Adventures in Stormchasing: Surfing the Front with Brian Press of Impressive Creations
Surfing The Front 2009 from Impressive Creations on Vimeo.
I met Brian Press at Re:Frame Austin in April. Like other attendees, Brian was there to soak up all the knowledge he could from the best wedding cinematographers in the business and network with his peers. But unlike, I suspect, anyone else at the event, Brian was avidly tracking weather patterns itching to swing over to Oklahoma as soon as Re:Frame ended to track down the latest storm to sweep across the plains. In addition to building his growing wedding film business, Brian has spent two decades tracking and chasing storms.
Here's an interview I did with Brian shortly after Re:Frame Austin. This stormchasing wedding cinematographer runs L.A.-based Impressive Creations, and also operates a stormchasing and Extreme Weather Imagery Company outfit called Surfing The Front. Press describes the name "Surfing the Front" as "a perfect marriage between ocean surfing and Storm Chasing. I have surfed across some of the great oceans of the world, and now I am surfing skies, Surfing the Fronts of Tornado Alley."
EventDV: Are there any other specific shots in the reel that might benefit from a little explanation, or anything not apparent that readers/viewers should know?
Brian Press: I guess this clip is pretty self-explanatory. This clip is a compilation of my favorite video and photos I have taken over the past 5 years while chasing with my brothers. There are a few shots of the in car satellite radar as well. I would like to point out that the song I used (with permission) is by the legendary band Rush. I have always loved this song and I thought it would be a great song for a storm video. I love it and I think it works great with the imagery.
EventDV: Let's start with a quick history of how you got started with video and photography. You were surfing before you started shooting, right?
Brian Press: Well, it all started back in my early days of bodyboarding and traveling. I would always have a cheep point-and-shoot camera with me because I want to be sure to have proof of how good the waves were so I could "rub it in" with all my friends back home. Back in 1988 my dad began filming me and my friends while bodyboarding. He would come down at 6am and film us surfing our brains out. He was also a HUGE supporter of my growing bodyboarding career. He would take me up and down the california coast to all the competitions and was my #1 fan. I would then come home and edit the footage together with my two VCRs. I actually used these ghetto videos to get my first bodyboarding sponsors.
EventDV: What were your first paid gigs?
Brian Press: Some of my first paying photography gigs were actually submitting surfing and lifestyle shots to national magazine publications. It was so cool to see some of my shots in there and get paid $50 for a 2"x3" shot. I was getting hooked and I didn't even know it! In 2000, a good friend of mine had a recording studio and I had the opportunity to record my first original music CD. Shortly after, I decided to get a Mac and start doing my own music production. You can see my personal music website at www.brianpressmusic.com. As far as first video gigs, in our first year of marriage, my lovely wife, Holly, actually got us our first paying gig. While I was on the way to becoming a music producer she was a nanny for a family and one day she came home and asked if we could make a slide show of their kids on our new computer. So I dug in and figured it out, (iMovie v. 1, pre-Ken Burns effect) and I pulled it off. We did it as a surprise to the family but the mom ended up giving her $150 and that was it. Shortly after this, one of my friends at church asked me if I could video his wedding. I didn't have a camera, so a longtime friend of mine, graphic designer John DeTemple of www.dincdesign.com let me borrow his Canon XL1 for my first few weddings.
EventDV: I noticed your site (www.impressivecreations.com) is divided into a section for high-end brides and one for budget brides. Which came first, and how are they staffed?
Brian Press: Impressive Creations definitely came first. It's been my baby! Now I am using Beautiful Wedding Films as a training ground to get my shooters and editors ready for the Impressive packages. It's working out really well. I am hoping by the end of the year, Beautiful Weddings will be flying on its own, totally separated from Impressive Creations. At this time I do have one part-time studio assistant who helps with emails, contracts, and appointments as well as other miscellaneous things. I also have 3 or 4 freelance shooters and editors currently working with us. It's been working out really well and I am so thankful to have some really easy going people to work with.
EventDV: On to stormchasing! I think you mentioned in Austin that you go way back with stormchasing, so you didn't just jump on the bandwagon after Twister came out. How did you start getting into storms?
