An Astonishing Documentary Film About Wildfires, Melting Glaciers, Tornadoes and How These Powerful Forces Are Colliding
Extreme Weather Opens in IMAX®, Giant Screen, and Digital Cinemas in North America beginning Today
This fall, National Geographic presents Extreme Weather, an immersive new giant-screen film experience that brings audiences face to face with Mother Nature at her most dangerous. Wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis — hardly a week passes without a natural catastrophe making the nightly news. Extreme Weather goes behind the headlines to explore the rapid changes to Earth’s oceans, atmosphere and land and their connection to these increasingly devastating events.
Traveling to Alaska’s melting glaciers, filmmakers capture the action as massive chunks of ice shear off into the frigid water with explosive force. In the Midwest, cameras roll as storm chasers risk their lives to capture data as deadly tornadoes race toward them. And in drought-ravaged California, filmmakers embed themselves with courageous first responders fighting to contain raging wildfires.
Featuring insights from experts including National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dr. Erin Pettit and Oklahoma tornado researcher Justin Walker, Extreme Weather dramatically demonstrates how climate change is rapidly affecting our land, oceans and atmosphere to produce natural disasters as ruinous as they are spectacular. The film unveils the surprising linkages between these three areas, demonstrating how a small change in one place can have large effects elsewhere.
Extreme Weather features a first-hand examination of tidewater glaciers in southern Alaska, where Pettit bears witness to massive iceberg shards shearing into warming seawater. In Oklahoma, the film captures astonishing footage of powerful tornadoes as Walker and his team collect data with their “Tornado pods.” And in the drought-ravaged American West, camera crews accompany firefighters to document the ferocity of California wildfires, where forests have become so dry the slightest spark can ignite out-of-control flames.
Interwoven with these stunning images are startling facts about the rapid changes our planet is undergoing. Richly informative and visually astonishing, Extreme Weather underscores how seemingly random changes impact the planet’s intricately interconnected ecosystem.
Directed and filmed by Sean Casey (“Storm Chasers”, “Tornado Alley”, “Forces of Nature”), EXTREME WEATHER showcases breathtaking cinematography reflecting Casey’s life-long immersion in the world of giant-screen nature documentaries. “I’ve always had a fascination with weather,” says Casey. “We wanted to go into the field and capture incredible imagery. The 150-foot flames, the 400-foot wall of ice falling, the tornadoes — there’s a majesty to all of that. The way I see it, EXTREME WEATHER lives at the crossroads of beauty and destruction.” The film is produced by Jen Casey.
“EXTREME WEATHER offers viewers an up-close look at some of the most astonishing and potentially deadly natural phenomena, while showing how they are interconnected and changing our world in dramatic ways,” says Antonietta Monteleone, vice president of film distribution for National Geographic Cinema Ventures. “It’s exactly the type of film giant-screen cinema was made for.”
As a boy growing up in southern California, Extreme Weather director Sean Casey remembers tagging along on expeditions with his filmmaker father George Casey. “For 30 years, my dad was an IMAX filmmaker,” Casey recalls. “At an early age, I’d go on film shoots with him, so that kind of life got imprinted on me as the family trade: ‘This is how you make a living. You travel to places with a very large camera and film visually stunning natural phenomena.’”
After receiving a film degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Casey served as a time-lapse photographer on the 1999 large-format documentary Amazing Journeys and as cinematographer on Natural Disasters: Forces of Nature, both directed by his father. “For Forces of Nature, I filmed earthquakes and volcanoes,” he says. “Then I volunteered to go storm chasing. I fell in love with tornadoes.” Casey and his high-tech approach to monitoring and filming tornadoes were central to the Discovery Channel’s reality series “Storm Chasers.”
After stepping into the director’s role for Tornado Alley in 2011, Casey was anxious to include an even broader array of weather-related phenomena in his next large-format production. “I’ve always had a fascination with weather,” he says. “We wanted to go into the field and capture some incredible imagery. The 150-foot flames, the 400-foot wall of ice falling, the tornadoes — there’s a majesty to all of that. The way I see it, Extreme Weather lives at this crossroads of beauty and destruction.”
That destruction has been exacerbated in recent years by the fact that our planet is getting warmer at an alarming rate. In the past decade alone, 150 million people have lost their homes to fires, storms, flooding and other weather-related catastrophes. And while sea level rose only eight inches in the 20th century, it is projected to rise three feet this century, which could spell disaster for the one billion people who live in 11 of the world’s largest cities located in coastal regions.
Glaciers on Ice
The rising seas are caused by the rapid melting of billions of tons of glacial ice in places like Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica, where an ice shelf the size of Rhode Island collapsed in two weeks. To document this literal meltdown, Casey and his small crew set up camp across the river from Dawes Glacier in the Endicott Arm Fjord of southern Alaska. “I worked on a film called Alaska: Spirit of the Wild in 2004 and in that scenario, there was a river between us and the glacier creating a fixed distance,” Casey recalls. “For Extreme Weather, our goal was to get as close to the glacier as possible.”
Of course Casey couldn’t predict exactly when pieces of the glacier would shear off. “During our first expedition, in the spring of 2015, there was a lot of waiting around,” says Casey. “We beachcamped a mile away from the glacier and hit a rough patch of rain. We were wet, miserable and cold for a week.” The crew put in 14-hour days in front of the glacier, dealing with the potentially deadly currents, winds and icebergs it generated. “It was this constant process of re-positioning ourselves and navigating how close we could get to the glacier and still feel comfortable. We realized there’s a real fine line between being a safe distance and being in what we called the kill zone.”
