By WILL CARLESS
Wednesday, September 28, 2005 | By WILL CARLESS
Marcus Gutierrez has a relationship with Mother Nature that’s bordering on Oedipal.
The Pacific Beach filmmaker is passionate about getting close to the natural world. Real close. So close, in fact, that he and some friends have designed and built a vehicle that will take them close to nature at its most turbulent – right into the eye of a tornado.
The machine is called the TIV – Tornado Intercept Vehicle. It looks a bit like an upside-down boat on wheels. It’s basically a stripped-down Ford 450 truck that’s been heavily modified so that it now features a steel hull, five reinforced rollbars, four racing seats, bulletproof glass and a turret.
That’s right. A turret.
The primary purpose of the vehicle, which Gutierrez recently drove to San Diego all the way from Kansas, is to film footage of tornadoes using a highly specialized IMAX camera. Initially, the camera had trouble capturing images out of the side windows of the vehicle, so Sean Casey, the filmmaker who had the initial idea to build the TIV, decided to build a turret to house the camera and cameraman.
Gutierrez is Casey’s driver and sometimes cameraman. Chasing tornadoes is not the first strange assignment the 35-year-old has taken on.
“I’m so passionate about science that I volunteer for the weirdest jobs,” said Gutierrez. “I went to Hawaii to go film (big-wave surfing spot) Jaws, for free. Just to see Mother Nature break a 50-foot wave was incredible.”
Gutierrez’s part-time job as a thrill-seeking cameraman has also taken him to Mt. St. Helens, which he filmed erupting, and into the path of dozens of tornadoes.
“To see Mother Nature express its form of beauty first-hand, to witness it first-hand, is incredible,” he said. “So I try to get there, and see it.”
Though Gutierrez and Casey, who leads the project from his home in Los Angeles, both reside on the coast of California, hundreds of miles from “Tornado Alley” – a column of land stretching from Texas to the Canadian border where tornadoes are the most prevalent – they manage to spend two months a year chasing storms in the TIV.
To aid them in their search, the filmmakers and their team work hand-in-hand with Joshua Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., and one of the world’s foremost experts on tornadoes.
Wurman has a healthy skepticism about many so-called “storm chasers,” but he has nothing but respect for Casey and his team. He points out that the group has purchased some very high-spec – and very expensive – climate-measuring equipment, which they use to gather data on humidity, wind speed and other atmospheric conditions, which they relay to Wurman.
In return, Wurman, whose team uses customized trucks carrying radar dishes to track and measure tornadoes, feeds coordinates to the team in the TIV, guiding them toward nearby storms.
What Casey and Gutierrez are hoping for is to get themselves positioned right in the path of a tornado. Casey wants to film the storm as it comes toward them, hits them, then passes away from them.
That’s why the TIV weighs 7 tons.
In addition to its immense weight, the TIV is also designed with a special pneumonic system that allows the vehicle’s cab to lower down over its wheels. As soon as the TIV is in position in the path of a tornado, Gutierrez flicks a series of switches inside the cab and the whole thing sinks slowly to the ground until its sides are flush with the road. No air can now rush underneath the vehicle and lift it up.
While that’s happening, the scientists and filmmakers inside the vehicle don helmets and strap themselves into their bucket seats.
Wurman said what the TIV guys are doing is reasonably safe. He said he’s not going to direct them into the path of anything that might realistically lift up the vehicle.
“Suicide by tornado’s very inefficient,” he said, “or at least, very challenging.”
Nevertheless, Wurman pointed out that what’s most dangerous about being in the vicinity of a tornado is the amount of debris that’s flying around. The winds inside a tornado can reach up to 300 mph, and have a tremendous capacity to pick up heavy objects and throw them hundreds of feet. That’s why the team in the TIV needs his data to guide them.
“The strongest tornadoes will destroy this vehicle,” he said, “either by lifting it in the air and throwing it down on something, or by having some other debris hit it. Even though this thing’s very tough, it would not do very well if an SUV hit it at 150 miles an hour.”
Casey thinks the team has two or three realistic chances a year to get in the path of a tornado. They have until 2009 to get the shots they need to make their feature film.
He said making the film has involved a lot of boring days. Waiting around for weeks in small towns in Kansas for storms to develop can try one’s patience, he said.
But when he gets a report that there’s a chance of tornados forming nearby, Casey’s blood starts rushing. He said the thrill of chasing storms is in the hunt.
“It’s that excitement,” he said, “the potential of being close to something really amazing.”
As you get closer and closer to the storms, Casey said, it’s almost like transitioning into another world.
“It’s a land of darkness underneath,” he said. “You get that feeling of being underneath this immense beast.”
Gutierrez agrees. He recollected one time when he actually managed to get the TIV right inside a tornado. Looking up through the chimney of the storm was an incredible sight, he said, “like driving into the Empire State Building.”
Gutierrez said there’s nothing like being so close to one of these unpredictable and powerful storms. He said the reason why he chases storms is mainly scientific, but that there’s also a certain element of thrill-seeking involved.
“I guess there is an adrenaline rush, that’s for sure,” he said. “Going into a tornado is no tranquil task, you’re amped up the whole time. … You’re basically entering the unknown.”
Along with the challenges and the fun, however, Gutierrez and Casey are quick to point out that they’re involved in more than a self-seeking enterprise. Any footage they capture, along with the measurements they take, will eventually be analyzed by scientists like Wurman, who hope to use it to better understand the forces of nature at work within these tornados.
Wurman said the storm-chasing scene is nothing like it was portrayed in the 1996 movie “Twister.”
“Most chasers are basically geeks,” he said. “They’re just science nerds. It’s not like Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton.”
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