A peculiar phenomenon kept occurring to twister-whisperer cinematographer Martin Lisius as he pursued tornadoes and other storms through the country’s heartland from Texas to North Dakota: People kept wanting to come along for a look-see. And pay for the privilege.
Which is why the Arlington-based Lisius owns a couple of stormy weather companies – Prairie Pictures and Tempest Tours, both specializing in severe weather.
Lisius, 59, is a good example of one thing leading to another, professionally speaking. Originally studying TV and film at UTA, his lifetime fascination with severe weather eventually became his professional focus as well. Odds are, everyone in this country – and lots of others – have seen his work, though they may not realize as much.
He was, for example, a technical advisor on the 1996 blockbuster movie Twister. He co-produced a documentary titled StormWatch for the National Weather Service, which employs it nationwide as their official storm spotter training video. He also produced several television programs relating to severe weather including Chasing the Wind and The Chasers of Tornado Alley.
Lisius is currently collaborating with movie maker Stephen Spielberg for weather scenes in the movie maker’s resurrection of Amazing Stories.
But the list of clients making use of his weather scenes footage is far longer: ABC, BBC, Boeing, Bozell Worldwide, Campbell Farms, CBS News, Chevy Trucks, Chiat Day, Icon Productions, Industrial Light & Magic, Leo Burnett USA, McDonalds, Microsoft, NBC News, Nissan, Paramount Pictures, Starbucks, Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Warner Brothers and others.
Lisius created Prairie Pictures, an Arlington-based media production company, in 1986. The company produces exclusive, mostly weather-related content, for theatrical, broadcast, documentary, commercial and promotional applications.
That there was an even bigger market for storm footage – something of an “ah ha” moment – became evident to Lisius after some of his film projects resulted in requests from video and film makers for more of the same because they had a dilemma: They needed high quality, real-world storm footage for their projects, but couldn’t simply order up a tornado, blizzard or hurricane when they needed one.
The answer was StormStock, which Lisius founded in 1993 as a component of Prairie Pictures. It incorporates both his company’s own work and those of other videographers on a fee-available basis. In the business, this is known as stock footage.
“Originally it was film, then video, high end and exclusive footage of images of hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, storm clouds, blizzards, stormy seas, climate change and other dramatic natural events,” Lisius said.
StormStock quickly became one of the most established stock footage weather brands in the world.
For years, Lisius generally ignored requests from people along the lines of “Take me with you” on film shooting jaunts.
“But we were chasing storms anyway, so I finally said to myself, ‘Why not?’ ” Lisius said, creating Tempest Tours in 2000.
The business has grown over time, generally limited to less than 150 tour participants annually on tours that can be as long as 11 days.
“You can’t guarantee everyone will see a tornado, so we emphasize a lot of education – not just chasing and watching a storm,” Lisius said. “For safety reasons we limit tours to no more than two vans.”
There’s a long waiting list for the tours.
Though sometimes there are no tornadoes to see, other times there have been spectacular events.
“I’m a little jaded now, but I have my own favorite days,” he said.
One of those was a June day in Iowa in 2017 – six storms on the ground in a single day.
Another was Harper County, Kansas, in 2004.
“The supercell was such that twice there were three tornados on ground at same time and three times there were two on the ground same time,” Lisius recalls. “We’re talking about one storm system that just couldn’t stop making tornadoes over an hour or two.”
Another spectacular storm he calls the “tri-stater.”
“The system went through three states,” Lisius said. “We saw four tornadoes over three hours with one on the ground for an hour. It also ran parallel with the highway, so we were only two miles away. I realized we had stopped talking about tornadoes and started talking about dinner. I think we were really spoiled on that day.”
O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.