Returning to Alaska in the fall, Casey modified his approach to filming the glacier, enlisting three professional glaciologists including Dr. Erin Pettit. Instead of camping out on the beach, Casey and the scientists observed glacial activity from a specially-rigged boat originally designed to track storms. “Even though the boat was intended for hurricanes, it turned out to be really well suited for filming these glaciers. When the glaciers start ‘calving,’ they’d throw huge chunks of ice up to a quarter mile. We wanted to get shots of the ice being pitched at us, where you could feel the concussion from that impact and see all that stuff coming at you.”
Casey filmed for three weeks, getting as close to the glaciers as he could without endangering his team. “It’s an incredible environment, watching ice shear off in such close proximity,” he recalls. “I actually had nightmares for weeks afterwards where I’d wake up thinking I was on the boat and we had drifted to the face of the glacier. For me, filming the glaciers was probably the most terrifying aspect of the shoot.”
Over the course of just a few months of filming in Alaska, Casey witnessed first-hand the startling impact of climate change on the giant arctic ice sheets. “One of the most surprising things we discovered in making Extreme Weather was just how fast glaciers are shrinking,” he says. “We first went up to Alaska in the spring, and when we went back there in the fall, the glacier we were filming had retreated nearly an entire mile. It was shocking.”
Extreme Weather also provides viewers with a remarkable look at violent twisters ripping through the American heartland. For his earlier projects, Casey designed two Tornado Intercept Vehicles, heavily armored trucks built to withstand gale-force winds, which allowed him to film close to, or even inside, a twister. In Extreme Weather, Casey goes a step further by leaving the safety of his vehicle to film storm chaser Justin Walker as he installs pole-shaped sensor pods in the path of oncoming tornadoes. “It’s one thing to be in an armored vehicle and have a tornado coming at you,” Casey says. “It’s a whole different experience to actually jump out and shoot as someone hammers these pods into the ground with the tornado bearing down on you both. There were a lot of high adrenalin situations making this film.”
Walker earned his expertise driving the Center for Severe Weather Research’s Doppler on Wheels storm-tracking trucks, “Justin was a main personality of that team as one of the radar-truck operators, so we recruited him to be a researcher for our documentary,” says Casey.
Fighting Fires in California
To document the third element of Extreme Weather, Casey and his crew embedded themselves with fire fighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s CAL FIRE division. “These guys really know their stuff when it comes to containing fires,” Casey says. “They’re tough, they’re smart — they’re true heroes. It’s an incredible thing to see them hold the line and pump water to tamp down the flames, while aircraft are dropping fire retardant on their position. We tried to capture all of that on film. We knew if these firefighters were going to hold their ground, then we as filmmakers needed to hold our ground with them.”
CAL FIRE gave Casey and his team rare access to its first responders as they dealt with the August 2015 Jerusalem Fire in Northern California as well as other hotspots. In order to capture the spectacular wildfire footage, Casey’s crew sometimes experienced extreme conditions themselves. “One time, we were with a strike group and a fire came raging up the hill,” recalls the director. “The winds picked up embers that started blowing by us at 30 miles an hour. It’s like you’re inside this oven of embers and wind and smoke. If there was ever a time making this film that I felt panic, it was during that ember wash. But at the same time, that’s when you know you’re getting incredible footage.”
As Casey became acquainted with California’s wilderness regions, he was dismayed to discover how drought conditions have adversely impacted the American West. “When you see the number of dead pine trees in the Sierras, it’s shocking,” he says. “They’re all brown and yellow because they are dying from drought and bark beetle infestation. It’s terrifying to realize how fast these fires can take over when they have so much dry fuel just waiting to burn.” Noting that there are more than 65 million dead trees in California alone, Casey adds, “What these wild fires do in the next several years is going to become a huge story.”
A Global Overview
After filming close-ups of splintering Alaskan glaciers, fearsome Oklahoma tornadoes and scorching California wild fires, Casey spent a relatively sedate year in post-production working with editor Peter Rubi to shape the raw footage into a riveting documentary. “It was really about showcasing the best shots and building the stories around those images and the people involved.”
Rather than presenting each type of natural disaster in a separate segment, Extreme Weather weaves together ice, wind and fire imagery to demonstrate the interconnectedness of these increasingly destructive weather events. “We didn’t want meat, potatoes and carrot separated on the plate,” Casey explains. “Instead we made a kind of stew to give the film a more global overview. We wanted to show how drought affects wildfires, how wildfires affect air pollution, and how air pollution affects melting ice, which in turn causes rising sea levels.”
By highlighting the relationships between these phenomena, Extreme Weather aims to inspire audiences to appreciate the power — and fragility — of the natural world. “Our environment is warming and people know that,” Casey says. “Our weather is changing and people know that. We’re not saying ‘Go out and buy a hybrid.’ We’re just showing actual events and showcasing people who are actively researching these subjects. We wanted to document their activity as an adventure of discovery that will have a significant impact on our planet’s future.”
Narrated by Emmy Award®-winning actor Michael C. Hall (“Dexter,” “Six Feet Under”), Extreme Weather opens in IMAX®, giant-screen, 15/70mm dome screens and digital cinemas nationwide beginning October 15, 2016.
A National Geographic Film in partnership with Lockheed Martin, Extreme Weather is directed and filmed by Sean Casey (Natural Disasters: Forces of Nature, Tornado Alley). Producers are Sean Casey and Jennifer Casey. Written by Alex McGinnis. Composer is Brad Smith. Editor is Peter Rubi.
For more information on Extreme Weather, including theater listings and link to the trailer, visit www.extremeweatherfilm.com. (Become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/natgeomovies or follow us on Twitter @NatGeoMovies.)
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