Hail To The Chief: The Making Of The Ultimate Tornado

James Zahara Weather Blog

One of my favorite movies happen to appear on television the other day,  “The Wizard of Oz” .  As a child, I was mesmerized when I first saw the tornado scene and its realization.  Scary but fascinated!! Probably what kick started my love for weather.  Back in 1938 when they created the movie, they didn’t have great special effects technology with multiple green screens.  But they made it work!  Think of it.  How did they do it?!?!

oz tornado

The tornado scene was created by special effects coordinator, Arnold Gillespie.  He created the tornado out of a wind sock that they use at airports. The whole tornado was made out of a wool cloth that was 35 feet tall.  He mended the fabric with music wire so it would hold together when spun.  Gillespie then attached the top of the tornado to the top of the sound stage to a gantry way that was across the top of the stage. He attached the bottom part of the tornado to a slit in the ground and then was attached to a car that moved along the length of the stage.   A rod came up through the base of the tornado to pull it from one side to another. By moving the gantry and the rod in opposite directions while spinning the rod at the same time, it would make the twisting tornado appear to snake back and forth.   Dust and dirt were shot up from the base of the tornado making it appear that the ground was being dug up. Then Gillespie added huge wind fans, smoke and dirt to make it look like the tornado was throwing everything around.

To obscure the gantry at the top of the tornado, two glass panels with gray balls of cotton were pasted creating the mammatus cloud effect.  These panels would move in opposite directions four or five feet in front of the cameras.  Taking the finish tornado animation as its background and the actors, like Dorothy in the foreground you set the most memorable scene in motion picture history.  “ITS A TWISTER, ITS A TWISTER!!  As the twister was getting closer, more debris and dirt were added in the foreground to obscure the tornado while providing more realism.  Check out the scene!

When it was all said and done, the tornado scene in the Wizard of Oz ended up costing more money than any other special effect in the movie.  It was worth it!!

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