How 'Into the Storm' Built a Better Tornado on a Budget

Into the Storm Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Into the Storm Still - H 2014

After VFX house Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy protection, director Steven Quale went hands-on.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

While visual effects budgets on summer's biggest movies can push $100 million, New Line's upcoming tornado pic Into the Storm defied the odds. Despite unleashing dozens of CG-rendered twisters, it was produced for a thrifty budget of $50 million. Of that, only about $23 million was spent on visual effects, the key selling point of Warner Bros.' Aug. 8 release. To accomplish that, New Line turned to director Steven Quale, who had been a second-unit director on James Cameron's Avatar, where he took on added duties as supervisor of about nine VFX vendors used in addition to lead house Weta Digital. "I learned what you need to do to be wise," says Quale, 46, who preplanned every shot of Storm's 55-day shoot to do "the bare minimum without excess and waste."

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Storm's path to the screen illustrates the state of the visual effects industry. The film initially contracted with VFX house Rhythm & Hues, and when that Oscar-winning company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2013 (before finding a new owner), Storm lost $3 million worth of work. But that setback proved a blessing in disguise. The movie was shot in summer 2012 in Michigan, where it received a $9.5 million direct cash-refund tax incentive, bringing down the cost of physical production. So by the time Quale enlisted other houses, the picture basically had been locked and he knew precisely what he needed for each of its 600-plus effects shots — some quite extensive by VFX standards. His decisiveness avoided a lot of the second-guessing and last-minute changes that bedevil so many effects movies, which often are rushed to meet release dates, involving lots of overtime charges.

In the wake of Rhythm & Hues' exit, instead of entrusting the project to a single vendor, Quale spread the work among 15 effects houses — a practice that is becoming commonplace on effects-driven studio films to save time and money (the companies work concurrently). He selected particular vendors — including Method Studios, Digital Domain, MPC, Hydraulx, Cinesite and Scanline — based on each type of tornado and its "personality."

"Since we had so little money, I was overseeing the companies directly," says the second-time director (Final Destination 5), who worked closely with veteran VFX producer Randy Starr (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island). "The artists want to do the best work they can, but they need guidance. It's not about budget but communicating what you need."