4k storm chasing


Alister Champman TV-Bay Magazine
Read ezine online
by Alister Chapman
Issue 103 - July 2015

15 years ago I got my first big Broadcast Commission. It was to produce a 1 hour special on Tornado Chasing vacations. Yes, people pay to go on storm chasing holidays. In 1999 this was a new thing, today its a booming business.

Ive always been fascinated by natural extremes and filming tornadoes seemed like a cool thing to do. Little did I know just how challenging it can be and how big an impact it would have on my video production business overall.

The film we made for National Geographic was a hit. Over a month of shooting we witnessed and filmed close to 20 tornadoes, got pummeled by golf ball sized hail stones, caught in violent bow echo storms and came close to being struck by lightning more than once. What a rush! But even with an abundance of amazing footage we still used around $15,000 worth of stock footage in the film.

I looked at that number and thought I want a slice of that cake so the following year I decided to return to Tornado Alley to shoot tornado and storm stock footage.

Ive been doing this every year since, spending up to a month criss-crossing the US in spring. I now have an extensive stock footage library of severe weather and other natural extremes and its a very big part of my overall video production business. Im represented by Getty and clients include feature films, Discovery, Nat Geo etc. This year due to other filming commitments it was shorter trip than normal, even so I drove close to 5,000 miles in 10 days.

Filming severe storms in high quality 4K is tough. First you have to find the storms and be in the right place at the right time. A tornado is on average about 150m across and may only last a few minutes. So you have to be able to make your own highly accurate weather forecasts. You also need to understand the way the storms that produce tornadoes work. These Supercell storms are incredibly violent and if you drive into the wrong part of the storm youre going to get the car destroyed by hail that can be up to the size of grapefruit.

If it does all come together just right and you end up in the right place at the right time then you will often only have 30 seconds to a minute to grab a few shots. The storm and tornado may be moving at 30 to 60 mph and to actually see a tornado you have to be in the path of the most destructive part of the storm. So its a case of stop the car, jump out, grab the camera from its bag with your right hand while switching it on with your left. Then snatch the tripod and run to the best place to shoot from. By the time the tripod has hit the ground the camera is being locked into the quick release plate, the ecord button is being pressed and Im checking framing and focus. Then its a case of shooting while trying to judge the exact motion of the storm and tornado to figure out how long youve got before you need to run away.

One of the key things I learnt early on doing this is that you really need good quality kit and it has to work flawlessly every time. You cant skimp on anything. The tripod has to be quick and easy to use and stable enough to hold a heavy camera in strong winds (I use a Miller Compass 15 head on carbon fibre Solo legs). The camera must produce the best possible images, you are risking life and limb to get these shots and theres no way to re-shoot! Im currently using a Sony F5 with R5 4K raw recorder. It has to be easy to expose and focus so I use the cameras built in 709(800) LUT with peaking and make use of the High/low key function for rapid exposure checking. The viewfinder must be clear and easy to see even in bright ambient light, so I find a proper enclosed EVF essential.

As I need to get both very wide shots and long, tight shots Im currently using a Tamron 18-270mm DSLR lens. This has a Canon EF mount and is electronically controlled. I even ended up making my own controller for the lens as none of the ones on the market provided me with rapid power up and quick exposure changes. I also make use of the lenses optical stabilization when it gets really windy. Its not a bad lens and I do get great images from it. I could get slightly better images from prime lenses or from a PL zoom, but there isnt a lens out there that is as compact, portable, offers a 15x zoom ratio and better images in my opinion. There is no way to change lenses when you only have seconds to get a couple of shots and the air is full of blowing dirt and debris.

For power I use PAGLink batteries. These are great as I can stack a couple together on the back of the camera to double the capacity. Again something as simple as having to change a battery can mean missing a valuable shot. In addition PAG have a super compact travel charger that can charge several batteries over night or from the cars 12v supply.

On one occasion this year we had finished shooting for the night. It was dark and the storm was producing very strong winds and torrential rain making shooting difficult. We decided to head for a hotel half way between where we were in South Dakota and Iowa where we needed to be the next day. For the next 4 hours we carefully used a satellite based weather radar system to dodge in and out of the most violent parts of the storm as it tracked along the interstate towards our chosen hotel (Im following violent weather systems, so driving in them as they move overnight from one area to the next is common). At one point we had to come off the highway to allow a tornado indicated on my radar system to invisibly pass in the dark just ahead of us. We sat in the car and watched brilliant green flashes of light as the storm took out power lines just ahead of us, all the time the car being rocked and buffeted by 90mph winds, No need for caffeine to keep you awake when the weathers doing its thing!

Finally when we made it to the hotel there was no power. It was hailing marble sized hail mixed with torrential rain. We were able to check in but there was no way to charge batteries other than in the car. The following morning a scene of destruction and mayhem greeted us. Trees, road signs and billboards were shredded and the interstate was littered with overturned trucks looking like beach whales on the sides of the road. All that damage was from the 90 to 120 mph gust front that precedes a supercell storm or bow echo storm. Thats all part of the adventure. Its incredibly challenging, you never know where the weather will take you, but the beauty that comes with the violence of these storms never ceases to amaze me.


Tags: iss103 | storm chasing | 4k | filming | extreme weather | hurricane | documentary | footage | Alister Champman
Contributing Author Alister Champman

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