Brian Press: I am definitely a pre-Twister chaser. Again, this whole thing started back from my surfing days. I was obsessed at looking over the weather maps so I would know when the next good swell would be coming in. This was WAY before all these amazing surf reports and forecasts we have access to now. I would look at satellite images and by knowing how big the storm was and the direction it was moving I could get an idea how big the waves might get at our local beaches. As far as thunderstorms, well, when I was very young, like 5 or 6 years old I was so terrified of thunderstorms! I remember being so scared I would eat my dinner under the kitchen table and sleep in my mom and dad's bed during a storm. Also, my brother Jay used to tease me all the time when I was younger. He would lock me in my room and turn the lights on and off really quickly and say "Thunder! Lighting!" and it would just freak me out and I would cry like a baby. Years later, I began to appreciate thunderstorms, but deep inside I always had a fear of them. Yet, I would look forward to seeing storms when they were around. I clearly recall me and my friends would get on the roof of my moms house and watch the lightning from there. Growing up in Southern California, thunderstorms were and are a very rare treat, but I would stop everything I was doing to watch them when they came through. Also, living by the beach, we would get awesome views of the storms over the water.
When we first got cable TV at my parents house I remember seeing a special on the Weather Channel called "Tornado Hunters" and I was so enthralled by that I began ordering any video I could find with tornadoes or severe thunderstorms in it. I actually got quite a library going for a while. As the web was coming into my existence, I remember seeing a website called www.StormTrack.org. I had subscribed to their monthly newsletter and in the first edition I got, back in 1995, I saw an advertisement for an actual storm chasing tour. The company was called "Tornado Alley Safari." I thought, "This is finally my chance to see a tornado!" So one day I called owner Stephen Levine and he answers all my questions about severe storms and at the end of our conversation, I said "So where do I send my deposit!"
EventDV: What makes you chase something that most people want to run from?
Brian Press: I can clearly remember the days when I was super-scared of riding big waves. Yet through my years and years of surfing all over the world, I began to over come those fears of being slammed and held under by a 20-foot wave and began to thrive on surfing big waves. There was nothing like going to the North Shore of Hawaii to surf 10 to 15-foot Pipeline then come home and surf my local beaches here. It felt like a walk in the park compared to the massive beasts I was riding in Hawaii. In the same way, I wanted to overcome my fears of thunderstorms so why not go out to where the biggest and baddest storms in the world formed and face my fears there. And in 1996, that's what I did. In fact my first Supercell Thunderstorm I ever saw spawned 6 tornadoes. It was so crazy. We saw downed phone poles and trees, and some roofs torn off of houses. I was hooked!
EventDV: Do you have a stormchasing crew you go with, is it a solo thing, or does the cast vary from storm to storm?
Brian Press: Over the years I went chasing with Tornado Alley Safari tours where we would have up to 6 or 7 clients with us on any given tour. I eventually became part business owner of Tornado Alley Safari, but that didn't work out, so I decided I had enough experience and equipment to start chasing on my own. In the past 5 or 6 years, I've gone with my wife and two brothers. I even took my 6 year old son out with me last year. It was awesome and he had a great time! We also chase as a family here in the local deserts during our monsoon season. We actually saw a Tornado a few years ago near Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. In 2010, I am planning on starting my first official tour company with my brothers. (And for all you who wonder, yes, my wife is in full support of this glorified, extreme hobby. She loves chasing too, in fact, she encourages it!. Yes, I am a blessed man!)
EventDV: How many states have you chased storms in? How many stormchasing excursions do you go on each year?
Brian Press: All the best chasing is done out in the central states including Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. These areas are the best because the land is quite flat and you can see for miles and miles. There are tornadic Thunderstorms in other states and most states across the country get tornadoes, but the central plains is the best for viewing and filming. Surpercell or rotating thunderstorms form here year after year. In fact, I just got back from a three day chase where my brother Alan and I drove 1,700 miles through 5 states. It was great! This was my 2nd chase of 2009 and I am hoping to get out one more time before it's done for the season.
EventDV: What would you say is your most intense stormchasing experience?
