Being able to harness the weather might be more of a fantasy from legends gone by but in London-based Writer/Director Jack Pirie’s latest The Storm Chaser he might have found a man who can. Pirie’s labour-of-love short follows on thematically from his previous film The Superman which garnered a much coveted Vimeo Staff Pick and followed the mysterious depths of the underwater environment of a fearless freediver. Whilst The Superman was a gentle reverie into another world The Storm Chaser is an adrenaline fuelled assault on the senses, immersing you in the intense and unforgiving power of mother nature. Pirie and his team worked in extremely pressured conditions to capture the docudrama’s remarkable footage where they found themselves subject to the will of the weather guided only by the intuition of their storm-chasing subject, athlete Thomas Traversa. Ahead of The Storm Chaser’s online premiere with us today, we spoke to Pirie about not wanting to follow the standard human vs. nature portrayal of extreme sports, how he crafted the film to envelop his audience into the heart of the action and incorporated ethereal VFX to further evoke a mythical vibe.
How did you find Thomas and what was your approach for capturing the white knuckle world he inhabits?
I found Thomas after watching a few videos of him online and was immediately drawn to his perspective and the elegance of what he does with storms. Windsurfing is perhaps seen as less cool than surfing for some reason, but for me that made it more appealing. A few years back I made a film called The Superman with a friend of mine which was a similar blurring of genres. As a result of that, and some other recent shorts, I managed to get some funding to make this film, with the support of a brand who have done some ad spots with Thomas alongside it. With the seeds of the film already mapped out in my head, I interviewed Thomas over several hours and used these interviews to then evolve the narrative and framework for the story. Thomas is one of the most extraordinary people I’ve had the opportunity to work with. Passionate, humble and effortlessly talented, he’s been chasing storms for decades and has an intuition for the natural environment that can feel almost supernatural at times. If you want to know when the wind is going to change, or the rain will start, just ask Thomas.
With The Storm Chaser, I wanted to explore the dramatic and profound encounters that take place between humans and nature at its extremes; and the harmony that can be found therein. Storms have always held a mythical power over humankind, and the aim was for the film to have a mythical sensibility itself. Something thrilling, but also deeply psychological and meditative, crossing between the borders of fantasy and reality and drawing on the film noir, thriller and suspense genres.
Key to the vision of the film was to try and take the audience inside the storm and really immerse you in it as Thomas feels it.
Although The Storm Chaser is about an extreme athlete, I didn’t set out to make a sports film. In the media, extreme sports can sometimes feel like a battle between human and nature – risking death to secure the best photo or video clip, and thus come out the victor. But in The Storm Chaser I wanted to look at how, in the case of Thomas at least, this relationship between human and nature could perhaps be viewed as more dance than fight – a complex but harmonious choreography, mirroring the chaos we all navigate in our day-to-day lives. His goal wasn’t about victory, it was about experiencing a joyous moment – a moment that reflected life itself. As Thomas expresses in the film, it isn’t about “fighting the elements or going against the current, it’s about finding a way to play with it”.
How did the interview time with Thomas affect the framework and narrative you already had mapped out?
We spent several hours together discussing all manner of things, my aim being to try and find the truth of the film/who Thomas really was, and then sculpt the existing narrative around it. As an example – he talked a lot about this idea of not going out on a given day unless he feels totally comfortable with what he’s about to do “a deep feeling” as he says in the film. It was sort of a meditation on the various risks, and a chance to connect back with the idea of this being a deeply personal and psychological endeavour, rather than one for others or to further his career.
This was a huge part of his craft and to me it felt different to the more “fuck yeah let’s do this” attitude we might expect from extreme athletes and that Jackass-esque stunt mentality we see on TV. I saw it almost like a kind of contract he had formed with the natural world, drawn out of mutual respect, on a given day. I’d already had the idea of doing a nightmare sequence, but this then helped to crystallise that into something more authentic and reflective with a deeper meaning. It also fed back into the rest of the film, allowing us to focus more on Thomas’s thoughtful and contemplative side – which is key to his nature.
How did you approach the formidable filming of this breathtaking footage?
