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The Storm-Chasing Special Effects Team Behind ‘Twister’

In the early ’90s, Industrial Light & Magic’s visual effects crew set out to do something that had never been done. When they were finished, cows were flying through the sky, and audiences had their first up-close glance at a tornado.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

The story of how Twister was created begins with a challenge. Specifically, one Steven Spielberg and his producing partner Kathleen Kennedy issued to Industrial Light & Magic. They wanted to find out if the Bay Area–based visual effects behemoth—founded by George Lucas in 1975—had the ability to make virtual tornadoes.

“Steven liked to have us do tests for things that hadn’t been done before,” says Stefen Fangmeier, the project’s VFX supervisor. “He called ILM and said, ‘Can you guys do this?’”

The answer, unsurprisingly, was yes. Starting with its work on Star Wars, ILM had revolutionized cinematic special effects. By the mid-’90s, it brought dinosaurs back from extinction for Jurassic Park, conjured fully interactive CG characters for Casper, and devised textured digital animal fur for Jumanji. Still, the company had never attempted anything like replicating a force of nature.

It was a uniquely ambitious undertaking—after all, tornadoes weren’t velociraptors and friendly ghosts. Because audiences had actually seen them, anything less than a believable depiction wouldn’t be sufficient. “This is real,” says the movie’s practical effects guru John Frazier. “It has to look real.” And the only way to do that was with CGI. Says current ILM VFX supervisor and then-digital effects artist Ben Snow: “That was definitely something you couldn’t do any other way.”

Twister may have finished behind the Will Smith–anchored Independence Day at the box office and the Academy Awards, but in 1996, no blockbuster delivered a purer hit of dopamine. Premiering 24 years ago this week—seven days earlier than initially planned to avoid competing with the soon-to-be released Mission: Impossible—the tale of science-minded storm chasers wasn’t just a popcorn flick. Visually, it was one of the decade’s most influential films.

“It really showed the sort of things that you could do in digital,” Snow says. “It’s crazy even now to even think about it.”

Before a studio agreed to finance Twister, ILM had to show proof of concept. Its creative director Dennis Muren, the recipient of nine Oscars, headed a test footage shoot on a stretch of road in Northern California that was flat enough to pass as the Midwest. Fangmeier didn’t realize it, but for him it was an on-the-job audition. “He’d be like ‘Stefen, what do you think of this? What do you think of that?’” Fangmeier says. “It never occurred to me, ‘Oh yeah, he’s getting you ready to do this project.’”

While that was happening, ILM’s Habib Zargarpour was enlisted to start attempting to create a tornado. The 35th employee hired in the company’s digital department, he was known for his ability to make onscreen magic with digital particles. It was Zargarpour who came up with the gaseous green effect that occurred whenever Jim Carrey’s character transformed into the title role of The Mask. “I was given, I think, 10 weeks and it was me and Dennis Muren, just the two of us,” Zargarpour says. “No pressure.”

In that time, Zargarpour used software called Dynamation to create the millions of tiny particles that made up a spinning, fast-moving funnel cloud. “You could script behaviors for every single particle,” he says. “I was basically creating particles out of statistics. Forming some volume.” He compares it to packing together little scoops of ice cream.

The test footage achieved its goal: It looked so real, it was scary. Frazier recalls seeing it for the first time, in a screening room at Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The short film was shot from the perspective of a pickup truck driver. As the vehicle moves toward a tornado, a tractor flies down into the frame from left to right and bounces on the ground. The impact causes one of its tires to snap off and, in a final flourish, smash through the windshield. Then the screen fades to black. (In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, something else flies through a windshield and into Zach Grenier’s chest.)

Frazier was impressed by what he’d just watched. “Man, that’s pretty cool,” he remembers saying to himself. His admiration quickly turned to astonishment when Spielberg revealed a twist. He explained that aside from the truck, almost everything in the clip was computer generated—including the funnel cloud and the rogue piece of farm equipment.

“That was an eye-opener,” says Frazier, who’d spent his five-decade career in Hollywood orchestrating fiery explosions and spectacular set pieces. “I thought, ‘Well, we’re dinosaurs now.’”

Armed with that test footage, Spielberg and Kennedy set out to sell Hollywood on Twister. It didn’t take much convincing. “The minute we took that shot into the studio and they saw it, they said, ‘Done. We want to make it,’” Kennedy told Wired in 2015. “We didn’t even have a script yet!”

Both Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures staked the film. To write the screenplay, Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton and his then-wife Anne-Marie Martin were reportedly paid $2.5 million. (Joss Whedon, Steven Zaillian, and Jeff Nathanson were called in as uncredited script doctors.) After making 1994 megahit Speed and spending a year in preproduction on Godzilla, the Dutch director Jan de Bont left the monster movie to helm Twister. Though the Sandra Bullock–Keanu Reeves vehicle was his directorial debut, he’d spent years working as a cinematographer on action epics like Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October.

