Into The Storm – Visual Effects

by Graham Edwards

Into The Storm - VFX by Method Studios

They say it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Well, Warner Brothers are hoping that Into The Storm – their summer spectacular that’s just brimming with bad weather – blows audiences away. Directed by Steven Quale (director of Final Destination 5, and second unit director on Avatar), the film chronicles the battering taken by the fictional American town of Silverton as it’s overwhelmed by wave after wave of devastating tornadoes.

Townsfolk and stormchasers alike are pushed to the limit as they try to survive this torrent of twisters. As for the cyclones themselves, they appear on screen courtesy of a number of visual effects vendors, including Cinesite, Digital Domain, Hydraulx, Method Studios, MPC, and Scanline VFX.

Join me as we head into the storm with VFX supervisors Nordin Rahhali (Method), Simon Stanley-Clamp (Cinesite) and Erik Liles (Hydraulx) – together with Hydraulx VFX producer Eric Kohler – as they share some of their extreme weather experiences.

Method Studios

Method Studios delivered around 180 shots for the climactic tornado sequence in Into The Storm. Nordin Rahhali was Visual Effects Supervisor in Method’s Los Angeles office, with Simon Carr supervising a number of shots at the London office, and Bruce Woloshyn supervising additional work in Vancouver.

During the sequence, a mile-wide tornado descends upon the town. With a classification of F5 – the highest on the internationally-recognised Fujita scale – the deadly twister unleashes winds of over 200mph, demolishing an entire school even as the people who have been sheltering inside flee the doomed campus in a ragtag convoy of vehicles.

Watch a series of visual effects clips from Into the Storm:

While movie audiences may be familiar with the sight of giant twisters tearing up the screen, nevertheless the team at Method relished the prospect of generating a cyclone of their own. “Did the prospect of working on a film with a giant tornado destroying anything in its path excite me? Absolutely!” said Nordin Rahhali. “I remember watching Twister back in the day, and loving it, so this was a chance to work on a modern tornado film that had a different story to tell.”

To gain inspiration, the Method team referenced earlier disaster movies including Twister and The Day After Tomorrow. “We also looked at work we had done at Method in the past,” added Rahhali. “Doug Bloom, one of our CG supervisors, had previously worked on Beautiful Creatures, leading development on the tornado scene. Taking what we learned from that film, we were able to begin development on Into the Storm from a solid base. This was key in being able to deliver the show on such a short schedule.”

Even so, the majority of the reference used came from real-world footage. “YouTube and other sources were invaluable for researching real events,” Rahhali commented. “Pretty much everyone walks around with a camera phone these days, so it’s amazing what shows up online. The challenge was how to sift through it all and collect the really good stuff.”

Having assembled a collection of reference clips, Rahhali’s team categorised them on a sliding scale, according to their severity. Each shot for Into The Storm was assigned a position on that scale. As shots were finalised, they in turn became reference for subsequent shots. “But we always started from real world footage to base everything in reality,” Rahhali asserted.

Original plate photography

The motorcade flees the mile-wide tornado – original plate photography

Final composite

The motorcade flees the mile-wide tornado – final composite

The climactic tornado is so immense that it decimates not just stands of trees, but entire forests. Simulating the wind’s effects on such large areas of foliage proved a time-consuming challenge. “We developed a Houdini-based system that allowed us to work on the trees as lightweight skeletal wireframes,” explained Rahhali. “We ran simulations on those, then applied the resulting deformations to the full tree models as a post process. This allowed us to iterate simulations on vast numbers of trees relatively quickly, doing the heavy lifting only when the simulation looked promising.”

The tree models themselves were created using SpeedTree, and rendered in Mantra. “For distant trees, leaves were shaded as points, with actual geometry being used only when the leaves were large enough to be noticeable.”

As the cataclysmic winds tear into the school, the buildings are systematically torn apart. “We modelled much of the structural detail that the real school would have been built with,” commented Rahhali. “We used reference of smaller buildings being destroyed by extreme weather to give us an understanding of what features would be visible as it broke apart: the internal wooden frame, drywall, bricks, air ducts and so on. All these elements became pieces in a Houdini DOPs simulation.”

