Documentary Filmmakers in Sonoma
Sean Casey & Casey Beck
A massive tornado touches down in Tornado Alley
Funnel fun with a homemade tank
Parking in the path of an EF2 or EF3 tornado, with wind speeds of 150 mph or more, to point a 92-pound IMAX camera the size of a large microwave oven at the
approaching vortex, may sound a little mad. To do that, you would want a tank.
But when storm chaser and Sonoma transplant Sean Casey first pursued tornadoes he used minivans. Rented minivans.
“Before we had the tanks, you’d have a rented minivan that you were chasing with, right? And so when you saw something interesting, you know, we didn’t put turrets on the rented minivans, so you’d stop, you’d have to put out your tripod, and you’d put your IMAX camera on top of that, and the whole process took quite a while. And usually you were really exposed to stuff. You were wearing helmets, but you were getting pounded out there, and there is only so close you want to get to a tornado in a minivan before you’re getting out of there.”
How close would that be?
“Usually, if a tornado is coming at your position, you’ve got your minivan pointed in the direction you want to go when it’s time to load up. Our comfort level was probably about 300 yards before we skedaddled. And it was usually at that moment when things got incredible. You’re mesmerized by this spectacle, yet you have to leave.”
Casey, who spent five seasons starring in the Discovery Channel’s series Storm Chasers, quickly concluded rented minivans weren’t the way to go.
“So the idea was to build something where you could stand your ground, actually catch those last moments when it really got intense.”
That led to the TIV (Tornado Intercept Vehicle), basically an armored pickup truck with a rotating roof turret to hold the monster camera.
Looking like something Mad Max would drive, TIV 2 started life as a Dodge 3500, gained an extra dual axle, inch-and-a-half-thick polycarbonate windows, 2 inches of armor plating, hydraulic panels that drop to the ground to keep the wind from getting underneath, and spikes that sink 42 inches below the surface to lock the beast in place.
The whole thing cost about $120,000, which is a lot of cash out of pocket. “I didn’t have any funds to make this film, because when you approach people with money saying, ‘I’m going to do an IMAX film on tornadoes, I’m going to build a tank and drive into them,’ they’re polite, but it’s mostly, ‘Good luck with that.’”
The film is Casey’s 40-minute IMAX opus–Tornado Alley–and a lot of it was shot with the TIV, which weighs 14,000 pounds and, with a 6.7 liter Cummins diesel, can hit 100 mph. Fast enough to outrun a tornado, if it’s not sneaking up behind you.
“One time there was a supercell storm, and there was a funnel developing, and then there were these swirls on the ground, and so we started driving for that, and when we got to that position, those swirls stopped, it was like, you see the shark fin, then the shark submerges, the fin’s gone, you don’t know where the shark went but you know it’s near. So we started driving north, and all of a sudden the tornado reformed on top of us. And all this orange Kansas dirt and wheat just started foaming up around us. We never actually got a shot of it because you’re in it and blinded.”
It took 12 more “intercepts” before Casey got the inside-the-storm money shot.
“Before the tornado hits you you’re encountering the inflow, winds being sucked into the tornado, so you have 70–to-80 mph winds screaming by you, and its picking up all that water off the ground, so it feels like you’re in a moving environment and you’re actually being drawn into this thing that’s coming toward you, and it’s very disconcerting.
“Then the winds hit and then you’re being sandblasted, and then you’re inside that howling, that rushing sound like your head is right next to Niagara Falls, the only thing you can really hear above that din is the colorful language that is being used by the people inside the vehicle, and I’m making these sounds…you see the video afterward and you go, oh my God, did I make that sound?”
So let’s be serious. Is this just crazy stuff, or what? Tornadoes rip up trees, they carry away buildings, they kill people. Has this ever gotten out of control?
“Of course, there’s been times when you like the tornado, and you felt comfortable going in, and all of a sudden it gets bigger very quickly, and all of a sudden it has a wedge shape, where it’s wider than it is tall, and you’re seeing trees being torn out of the earth, and then you decide, you know what, we’re leaving!
