Normally, meteorology isn’t considered a glamourous job. It most certainly isn’t associated with Hollywood or the world of movies, which is why Global Calgary meteorologist Jordan Witzel’s story is so interesting.
Brought onto the production of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant by a local company (he had previously worked on the sci-fi space film Interstellar), Witzel was the forecasting consultant on the film, responsible for letting the production team know about optimal weather conditions, locations best for shooting and even specific details like cloud thickness. Establishing continuity in the movie was his ultimate goal — for example, there couldn’t be snow of a different consistency from scene to scene.
Given that the vast majority of footage in The Revenant takes place in the wilderness, Witzel’s opinion and input were invaluable to the success of the finished product (as evidenced by the number of times per day he was contacted by the production crew). Shot in various locations, including Kananaskis County, south of Calgary, and Squamish, B.C., the film is jam-packed with mountainous terrain, dense forests, volatile rivers and piles of snow.
WATCH: Global Calgary meteorologist Jordan Witzel was a weather consultant for the movie “The Revenant.” He talks to Gord Steinke about his experience.
Global News spoke with Witzel about his work on The Revenant, and you’ll never look at meteorology quite the same way again.
Location, location, location
Shot in both Alberta and B.C., the filmmakers had trouble maintaining consistency between shooting locales. Different clouds or light availability made a huge impact throughout the filming process, Witzel discloses.
“They shot some of it in the fall, some of it in Squamish,” says Witzel. “But they hoped they could finish it in Alberta, in the mid-spring. Right away you’re fighting clouds that are different between the B.C. coast and here. When they get any resemblance of that west-coast cloud, that really impacted their lighting.”
“They had at least 11 different set locations throughout Alberta and B.C. that were fair game each week. I had to monitor most of them at any given time.”
WATCH ABOVE: The Revenant trailer
Searching for that perfect snowflake
Yes, the production crew needed the “perfect” snowflake. In a scene from The Revenant, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is trying to catch a snowflake on his tongue, it was imperative to have the “right kind” of snow falling, Witzel reveals.
“There were always advisories for what the crews should look out for, usually cold temperatures and windchill,” says Witzel. “But more than that, there were the things that you don’t think of, like they needed some light snowflakes and it didn’t happen for two mornings, so they put that shot off. You can make snow for ground cover, but you can’t make the kind of snow they’re talking about. I didn’t want to over-promise them, but I had to be very accurate in my forecasting to say, ‘Yep, you will get that kind of snow that day.'”
As reported in 2015, Alberta experienced higher than normal Chinook frequencies during filming. This wreaked havoc on filming, often in unanticipated ways. For example, the winds prevented travel between certain locales, and it was often too warm for snow to accumulate like the production team hoped.
As Leonardo DiCaprio alluded to, 2015 was a milder winter in Alberta, and that in turn caused problems for the filmmakers. Average wind gusts would be around 60 km/h, and that made it difficult to move gear or fly helicopters to location, according to Witzel. The production team didn’t want to lose thousands of dollars flying to a remote spot if they weren’t able to shoot.
“Typically, they should have had deep snow in those areas [where they were filming],” says Witzel. “That’s where some of the crew started to get frustrated, because the director got frustrated. They felt like he was pushing them too hard, but he just wasn’t getting what he needed because of the weather. I definitely felt that tension more than I think I’d felt on any other project. They didn’t get everything they wanted, even though it turned out beautifully.”
Witzel was up early to meet the demands of this side gig. Besides daily conversations with the production team, he felt quite a bit of pressure to get the weather right. This isn’t your typical weather forecast, after all.
“They’re unique demands. It’s niche,” he says. “It’s stuff that people can’t get from just watching the weather or looking online. In particular, timing and lighting were some of the most important things, which I don’t deal with regularly. In my day job, I just say, ‘The cloud rolls in in the afternoon.’ For this, it’s more like, ‘The cloud rolls in at 2 p.m., but what kind of cloud is it? What does it look like?’ It wasn’t like on TV, where I dump the forecast and if I’m wrong, the next day I explain why I’m wrong. It forces you to go back and confirm and verify how things are going to go every 15 minutes in your forecast.”
“The production team, the people directly beneath Alejandro were my points-of-contact,” he continues. “Different people would check in on the daily phone calls. People would call me in the evenings. The woman in charge of continuity and myself… there was a stretch where we’d talk for an hour every evening. In her mind, she’s trying to piece together what I’m imagining and how it fits to her picture of what’s already happened and what they’re planning to shoot.
Watch below: Calgary Economic Development Commissioner Luke Azevedo joined Global Calgary with details on how many Calgarians are connected to the Hollywood movie, The Revenant.
A river runs through it
Rivers play a big part in the movie, and they can almost always be seen in the background when they’re not the focal point of the film. The way they looked — whether they were shallow, wide, full of rapids or calm — was of the utmost importance. In the movie, there are people crawling, fighting and swimming in the rivers. Witzel has applied meteorological training, so he was questioned about all of the rivers used during shooting. [The wide river in the film is Bow River, while the narrower channels are Kananaskis or Elbow River, among others.]
“That was a huge part before they started shooting, to give them a hydrologic outlook for the season,” says Witzel. “That really screwed us because everything I assessed it on was pre-Calgary flood. You take all this data, but it’s based on how the river flows due to its stream projection. Paths changed because of the flood — ice, old bridges and rocks formed new banks and directions. A lot of the sections were wider, and with the dryer seasons that followed, it made the water levels seem lower.”
Believe it or not, the production team actually paid money to raise water levels in the rivers. Witzel has a connection with someone who works at the hydro companies running the nearby dams.
“We ran into each other and he told me that the production team was in contact with the dam,” he says. “They actually paid to release more water to control the flow. They were paying a tax (if you want to call it that) as part of their budget for the movie. I don’t know if they resorted to that after they didn’t get what they wanted naturally, or if they were consulting with me and keeping that in their back pocket.”
‘The Revenant’ opens in theatres on January 8. You can watch Jordan Witzel on Global Calgary.
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