The making of de Bont’s summer tentpole, shot in Oklahoma and Iowa on a budget that climbed to upward of $90 million, was, well, stormy. According to Steve Daly’s 1996 Entertainment Weekly cover story, extraordinarily bright lighting on set temporarily blinded Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. And after being covered in windswept grime while filming in a ditch, the two leads reportedly needed hepatitis shots.

“The first day they were using real dust with fans, and it went in their eyes and infected them,” Zargarpour says. “Right away that became an additional visual effect that had to be reshot.”

Then there was the director of photography, Jack N. Green. He had replaced Don Burgess, who grew tired of the mercurial de Bont and departed the production five weeks into filming, along with some of the film crew. And then Green left, too, but not by choice. The hydraulic system used to shift a tornado-damaged home was accidentally turned on while Green was still standing on set, and he got bonked on the head and injured his back.

The cast and crew of Twister may have had it rough, but the VFX team faced obstacles as well. While realism was paramount, a key question remained: What exactly did tornadoes look like up close? Millions of people had seen and survived the deadly storms, but few had captured them on film beyond grainy video.

“The quality was always fairly dodgy,” says Fangmeier, who in the late ’80s had made tornado simulations while working with storm chasers at the University of Illinois’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications. “I mean, these days somebody taking [video] with the iPhone would be fantastic. Back then it was people with these little camcorders.”

Using gobs of amateur footage as their imperfect inspiration, ILM’s rapidly growing digital side bore down on Twister. “We could see and feel the gist of how they looked and that’s what we were trying to do,” Zargarpour says. “It had to be convincing, obviously, for people to believe it in the theater.”

To help streamline the building of the tornadoes, designers Henry LaBounta and Chris White built modifications to Dynamation. “It basically gave you a bunch of parameters to control the look of the twister,” Snow says. Software engineer Florian Kainz also developed a custom rendering program that allowed the artists to properly light and shadow tornadoes. “That was key,” Snow says, “to actually getting a realistic look.”

The process of sculpting believable digital funnel clouds, even with the aid of cutting-edge technology, took many hours of fine-tuning. Snow recalls visual effects producer Kim Bromley Carson dropping a fax on his desk; it was from Spielberg, who called the CG tornadoes “astonishing.” But Spielberg also added this: “The twister looks a bit like a man who dyes his hair. There’s something that’s not quite realistic about it.” Snow pinned the note above his desk to remind him of how far the team still had to go.

Twister’s VFX crew spent months holed up in the D building at Kerner Optical, ILM digital’s then-headquarters in San Rafael, California. “We were all sitting in this little room just yelling at each other,” Snow says, “‘What about this? What about that?’”

The tinkering paid off: They created dozens of memorable CG shots. Perhaps none is as iconic as the moment when dueling waterspouts propel a large, mooing cow through the air. The idea, Fangmeier recalls, was taken from a news story about a farmer’s airborne livestock. “We never thought that the cow would become so famous,” Zargarpour says. To animate it, ILM employed the same methods used on Jurassic Park.

“It’s not that difficult,” Fangmeier says, “because we had done dinosaurs.”

At its heart, Twister is a road movie. Storm chasers drive around to find tornadoes. To capture the visceral nature of that pursuit, de Bont had no other choice but to film on location. “It was constant movement,” says Fangemeier, who along with his team traveled to Tornado Alley for the spring and summer 1995 shoot, “and there was just no way to put a green screen or a blue screen anywhere really.”

That made digital compositing—the combining of digital and filmed images—hellish on ILM. “What you’re left with is hard work by the rotoscope department and a team of artists who in those days were using Photoshop, frame by frame, to cut out the edges of the actors,” Snow says, “and then really sophisticated techniques to take those edges and soften them and blend them.”

To ILM’s visual effects wizards, the movie was an intricate puzzle to be solved on the fly. Much of Twister was filmed under sunny skies; detailed digital clouds had to be added later. “Obviously you can’t always wait for the weather,” Fangmeier says. “You can’t dial that in.”

For the scene where a truck is charging through a hailstorm—which Frazier’s practical effects team created by grinding up blocks of ice and spraying the cold shrapnel everywhere—the crew planted trees on both sides of an otherwise barren road. “We had to put the tornado behind these trees,” Zargarpour says. The problem was that the real trees swayed in the wind. “As it turned out, that became a nearly impossible compositing job,” he adds. So, the visual effects artists replaced the real trees with CG ones. Says Zargarpour: “It did give us amazing reference to what the trees should look like.”