“And then you find yourself, pedal to the metal, trying to get away, and then here comes this inflow, so you’re getting 80 miles per hour head winds that are carrying rain and your visibility drops to like 60 feet, and you’re only going 45 and the tornado—a couple times they’ll be going 60 miles an hour, and they’re tracking right behind you.
“And there’s shots in the film where we’re running from this tornado that fills the screen, I mean the entire field of view, and you’re seeing trees dominoing behind the vehicle as you’re getting out of there, and it’s like special effects, tree after tree after tree.”
This spring Sean Casey intends to be back in the alley, with an upgraded TIV 2, and sometimes his wife, Jennifer, a Sonoma hometown girl who occasionally drives the tank.
“She was actually driving TIV 1 as we were filming what turned out to be a very famous tornado, called the ‘Manchester tornado’, and we were fully Dukes of Hazarding it, with this 14,000-pound vehicle down these mud roads in South Dakota, and there’s a whiplash incident, of course, but she healed in three days. And she was out there the day the grain silos exploded and the train got hit, she’s good luck out there. But everybody gets on edge when she comes out there; bad things would happen.”
Casey’s father was an IMAX fillmaker who took the family to exotic places, “with a big camera that was always breaking down,” Casey likes to tell his audience. “I guess that sort of imprinted on me, that’s what I’m supposed to do in life, you go out, and you have an adventure, and you curse this big camera.”
Casey’s IMAX film, Tornado Alley, is playing in an IMAX theater somewhere near you. For a sneak peak at the film, see the trailer at tornadoalleymovie.com.
Living “The organic life”
Austin Blair at the office, surrounded by rows of organic goodness on the land farmed by Paul’s Produce in Sonoma.
Austin Blair is young, strong and college-educated. But his hands look like he might have just finished plowing 40 acres with his fingers. They are webbed with fine veins of dirt, died the color of loam. They are hands that look like they have seen serious work.
And they have. Austin Blair is part of a new-old breed of young farmers with a commitment to the soil—and what it can yield—that is almost religious.
He gets ecstatic over green, organic corn, grown on a patch of land beside Arnold Drive in Sonoma.
“When you give someone truly good corn,” he explains with a note of wonder in his voice, “or a truly good tomato, or a truly good carrot…that’s life-changing.”
If you’re skeptical about a carrot changing your life, maybe that’s because you haven’t met Austin Blair. But soon you can. Austin is the reluctant star of a documentary film made by his girlfriend, Casey Beck. “He really had no interest in being in this film,” Beck admits, with a tone that carries both deep affection and steely determination. You get the feeling Austin was overruled.
Which is a good thing, because Beck’s film, chronicling a full year—four seasons —in the life of an organic farm, is both a love letter to the land and a sobering revelation about how much work and sweat and worry and risk goes into nursing those carrots and tomatoes and ears of corn out of the soil.
We see Austin tilling and raking and planting and pulling and cutting and packing, all day, virtually every day of the year.
We also see Paul Wirtz, who owns Paul’s Produce, the organic farming operation for which Austin works, and Paul’s wife, Candi, who manages the sales and finance, struggle with the economic realities of a business that is too labor-intensive, on too small a scale, to ever make them rich.
They even wonder aloud sometimes if there’s a long-term future for the business.
But through it all there shines the almost luminous wonder and devotion in Austin’s eyes as he confronts the miracle of a perfect bean, a handful of cherry tomatoes fresh off the vine.
Beck admits she could never do what Austin does, but she still reveres the work.
Beck’s previous films have won numerous awards and earned her a Fulbright Scholarship, but The Organic Life is her first full-length doc. She launched the project on Kickstarter, raising enough money to get it close to completion and, by March, was approaching the finish line, with a rough cut already in the can. For a progress update and future screenings, go to theorganiclifemovie.com.