Brian Press: A few years ago, we were cornered by destructive baseball-sized hail just to our north, and just to our south was the tornado-warned part of the storm. This storm had a rotating wall cloud (which is where a tornado would come out of) and it was black and green and nasty-looking. There was only one north-south road so I felt so trapped. The tornado ended up passing 200 yards in front of us. After it passes, we were able to get out in front again and watch it for a few hours before dark. It was so intense! The last thing I wanted to do was to have our windows broken out by the huge hail, yet I didn't know exactly where the tornado could form so I we just kinda sat there. Crazy!
EventDV: Is there a clear dividing line in the storm chasing world between the "real" storm chasers and the "city slickers" types who go on commercial stormchasing tours?
Brian Press: Well, there are some veteran chasers that have been around since the '70s. These guys are amazing! They started chasing way before there was any kind of in car radars or equipment or even cell phones. I couldn't imagine doing that now. Yet, with the movie Twister, technology, and just extreme sports in general, there are tons of chasers out there now. On any given day, you can see 20 to 30 chasers converge when there is a big storm present. It's pretty cool actually. It's fun to share pictures and stories with all of those you meet through the online forums. With the technology we now have, it's almost getting easy to chase. Obviously there is so much more to it, but yeah, it's hard to define a "real" storm chaser over a "city slicker." I think anyone who is passionate about viewing weather, be it extreme or just a beautiful sunset, would love to chase out in the plains. Even if you don't see a tornado, it's so amazing out there! However, there is a group of people that we call "Yahoos" who get out there and just follow other experienced chasers around and hope to see something big. That's kinda irritating but hey, that's what I used to do my first few years of chasing. One thing I have to say is that I would never recommend going chasing without a tour guide for your first few years. Even with the technology we have now, there is so much more involved.
EventDV: How much do you need to know about meteorology and weather-tracking to get into storm chasing?
Brian Press: If you go out with a tour guide you don't need to know a thing. That's how I started. But there are all different levels of weather you could know about and understand. Because of my passion for storms I have set out to understand much more that just looking at the six o'clock news and see what they say. I have learned to forecast my own weather, but of course I still and will always rely on the experts. It's just like understanding a new camera you buy. The more you understand what each button, setting, and knob will do, the better it will perform in all the different environments you might find yourself shooting in. Same with chasing: The more you can get a grasp on the details of a specific severe weather set-up, the more likely you will be in the right place at the right time. So much changes during a potential tornadic day that you have to rely on your own knowledge. Weather patterns change so rapidly that the National Weather Service (NWS) can't make the proper updates or issue a warning before it's too late. Sometimes the while system can change course and end up 150 miles north of where you just thought it was going to me. The atmosphere is fluid like water and it does what ever it wants too when ever it wants to.
EventDV: Do you habitually follow storms to see where you might go next to get in front of one?
Brian Press: Yes, I am always looking at the computer weather forecast models to see when the next severe set up might happen. I'm always looking for a way to get out there to chase. I used to dream about going to the next exotic surf spot, now I dream about going to Oklahoma and seeing a monster Supercell. I feel that's why I do what I do. That's why I like doing videography to provide for my family and lifestyle. That's why I have a bunch of shooters and editors!
EventDV: When did you start photographing and filming storms? Is this something you do regularly now?
Brian Press: I started shooting and filming storms over 20 years ago and yes, I do it as much as I can. I love it. Don't tell this to my brides, but I've canceled appointments and other commitments so I can chase. I make it work!
EventDV: Are there other pro videographers and photographers that you know who do this?
None that I know of. But hey, let's do the next Re:Frame in Oklahoma city, in May and part of our shoot out will be who can get the most cinematic shot of a tornado using a Glidecam. I would love to film a wedding with a tornado in the background. I remember hearing of some hardcore chasers that have gotten married during a severe storm. That would be some crazy footage. Then we can do an extreme trash the dress video as the bride gets sucked up!
EventDV: Do you need special equipment to shoot storms? Can you describe some of the equipment or techniques you used to get particular shots in the clip?
