Tips, tricks and advice from the artistic battlefield. Hopefully what I know will make your road a lot smoother.

Make Your Own Storm

As you can tell from this week’s video, I’m looking a little worse for wear. Notice the bags under my eyes. I actually have a double bag under my left eye, which is a new look for me. I look this way because I spent three days in McCormick Park in St. Helens, Ore.,  filming storm FX. It was big, it was tough, and it was exhausting. Now a new phrase has been coined from my appearance: It was two bags deep.

Creating a windy rainstorm is difficult to do, especially on a budget. The big movies use jet engines and other nifty tools to create a massive hurricane effect, but in our case we didn’t have any of that. We were, however, able to make something very effective. This is how we broke it down.

First, there’s the rain. If you are creating your own storm, you might hope that you could use a little garden hose. That’s just not going to cut the mustard. Actual rain probably won’t do it either, so coordinating your shoot with the weather report isn’t the way to go. As you’ll see in the video Making A Storm: Part 1, rain provided by Mother Nature is sometimes thin and wispy. You need big, fat movie rain.

To make our storm, we hooked up to a fire hydrant. We ran a fire hose to a couple of rain towers, and we made rain! Thick, wet, sloppy rain. It shows up great on camera. Keep in mind that if you do this, you need the right tools for the job. There are special fittings that attach to fire hydrants. I would highly suggest getting someone who is experienced at doing this. Working with fire hose can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. When that water flies through that hose, it could jerk about and snap a leg in a heartbeat, so BE CAREFUL.

Also, if you go this route, you can’t just hook up to any hydrant you want. You need to get permission from the city. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds. They’ll issue you a permit and will track how much water you are using. All said and done, we were charged less than $100.

Another tip for filming rain is to remember your lighting. One of the best ways to get your rain to POP is to back light it with an HMI. Even if you are outside, try to position a light so it rims the drops. You’ll have sexy Ryan Gosling moments in no time.

We did something else for our storm that really helped sell the effect. We added wind. Wind is an interesting animal. If you just pelt someone in the face with a leaf blower, you’d think it would really read on camera, but it won’t unless the subject has something that flutters in the breeze. Trust me, if your subject is just a guy with a crew cut and a skin tight shirt, all you’ll see is some guy squinting.

Give this a whirl. Try putting some sort of debris in the air. We used all kinds of bits, particles, and dust and you can really see what the wind is doing.

Fuller’s earth looks great on film, but it sucks to work with. It’s the consistency of hot chocolate powder. Have you ever put a spoonful of that stuff in your mouth and inhaled? That’s what it’s like working with Fuller’s earth. If you decide to use it, think ahead about how to minimize the discomfort to your actors or damage to gear. (That crap LOVES to wedge into places like focus rings and battery slots.)

Before you start hurling sawdust in front of jet engines and demanding your actors look into the wind, think about their safety for a minute. You don’t want debris that will cause injury. Some of the things we were able to safely blow at the actors were big leaves, oatmeal, dry cereal, and cedar pet bedding. At first, I didn’t believe that the oatmeal and cereal would work, but by golly it looks amazing. (Your crew can eat it during lunch break AND it’s part of this nutritious breakfast.)

Here is a tip you can use to really enhance your storm.

To communicate the power something, instead of trying to show massive winds, reveal the effect those winds have on something else. On this shoot, we took a windmill and used it to demonstrate the power of the storm by how fast the windmill was spinning, and we made it seem as if the windmill spins so hard that it blows apart and almost hits an actor (no actors were harmed in the making of this film). Showing the effect of something is a great way to tell your story if you don’t have a lot of resources to create on a grand scale.

It’s also helpful to stay in tight on your actors. If you’re up close, you don’t have to do your FX or set dress for as big of an area, and you can imply bigger effects through the emotions on the faces of the actors; reaction shots of your actors will help sell how powerful the situation is. I know it’s really sexy to show a wide shot of a tornado blowing past, but if you don’t have the budget for several big fans, staying up close will save you a world problems.

To see the finished product, here it is below.

Those are a few ways I’ve found effective for making a project look big on a small budget. If you decide to go out and shoot your own storm, I would love to see it! Please send me your links and let’s see who can out do Jan de Bont.

I would also love to hear your thoughts about other things that would be helpful to build a storm. I didn’t even touch on visual effects such as the ones Video Copilot recommends.

Please share your thoughts and info below!