Watch extensive VFX breakdowns from Into The Storm by Method Studios:

The extensive storm sequence required Method to integrate their effects not only with ground-based footage (shot mostly using an Alexa) but also with aerial photography shot with a Red Epic. “The aerial shots gave us a unique viewpoint from which to show the scale of the tornado,” remarked Rahhali. “They also presented challenges we didn’t have with the ground shots: namely, we see much further into the scene, and have a much wider view of the storm. This made for more work in terms of environment reconstruction, digital matte paintings for the ground, CG forests and atmospherics and, of course, the tornado itself.”

When it came to the ground-based shots, the daylight plate photography had to be adjusted to conform to the overcast lighting conditions of the storm. “A number of shots had been done against a sunny, clear blue sky, with the actors in shade in the foreground, being hit with wind and rain machines,” Rahhali explained. “That posed a unique compositing challenge: we had to grade the background to match the required gloomy look. To achieve this, Compositing Supervisor Jeff Allen worked with artists to develop techniques using creative keys, roto, grades and paint projections.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Method Studios

Method Studios provided visual effects for a sequence in which evacuees from a destroyed school shelter in a storm drain

Following their narrow escape from the school, the evacuees find their way blocked by a fallen power line. Unable to continue, they seek shelter in a partially-constructed storm drain, where they find themselves beneath in eye of the tornado. At the climax of this sequence – and making good on the promise of the film’s title – Method delivered a number of shots in which the audience is truly taken “into the storm”. “Director Steven Quale was very keen on the concept of a tornado within a tornado,” commented Rahhali. “Chris Sanchez, one of our seasoned concept artists, created illustrations to explore this idea.”

The sequence includes several fully-CG shots, with the camera first looking up into the eye of the tornado, and later rising with a vehicle as it is lifted high into the spinning vortex. “Compositing Lead Brian Delmonico helped develop the look beyond the original concept,” said Rahhali, “while CG Supervisor Blake Sweeney led the lighting team to create realistic water sheets coming off vehicles, and tied together all the objects – including cars, buses, construction equipment, a semi-truck, and large pieces of debris – with the highly art-directed lighting coming from within the tornado. The hard surface models were lit in Maya and rendered in V-Ray; atmospherics and particle FX for the sequence were created in Houdini and rendered in Mantra.”

Animation Supervisor Keith Roberts led the animation for the sequence. “Much of the energy of the storm, inside and out, was the result of layers and layers of animated debris – trees, cars, school buses,” Rahhali pointed out. “The camera was animated too – along with the vehicle it’s attached to – with lots of subtle secondary bumps and shakes, with everything choreographed to flow and feel believable. It was difficult work, but the end result was a very memorable shot.”

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The challenge of delivering FX-heavy, photoreal sequences was compounded by the tight time frame within which the work had to be completed. “We had about four months from award until we delivered final shots,” said Rahhali. “That included R&D and assets. A very aggressive schedule, to be sure. We shared some data with Hydraulx: models, skies, ground digital matte paintings, animated geometry representing the tornado and rendered layers of the tornado. They had a few shots in the middle of our sequence, so it was important to share as much as we could. With the right team of people, incredible results can be achieved in very little time.”

The stormy weather seen on the screen in Into The Storm was created in the aftermath of another storm: the recent collapse of long-established visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues.

“This show was particularly bittersweet for me,” reflected Rahhali. “Originally, Rhythm & Hues had the majority of work on the show. When they went bankrupt, that work was divided between us and other vendors. With the struggles of big studios like Rhythm & Hues and others, and the folding of many mid-sized studios, it’s been a rough few years. I had many personal friends at Rhythm & Hues, and it was a terrible blow to the whole industry when they went through bankruptcy.

