Updated! Creating a storm effect on the relatively cheap

There have been lots of projects lately so I’ve been falling behind on posting.  I’ve been fortunate enough that jobs of late have presented some fairly interesting challenges and I plan on writing something about each one of them soon.

I’ll start with one I did a while back in the summer which involved creating a “stormy” weather effect in the middle of a hot, sunny day on a tight budget. The job was for Earth Rangers, a non-profit organization for endangered animals. The stormy effect was required for only one shot so it was even more constrained by time and budget. The scenario was a high angle shot of a family of three sitting on a sofa playing a board game in their living room. The gag was the living room was actually set-up in the middle of a real forest, but that could not be revealed until the end of the shot! We accomplished this with a high angle, tight framing so you couldn’t see off the set floor. As we craned down, we revealed the forest. The storm had to come on cue when the gag was revealed. By the way, this is how it was described to me in an email, along with “how can we do this and how much do you think it would cost?”

There are two ways you can approach this. The first would be to suggest throwing an obscene amount of money at it and make the problem disappear faster than a vanishing act at a David Copperfield show. But that’s not the world I work in and neither do my clients. Instead, my approach to these problems is an understanding of the client’s boundaries. I have to best guess how much time and money they are willing to spend. In other words, it’s like knowing what their threshold for pain is. Once I have a feeling for where their boundaries are, I create a framework to work within and only then can I start to actually figure out how to accomplish the goal.

Here’s a few things that helped guide me in creating my framework for how I was going to accomplish the storm. I knew I couldn’t substantially increase the amount of crew I had but I could request some more equipment. I figured if I could keep my crew size the same and not add a whole ton of time I’d be working well within the framework and boundaries of the client.

So where to start? I knew I couldn’t do much with the sunny background in the forest and therefore had to work with it. I decided to base the entire look around a “day for night” look. I was betting that the sunlight streaming through trees could be made to look like sunlight poking through thick clouds by heavily underexposing the scene and setting the camera to a very low colour temperature which would turn everything in the scene very blue and dark.  If this worked, I knew everything else would fall into place and help sell the rest of the effect. A simple but time tested trick of stopping down and setting the camera’s white balance as low as possible is the basics for “day for night” shooting.  It looked as though it was going to work out quite nicely.  I stacked the camera up with lots of heavy ND filters and then further stopped the camera down to about f11. I set the white balance to a low 2400 kelvin.  This instantly gave the shot a dark blue base to build the rest of the look from.

The next thing we needed to help sell the effect was a little lightening and some wind. I would have opted for two large 6′ 240 volt E-fans but that would have put me outside of my framework. Larger fans = more power + bigger cables + more crew + more time.  That wouldn’t have worked, so I settled for 4, 3′ 120V fans positioned close to set. The art department also provided debris, like leaves and things to blow into the scene. The electrics rigged two 50,000 watt lightening strikes just off set to create the lightening flashes. I wanted 100,000 watt strikes but that again would have stepped me outside my framework;  a larger generator, fatter feeder cables and more crew and time to lay said cables would have been required. A simple wrong decision can become a run-away train if you are not careful.

At this point, the talent was entirely underexposed and dark. It looked natural but absolutely wrong for a commercial. To light talent we positioned a 1.8K Arri sun HMI just out of frame pounding the talent to compensate for the F11 dark, gloomy background. It was barely enough light, but it is what we had and we made it work. The lamp was gelled full CTO and a half so their skin tones would appear normal.  Once again, when I am under the gun and resources are limited I always look to employ a complimentary colour design because it always looks good no matter what situation you are in. It is a fail safe technique. I had a nice deep, dark blue background contrasting nicely with warmer toned talent. Totally un-natural but it looked great and that’s what ultimately matters. Finally, the fans were turned up to max for wind and the lightening strikes were flashed. The final touch was to send in some flying debris and presto… instant storm in the middle of the day.

And what about the rain? Well, you have to know where to draw the line and rain was that line. I knew bringing rain to the party involved a whole bunch of costly, timely elements, like SFX crew and rain towers, water trucks, more bodies, more, more , more. It would have put the entire production so far outside of my framework and way beyond the client’s means. I decided to not even pitch that idea and no one ever brought it up.  In the end the, I feel I made the right choices and the effect worked out pretty good.

Here is the final result.

IMG_7443 IMG_7442


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