There’s no greater joy for me than when the experience and feeling of a shoot parallels the narrative you are telling – that sense of living the story. This shoot was to be a perfect example. But it also made it a total and complete nightmare to film. The shoot had to be pieced together much like Thomas chases a storm in real life, a real adventure, tracking weather maps in locations around the continent, looking for the right conditions to film and the right window. We didn’t have big commercial budgets to have crews on standby so everything was done with a tiny unit, moving at lightning pace.
We wanted the windsurfing cinematography to feel truly dynamic and keep the camera moving, steering away from the static long-lens work you see used in competitions/on TV a lot.
Key to the vision of the film was to try and take the audience inside the storm, and really immerse you in it as Thomas feels it. Will Billany (DOP) and I talked a lot about how to achieve that. We wanted the windsurfing cinematography to feel truly dynamic and keep the camera moving, steering away from the static long-lens work you see used in competitions/on TV a lot. We didn’t want perfection, we wanted that visceral roughness: spray, water on the lens – so we used a bunch of techniques to try and achieve it, shooting on Meru anamorphics with the Alexa Mini. All this was a deviation from the kind of windsurfing filming Thomas and his cameraman had done before, so we had our work cut out.
We shot most of the windsurfing footage over three days with a crew of just four people, mostly around Northern Spain. Much like the themes of the film itself, production was a constant and humbling game of chess, waiting for the moment when the weather was ready to give us what we needed (a producer’s worst nightmare). Pierre Bouras, the legendary (and superhuman) jet ski driver, was given the task of riding alongside Thomas with the cameraman Jamie Hancock (windsurfing cinematographer) clutching on the back, skirting the edges of 14+ ft high waves trying to avoid being devoured, and capturing tiny moments of Thomas in flow.
There’s something about filming in the sea that is the epitome of chaos (even more so when you’re waiting for storm conditions…). No matter how much preparation you do, at the end of the day you can only really strap in and let nature dictate the day. We would sometimes be sitting for three hours just waiting for both the wind and waves to line up for a single shot. Then when the moment arrived, the drone would break down or refuse to fly, leaving us swearing into the wind. I’m not sure I can mentally face filming with a drone again after this shoot. All the windsurfing you see Thomas do was done for real / in-camera, including the wipeout – a freak occurrence unconnected to the filming that nearly knocked Thomas unconscious. In the final shot his board and gear were smashed in half – an appropriate wrap for the shoot.
Being a big fan of Jonathan Glazer’s work, I remembered reading an interview with him where he talked about shooting the Guinness Ad. Even on a mega commercial budget (which we didn’t have), it sounded like the shoot was a total chaotic nightmare, with half the crew being tossed off the boat by waves between each shot, so this made me feel a bit better about the level of trial and error necessary.
Can you go into more detail about the techniques you tried on the journey to finding your way to those incredible moments of windsurfing?
Will Billany (DOP) and I, spent countless hours discussing how to create the right aesthetic for the windsurfing moments within our modest budget. as I mentioned, we desperately wanted to avoid the static, long-lens work you often see on TV and in competitions. But getting a decent camera inside these conditions is – obviously – an enormously complicated and dangerous thing. We worked closely with Jamie Hancock – an ex-windsurfer who now specialises in windsurfing cinematography and has worked with Thomas many times before. Jamie was completely comfortable and familiar with shooting in these conditions, but he was used to capturing the sport in a slightly different way – longer shots that captured the flow of the movement, normally either swimming beside Thomas, from a drone, or from the land (all of which he is highly skilled at).
However what we wanted for this film was to capture the chaos – the visceral roughness, the dynamism, and the sensation of it all. We wanted to be on the board with Thomas…We hatched various plans, none of which we were sure would actually work. Quite appropriately for our film – we were probably only halfway through these discussions when we got the call from Thomas – to say there was a winter storm approaching the coast of Northern Spain that weekend – and it might be the last of the season. So we had to just go for it then and there, and with a crew of only five people we set off for Galicia.
No matter how much preparation you do, at the end of the day you can only really strap in and let nature dictate the day.
