already used on a number of features since then. It's been a range of work that's included replacing trees, adding new ones. Extending areas of trees is something we do a lot.

That's technical. From a personal growth aspect, the show was a very tight turnaround, and it was nice to be able to collaborate with a really senior team here, and with a director who was so open to ideas. Steven was very much wanting us to be part of the creative process. Especially with something on this kind of deadline, it's rewarding to work with someone who sees you as a partner to create something fantastic.

The way we were able to work, and what we were able to create together, makes this a really fun project to remember.







INTO THE STORM trailer


All images from the film INTO THE STORM are © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. - - U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda and © 2014 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited - - All Other Territories. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Method Studios



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