Mission Impossible 4

Thu 2nd Feb 2012, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

3 February 2012, by Trevor Hogg

When the Great California Earthquake tale 1906 was placed in studio turnaround, filmmaker Brad Bird was left to search for another project to helm. “I was looking for something that was on the runway and ready to go. Those are usually films that studios are most confident in,” states the native of Kalispell, Montana who received a fateful text message from producer J.J. Abrams. “He said, ‘Here’s a crazy idea. Mission?’” Making the offer even more attractive was the involvement of Hollywood star and producer Tom Cruise whom Bird had met upon the release of his Oscar-winning film The Incredibles (2004). “One of the things that intrigued me, beyond the fact that Tom knew a lot about films and had worked with a lot of great directors, was with the Mission series he was determined to have each film have the style of its director.” The veteran animator accepted the assignment which would serve as his live-action directorial debut and assembled a team that included veteran ILM Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll. “He and Paul Hirsch, my editor, worked on the original Mission: Impossible [1996] as well as Sound Designer Gary Rydstrom.” Even though he did not intentionally seek out production crew members from the initial installment, Bird admits, “It didn’t hurt. All of those guys are great; they happened to be available at that moment and were interested.”


“I’m a huge fan of his films,” remarks John Knoll who had intended to assist Brad Bird on the 1906 film. “A lot of the important properties that a director needs to have are good story sense, being able to get performances out of your actors, and being good with shot design; he obviously has those very strongly. Even though Brad didn’t have live-action experience, he was surrounded by a lot of experienced live-action folks who helped him with those aspects of it.” Easing the transition for the man behind the camera were his creative collaborations with Pixar Animation Studios. “It would have been a bigger jump if I had gone from hand drawn animation, like my first film Iron Giant [1999], rather than going from the 3D CG films that I did,” states Brad Bird. “In those films you’re moving the camera physically through the equivalent of real space, you’re picking the equivalent of long, short or wide angle lenses, and you have to light them somewhat similarly to live-action.” Knoll aided Bird in producing the desired cinematic imagery. “There are a lot of people who will come out with a sheet full of numbers and explain to you what they did was correct. You sit there and go, ‘Yeah. But it doesn’t look right.’ John Knoll, even though he can go toe-to-toe with anyone on the technical side, trusts his eye. If something doesn’t look right he will be able to analyze specifically why it doesn’t look right. He’s very articulate.”

“Brad was great,” says John Knoll. “He left a lot of the detail work for us to do.” There were occasions when the filmmaker gave specific instructions. “At times when we were animating a submarine missile door opening and missile emerging or a CG car crashing or a digital double doing this or that, those were the things where he had a strong and detailed opinion.”



The ability of Bird to draw was an asset. “We all think visually so it’s good to have someone who speaks that language.” Bird remarks, “Our most productive conversations were always based on defining how something should look and if it wasn’t getting there being able to figure out what was missing.” One of the biggest challenges for the Hollywood production was budget constraints. “We constantly worked on ways to improve our efficiency so we were generating the maximum bang for buck,” reveals Knoll. “This work is not as big and bombastic as a Pirates or Transformers film where you have lots of exploding visual effects. We were trying to support the action sequences with stunt safety removals, virtual environments, and set extensions. It’s meant to be invisible work.”

When asked to define a great visual effect, Brad Bird answers, “It would be easy to point to things like the Kremlin Explosion which is probably the most spectacular thing and that’s always where people tend to go. But I like the subtler things like what he did with the E-screen in the hallway. When photographing the scene we had a big semitransparent black backing and the image of the end of a hall was projected on there in special effects later on. The effects were clever because they explained to the audience how that technology was working. It was very sophisticated and simple at the same time. There are little camera bounces and imperfections in the image, and they help sell this absurd idea. Those are my favourite effects in the film because they’re not obvious.” In discussing the dramatic sequence set in Russia, John Knoll reveals, “The Kremlin Explosion is Ethan [Tom Cruise] in front of a blue screen and a two hundred square foot section of cobblestones in Vancouver. The rest of the environment is synthetic, created from reference stills of Moscow. The Kremlin Wall and the clock tower are CG objects. The explosion is mostly computer generated using our Plume simulation and a rendering package for pyrometrics.” The aftermath was filmed in the Czech Republic. “After Red Square there are shots where Ethan is walking around; those were all shot in Prague. We did a handful of skyline replacements to make it look like we were in Moscow. That theme continues in other places. There is a scene shot in Santa Monica Airport where we wanted it to look like we were in Dubai so we did a skyline replacement.”