We experimented with things like towing the board behind a jet ski and faking the spray, but it immediately looked fake, and Thomas understandably hated doing this. Shooting static from the land and in water – as we had predicted – also never looked right, and the drone was constantly struggling in the wind. The other challenge was just the insane unpredictability of it all – you might have everything ready to go but then the wind changes, or the storm passes and the sun comes out. As a director it was quite humbling to shoot this way, totally unlike a normal shoot, with so little control. In the end it was down to sheer trial and error to get those shots, and ultimately a very delicate act of choreography between our brilliantly skilled jet ski driver Pierre, as he navigated 14ft+ waves getting Jamie into the thick of the action with the camera, tracking Thomas and capturing moments from within the storm.
The sequence with him actually windsurfing is the crescendo of everything you build to in the film. How tricky was it to hold back yet keep the audience engaged until that climatic point?
I’m a massive fan of thrillers, film-noir, horror and suspense films. What Thomas does, travelling solo around far-flung corners of the globe in search of these elusive and perilous storms, felt so perfectly rooted in those genres that I wanted to use this to build the mystery and anticipation toward the climax. This also served the other goal – to create something that people with no interest in sport could enjoy, a mythical quest and a journey into Thomas’s psyche.
There are thousands of (incredible) sport and surf profile films in existence, but the downside of that is I think a casual audience can see a person holding a surfboard in the opening frames and immediately switch off. So right from the start one key thing was to make sure we didn’t see Thomas’s windsurfing gear until very late on in the film. The rest was just about ensuring every scene had a reason to be there and crafting an arc that held enough back to allow us to go full throttle into the final few minutes, whilst hopefully never being too boring.
How did you work with editor Iain Whitewright to turn the raw footage into more of a narrative structure?
The actual sequences in the film leading up to the windsurfing ended up pretty close to what had been scripted, though my Editor Iain Whitewright rightly proposed cutting a few sequences that didn’t need to be there. However in terms of pace, we spent a while trying to figure out what felt right for the film, and how long it should be. As always, there are a ton of different ways you could probably have cut this. The windsurfing sequences were probably the toughest of all. Iain spent a long time wrangling different versions together. It needed to feel cohesively part of the linear story and not like a highlights reel – but obviously, we were forced to shoot different times of day/light so that was hard.
Then there was a moment where it just all clicked, as Iain said: “Looking back on the first cuts, I think we almost created more moodboard type timelines, throwing ideas in just to start the conversation. At some points it might’ve even felt quite like a music video. I think it was important to get to that point quickly, so we weren’t waiting too long after the shoot to tackle this. It’s a different way to work, but we could take the initial outline, and then start to work out which path it should go down. That point was probably the key time where it turned into a slower, more narrative drama. It’s a unique one, mixing this dramatic fictional world with documentary style interviews.”
And of course, the awe of that footage is augmented by some epic-feeling VFX work.
Post production ended up taking the best part of six months, mainly due to the VFX. I should give a shout out to the team at Primary VFX who worked tirelessly on a pretty small budget to try and create the bird. The brief for the storm bird was to create something that felt part of the storm as opposed to a hellish monster, and elusive/ethereal enough to evoke that mythical vibe I was going for. We wanted it to be fleeting and almost dreamlike. We also provided them with some concept artwork.
What we wanted for this film was to capture the chaos – the visceral roughness, the dynamism and the sensation of it all.
We worked closely with them to figure out what was actually possible given the complexity of the brief. One of the big challenges and something I hadn’t anticipated enough, was that given the conditions we were shooting in, trying to guarantee a specific frame for VFX was completely impossible. So we had to re-adapt the entire brief to the footage we had. This is somewhat at odds with the standard VFX thinking I had been taught of having everything intricately mapped out in advance.
What are you working on next?
I have two TV shows in development here in the UK, a heist-thriller called Pen and a Scottish detective-noir series called Take Me Back. Other than that, I’m working on a psychological-horror feature set in the Highlands, which has a similarly haunting and mythological vibe to The Storm Chaser, and I hope to shoot it later next year. I also do a lot of work in the immersive entertainment industry and have a new live show opening in London in 2023.