Brian Press: No, nothing really special other than bulb setting on my still cam. In fact, this is the first year I am getting some sweet HD footage of some great storms. I do feel it's important to use tripods out there because so much of the footage I see online is sooooo bumpy. Last year, I used my iPhone as my main source of weather info. All you really need to chase is a good roadmap and up-to-date radar and you're set. The iPhone provides a lot of that for you as long as you have cell service, you got the most up to date weather info. It's great! We also use some Satellite weather feeds thought XM radio, so when we are out in the boonies, we can still get current radar and storm trends.
EventDV: Does it increase the intensity of the experience and/or the risk factor to be out there shooting?
Brian Press: Yeah, sometimes because you can get so focused on getting "the" shot while driving that you may not be paying attention to the road. I have also had some lightning strike pretty close by while filming a tornado in the field in front of us. My rule of thumb is that if it's raining over head and there is lightning around, it's not safe. If you do a search on You Tube for huge hail or crazy tornadoes you will see some amazing stuff.
EventDV: Have you had any stormchasing and/or storm shooting close calls?
Brian Press: Once we had a bolt hit a telephone pole about 50 yards away from us. Talk about intense!! The bolt was so close you could feel the heat from it. When it struck, it made an instantaneous exploding thunder that shook our car and our nerves. We have almost had our windows broken out a few times from large hail. We ALWAYS get the damage insurance when we rent cars. We just don't tell them why!
EventDV: Is this the first time you've shown your stormchasing footage and photos?
Brian Press: I was on National Geographic a few year back while working with Tornado Alley Safari tours. That was cool. They followed us around the plains for a week or so. They also showed some of my footage on the show and a few little interviews with us. Another little side income I have gotten from chasing is when I get some good video, I can upload it to my local news stations and they will play it on the air. I have developed a few good relationships with the local weather guys out here. It's a great way to fund my chases, when it works out! "It's sunny and 80 degress here in Los Angeles, but our local storm chaser Brian Press, is out in Kansas right now...."
EventDV: Do you have any plans to do any sort of stormchasing documentary as a TV show or commercial product?
Brian Press: No.. Not anytime soon, but it's funny you ask because I just met a guy at my local Starbucks who works with some people over at Fuel TV and we exchanged cards and he said he would be interested in something like that. I'm into it!
EventDV: You also mentioned that you surf and (I think) shoot surfing. How much of that do you do?
Brian Press: Well, as I mentioned earlier, that's where this all started. I ended up becoming a professional Bodyboarder and had the incredible career and opportunity to travel the world surfing exotic locations (for free) for 12 years. I went everywhere competing and doing photos shoots in Australia, Japan, Brazil, Hawaii, South Africa, France, Spain, Reunion Islands, Indonesia, Mainland Mexico, Florida,and others. We even got to ride some crazy man-made wave pools in Texas and Norway one of which I broke my collar bone on. (Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGtTbNZxOhM. This was filmed in 1993.) It was the most amazing time of my life. I was sponsored, got paid well, got to travel for free, was in magazines and even had Bodyboards with my name on it that sold all over the world. In 1997 I placed 1st in the USA and 3rd on the World Tour of Bodyboarding. It was amazing time in my life and I will never forget all that I experienced and learned through this time.
EventDV: What's up for you next as a storm chaser?
Brian Press: Well, I just got back from a 3-day chase and I am pretty slammed with weddings and editing the next few months, but I am hoping to get out one more time to Eastern Colorado before the summer high pressure takes over Tornado Alley. Also, I am really looking forward to some local monsoon chasing with my family here in our local deserts. I'm also just finishing up a new website, www.surfingthefront.com, where I will be selling some of my images, weather posters, and videos. I may even make a weather calendar for 2010. One big thing I am working on for 2010 is to officially start my stormchasing tours. I am thinking of offering 2 tours in May of 2010. The first week and one the 3rd week. They will be seven day tours starting in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. May is prime time tornado season in Tornado alley, and we hope to have some memorable and exciting tours this coming year. We are still working out all the pricing and details but if anyone is interested I can be contacted at info [at] surfingthefront.com.
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and program director of EventDV-TV.