PHX Photographer Mike Olbinski Goes to Hollywood

You might remember our friend Mike Olbinski, the Phoenix-based photographer who sent us his amazing photo of the mother of all haboobs (you know the one I’m talking about, see below). Well, Olbinski is kind of a big deal now. The video he shot of a massive “supercell” in Texas earlier this year has catapulted him into the limelight, and you can see his amazing work — albeit enhanced, Hollywood-style — in the new movie Thor: The Dark World.

Below, Olbinski talks to Arizona Highways about this opportunity, how it came to be and what life is like as a storm chaser:

The video you filmed of a supercell in Texas is now in Thor: The Dark World. How did this come to be?
One of the things I’ve been blessed with since really diving into storm-chasing and time-lapsing is the friends I’ve made along the way. I posted this video of the Booker Supercell, which I shot just this past June, on Vimeo, and it went viral. I hadn’t thought it would receive that kind of attention, so I also passed it on to my friends at TornadoVideos.Net, who have a very popular YouTube channel. They posted it there, where it also got a ton of views. Toward the end of July, Heidi at Tornado Videos passed on an email she received from Marvel, asking about licensing the footage! That day was one I’ll never forget.

What went through your mind when you read the email from Marvel?
Honestly, at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I never even knew that films like this would use stock photography to help them finish scenes. I figured it was all something they could create with computer-generated imagery. So, at first, I figured it must be for something for a webisode or something else that wasn’t a major motion picture. But once they asked me what was the highest resolution I had for that supercell time-lapse, I started thinking, “Wow, I think they want this for a movie.” And after a few emails back and forth, they told me what film it was for and I freaked out. I’ve always loved science fiction and comic-book movies, more than any other genre. To somehow couple my passion for storm-chasing with a movie like Thor: The Dark World … well, yeah, it blew my mind!

Did you have any idea what they were going to do with your video ahead of time, or were you in for a surprise?
No, I had no idea. It was all a surprise. For all I knew, it might have been something you see on a TV screen in the background of a scene — something no one would notice unless they were looking for it. I had hopes it would be more, but I honestly had no idea. In fact, it wasn’t until the week the movie came out that I even knew for sure that it hadn’t been cut from the film! So much gets left on the cutting-room floor, I was terrified that even though they asked at the last minute, it still wouldn’t make it into the final movie.

Haboob

Photo courtesy of Mike Olbinsky | PHX haboob 2011

What do you think about the scene?
I’ve only seen it once, and I would love to see it again. It was weird, but as the scene neared without me really knowing when it would happen, I got an inkling that it was close. And then, in that part of the movie, the drama heightened, and the music got louder,  and I got more and more nervous. I knew it was about to happen. And then it did, and it was amazing. I had my camera with me and started snapping photos so I could always remember when I saw it — but I kind of wish I had just sat back and enjoyed it. It was the thrill of a lifetime.

And not only that, but I believe Marvel made a bit of an exception and included my name in the credits in the “thank you” section at the end. I had a bunch of buddies with me when I watched it the Thursday evening it came out, and we all cheered when it popped up on the screen!

You’ve made a career, it seems, out of photographing and making videos of weather, including the mother of all haboobs, which rolled through Phoenix in 2011. How did you get into this line of work?
It was a bunch of random things that got me into storm-chasing and photography. One was the birth of my daughter — all I wanted to do was take pictures of her. At the same time, I was obsessed with looking at weather photos from other photographers. And I was becoming a huge fan of the show Storm Chasers, on Discovery. Put all that together, and I started taking photos of storms. I still remember my first lightning strike. And from there it grew into a passion that I had no clue I had inside me. I’ve always loved the weather and tried to share it with others by talking about it all the time … but I finally found a way to share it with everyone else in a way that would hopefully cause their jaws to drop!

At some point, I thought time-lapsing would be awesome, especially seeing how a dust storm moves in quicker time. Amazingly, that July 5, 2011, dust storm was probably my fourth-ever time-lapse. It only reinforced that I wanted to do this.

How did the Texas video come to be? How do you know you’re going to capture something that spectacular?
For the last four years, I’ve taken a trip to the Plains for a few days to chase storms. The first three were fun, but I never saw what I wanted to see. You truly have no idea if you are going to see the storms you want to see, let alone something spectacular. But on June 3 of this year, my buddy Andy Hoeland and I flew into Denver at 10 a.m., rented a car and headed for the Kansas-Colorado-Oklahoma border to chase storms that we hoped would pop up later in the day. We made it all the way into Kansas when we finally hit some good weather. We made a lot of mistakes earlier on, which kept us inside of some good hail showers and torrential rain. We finally corrected our course and headed into Oklahoma to get to the south of these storms. We were just a few miles into Texas when we came out of the rain and saw this massive, gorgeous, amazing supercell just floating over the land. It was everything I had been wanting to see and then some. I got my cameras set up, stepped back, got a tear in my eye and hugged Andy. We did it. I couldn’t believe it.

What does it take to be a storm chaser — is this an accurate term to describe what you do?
That is what I do, and it is an accurate term. To me, being a storm chaser is more than just going out now and then, driving a few miles from home and snapping some photos. You have to be an addict, in a way. The chasers on the Plains will be away from home for days, and maybe weeks, at a time. They’ll put 50,000 to 100,000 miles on their vehicles in a summer. Here in Arizona, we don’t have to drive as far, but I’ve chased all over the state and even into New Mexico. This past summer, I drove more than 8,000 miles just in Arizona and chased as far as Douglas. Being a storm chaser means you really don’t have a choice. If you see a storm, you have to go — even if you’ve chased 10 days in a row and are dead tired. Yes, sometimes you gotta say no … but if you missed something awesome, it would be devastating. Even being in Arizona, when I see an awesome setup in the Plains, I really wish I could fly out for each and every one of them. It’s hard not to chase.

What cameras did you use for the haboob and for the Texas supercell?
I shoot with Canon cameras, and both of those time-lapses were captured on Canon EOS 5D Mark II cameras.

Your work has reached Hollywood. What’s next?
I have no idea. Getting footage into a comic-book movie was something I never even knew was possible, so I assume whatever happens next will be the same thing. When I witnessed the 2011 dust storm, I thought it couldn’t get any better than that. An amazing storm, a viral video, appearing on the Weather Channel, Al Gore’s office calling and wanting to use it … I mean, what could ever top that? And then I saw the Booker Supercell. No clue what I’ll see next.

6 Comments

Filed under Photography, Q&A

6 responses to “PHX Photographer Mike Olbinski Goes to Hollywood

  1. avatarinstructordesintesis
  2. Thanks guys for the nice write up! Thank you Kathy Ritchie!

  3. Way to go Mike. Nice article. I enjoy the 2012 time-lapse I got from you last year. This is spectacular and perfect for the movie.

  4. Reblogged this on deathisonlyapromis's Blog and commented:
    This is absolutely amazing!!!!

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