“Because of their struggle, we had the opportunity to work on an exciting project. While it’s unfortunate the way it happened, I’m extremely proud of the work we did at Method, and of the entire team involved. The collaboration across our different offices was key in being able to deliver, and speaks to one of Method’s strengths in these challenging times.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Method Studios

Method Studios delivered a number of fully-CG shots looking up into the eye of the tornado

Cinesite

Cinesite were tasked with completing work on a variety of sequences throughout the show. “We worked on twisters, building destruction, environment enhancement and clean up,” said Simon Stanley-Clamp, Visual Effects Supervisor at Cinesite. “These sequences had been started by another facility.”

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Among the sequences worked on by Cinesite was one in which the principle characters take shelter with a group of students in the school. “The lights go out,” explained Stanley-Clamp. “Paper, dust and debris blows along the corridors while the students cower, then – wham! The roof peels back and kids are sucked out of the building. This was a sequence of about ten shots, comprising many FX passes, roto and comp work.”

Reference material for the sequence included CCTV and security footage taken from inside sports halls, supermarkets and schools. “There was also the ubiquitous camera phone footage of destructive weather events,” Stanley-Clamp added. “We used this extensively, particularly for the scenes where we ripped the roof off the school, showing ceiling tiles gradually peeling back and so on. What struck me most about this real life material is the speed at which the devastation occurs: a sports hall can be demolished in frames. This actually doesn’t make for a good cinematic experience, so our shots give a longer glimpse at what being inside a building during a storm would be like.”

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Cinesite provided support on “Into The Storm” with visual effects including twisters, building destruction, environment enhancement and clean up.

Hydraulx

Hydraulx was brought in by Visual Effects Producer Randy Starr late in the day, to pick up some additional VFX sequences for Into The Storm.

“We created the funnel tornados first seen in a sequence at a farmhouse, and in subsequent scenes. We also did the hailstorm sequence at the motel, the collapsing paper mill and CG rain,” said Hydraulx Visual Effects Supervisor Erik Liles and Visual Effects Producer Eric Kohler. “One of our most exciting sequences was the airport getting destroyed during the mile-wide tornado scene.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Hydraulx

Hydraulx delivered visual effects showing an airport being ravaged by the mile-wide tornado that descends during the film’s climax

Like their counterparts at the other visual effects studios, the Hydraulx team used real-world stormchaser videos and images as inspiration: “We found so many great videos online, featuring all types of great tornado events and destruction. One of our favourite references was a video of 18-wheelers getting tossed through the air during a huge tornado in Texas. We used this as inspiration for the airport destruction scene.”

During the sequence, a gigantic tornado ploughs through a working airport, tossing 747s into the air like toys. The sheer scale of the action made for a considerable technical challenge, particularly when it came to CG dynamics and rendering.

The slideshow below shows the step-by-step layering of one of the final airport composites.

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“We decided to render everything on the airport tarmac in a single pass, from the tiny pieces of baggage to the 747s themselves,” Liles and Kohler explained. “This way we made sure the lighting was consistent, that there were proper reflections and shadows on the many objects interacting with one another, and that all the dynamics and debris reacted properly with each of the collision objects.

“On top of everything else happening in these shots, we also had to incorporate a mile-wide tornado element provided to us by Method, along with a dust cloud element we created. We had to ensure the dust cloud interacted properly with the tarmac objects, as well as maintaining the look of the big tornado being used by Method in surrounding sequences. In trying to keep within the reality of real world physics, we learned a lot about the realistic dynamics of tornado formation and funnel characteristics … and of course took some creative license to make things look cool.”

The slideshow below shows the step-by-step layering of a scene in which a funnel tornado tears into a barn.

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Into The Storm - VFX by Hydraulx

Visual effects breakdown of the farmhouse destruction scene

Hydraulx delivered around 150 shots in four months, although the complexity of the airport destruction sequence saw them working for three months on three shots alone. “We had a great time working with Steve Quale, Randy Starr, and all the other vendors involved.” Liles and Kohler concluded. “Together we made a great team, and the experience was fantastic.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Hydraulx

Thanks to Ellen Pasternack, Rita Cahill, Melissa Knight, Helen Moody and Greg Strause. Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Method Studios. © 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, Method Studios and Hydraulx.

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