As stressful as making Twister was for the VFX team, they had an absurdly good time showing the destructive power of tornadoes in never-before-attempted ways. They reduced barns into shards of wood and metal that flapped around like pieces of cloth, and sent a house spinning across a street like a tumbleweed. At one point, Hunt’s and Paxton’s characters Jo and Bill see a small object in the distance and ask, “What is that?” As it comes closer, they realize that it’s an oil truck being tossed around like a toy.

“The tanker, it was just moving really fast,” Zargarpour says. “I told Jan and Stefen, ‘If we want to get a sense of scale, it should just move a lot slower.’ You know, to feel bigger. That really helped the shot. It’s important to have the scale.”

Snow says that he “begged” to work on the sequence in which a tornado rips through a drive-in theater. “We wanted to project the image of the film onto the tornado itself,” he says. “And Jan de Bont’s like, ‘Let’s use The Shining.’” Specifically, its signature shot: When Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance bursts through the bathroom door with an ax. “That was a dream-come-true scene,” Snow says. “You had to take the film footage and convert it into little texture maps and then project that.”

For the film’s climax, digital effects alone wouldn’t cut it. In the scene, Jo and Bill rush to escape the wrath of an F5. They eventually find shelter on a farm pump house and tie themselves to a deeply rooted pipe. As the tornado rolls past, it destroys the ramshackle structure and lifts Jo and Bill off the ground. “Kathleen Kennedy said, ‘OK guys, how are we gonna do this?’” Frazier says. “There was nothing. I said look, ‘I only know one way to do this shot.’” He suggested using a “room roll,” a contraption that flips an entire set upside down. That way, Hunt and Paxton could hang from the bar but appear as if they’re about to be sucked into the storm.

“Kathy said, ‘Well OK, we’ll get back to that,’” Frazier says. “So they were in postproduction two, three months later and I get a call from Dennis Muren, and he says, ‘Can we talk about getting them upside down?’”

And so Twister finished its high-tech shoot with a nod to the old school. “It’s Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling,” Frazier says. “ … In the movie they’re upside down. When you look at them they’re hanging.”

As it turned out, the dinosaurs weren’t dead yet.

On May 10, 1996, Twister roared into cineplexes. After opening with a $41 million weekend at the box office, it went on to gross $494.5 million worldwide. That year, the only movie to make more money in theaters was Independence Day.

Critics adored neither blockbuster, but the Academy nominated both for the Best Visual Effects Oscar. Alas, the team behind the alien invasion picture that blew up the White House (Volker Engel, Clay Pinney, Douglas Smith, and Joe Viskocil) ended up taking home the little gold men.

“That wasn’t a fun night,” Frazier says.

“It’s tough to go against an image of the White House,” Zargarpour adds.

After the ceremony, held on March 24, 1997, Fangmeier looked at de Bont and said, “Well, next time blow up more shit.” He was joking. But the loss still stung. “They blew up the White House, but it was very traditional,” Fangmeier says. “And we had done something that had never been done before.”

After the movie came out, a man named Stephen Kessler sued Crichton, Spielberg, Universal, and Warner Bros., claiming that they had plagiarized his screenplay, titled “Catch the Wind.” In January 1998, a jury ruled that the filmmakers had indeed not ripped off the script. “Perhaps the most ironic moment of the trial was Spielberg’s testimony that the special effects and not the writing were the source of Twister’s success,” Variety reported at the time, “a statement probably intended to help a friend, given Spielberg’s past emphasis on the importance of the written word.”

Whether he was being ironic or earnest, Spielberg was probably right. Without its stunning visuals, Twister would’ve been a run-of-the-mill summer seat filler. With them it further ushered in filmmaking’s digital age. “It’s a whole different beast,” Zargarpour says. “You have to simulate it and you have to make it behave like weather and you have to light it to look real. And then this kept evolving to: We needed fire, explosions, water. Stormy seas were the next thing. These were all steps of evolution.”

By the late ’90s, when George Lucas’s work on the Star Wars prequels was well underway and The Perfect Storm was in development, his once-fledgling visual effects company had grown exponentially. In the past two decades, it has continued to make VFX for many of the world’s most popular films.

In 2005, ILM left San Rafael for the Presidio of San Francisco. Zargarpour, who’s been virtual production supervisor at Unity Technologies since 2018, says that the original Twister test footage got lost during the move. Only a portion of it was ever released to the public, via the movie’s original trailer.

“The full version is actually quite long,” Zargarpour says. “The tornado had all this debris around it and one of the debris specks gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger … ” Until it materializes as a tractor and scares the hell out of you.

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