Every movie in the franchise has a signature stunt sequence and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) carries on the tradition with Tom Cruise climbing the world’s tallest building in the Burj Khalifa Sequence. “That was an idea probably born out of J.J. Abrams visiting Dubai years before when they were opening Star Trek [2009],” believes Brad Bird. “J.J. looked around and went, ‘This is the coolest looking city. It’s so distinctive and strange. It would be amazing to put a film here.’” Capturing the experience in IMAX was inspired by Christopher Nolan shooting half an hour of The Dark Knight [2008] in the format. “I felt like the verticality of that stunt and the impact of seeing it on a big screen with a bright, sharp image would put the audience there. When we first conceived it we were thinking it was going to be mostly special effects but Tom wanted to do it practically with a little bit of wire removal. We prepared a worse case scenario for only getting a handful of shots. Fortunately, everything went right and we ended up shooting a tremendous amount of footage on the building.” With the film crew promising to put everything back to its original state, they were able to make alterations to the location. “Before long we were taking out 27 windows to be able to get our cameras sticking out there and getting all the angles we needed. It ended up becoming a tremendously complex exercise but I think it paid off on the screen. None of it would have mattered if we didn’t have a star who was willing to go out there and do all that crazy stuff. Tom was not only willing, he was pumped about it.”


Parking garage

“We have a scene in a robotic parking garage that is modeled after the Autostadt in Wolfsburg,” states John Knoll. “There is a central shaft with two robot arms that pick up and deliver cars. Tom Cruise is chasing a bad guy through the parking garage and there’s action on multiple floors. They built a fairly large and elaborate set piece that represented a few floors on one side and five floors on the other. We tried to get as much in camera as possible. There are a fair number of wide shots where we see off the end of the set.” The CG set extension was made using Katana and the rendering program Arnold. “It’s an IMAX sequence so we had to work in high resolution.” The Underwater Limousine Escape Sequence was visually enhanced. “Brad wanted the machinegun fire up above the water to be threatening so all those shots have CG bubble trails in them.” A concept vehicle with a high tech front windshield is showcased in the picture. “The BMW Vision is chasing across Mumbai; there’s a design for a heads up display that is an interactive touch screen.” The automobile collision scene consists mainly of a practical effect. “Tom was shot with the full sandstorm dust blowing. The car flip was done without any dust. We spliced those two [images] together and tried to make it as seamless as possible. Tom’s reaction was timed appropriately with when the car impacted, and you had all the interactive shadow and debris elements in place.”

ILM was assisted in creating the 700 visual effects shots by its Singapore office which handled the Submarine Nuclear Missile Launch Sequence and the shot where the camera becomes engulfed by a sandstorm. ILM also recruited an Australian company to work on the vertigo inducing scene featuring Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa. “The main challenge for us with the tower sequence was the fact that it’s essentially the biggest mirror in the world!” explains Fuel VFX Visual Effects Supervisor Dave Morley. “This is multiplied by the fact that it has ribs that protrude from the building that are a stainless steel. These are designed to help break-up wind gusts that hit the building, but what it meant for us was that for every wire we had to remove we had reflections appearing on multiple surfaces, as well as repair multiple reflections of Tom. So for each wire we sometimes had to remove it from four different planes on the screen. This certainly upped the ante for us in terms of ‘what you can get away with’ especially at IMAX res. We mostly ended up completely roto’ing Tom off the plate and rendering a CG Burj, whilst restoring back as much of either the original building or the set piece. When we were working with the set piece we had to add Dubai to the background. ILM supplied us with an 18k cyc that served as the BG for these shots. The cyc also required extensive life to be added so we built a city of CG cars and layered them out to align to the 18k cyc. We rendered out a long sequence of traffic, which would then cover us for being able to choose a random part of the sequence to add the cars to each shot as required. When Tom finally reaches his ultimate destination of the server room, we had to create the moment of him breaking through the glass.”


A Californian VFX facility looked after the Magnetic Suit Sequence where Jeremy Renner jumps down a shaft. “We were responsible for the tunnel extension and the turbine integration,” explains Pixomondo Visual Effects Supervisor Jason Zimmerman. “The geometry of the fan was provided to us. We also created a CG version of the practical rover in the sequence. In all three of these cases, we were matching something that was also present as a practical element on set. The challenge is to match exactly the textures and lighting so our elements seamlessly integrate with the rest of the set. We spent a lot of time perfecting our texture/lighting setups to be able to drop our elements into multiple shots in the sequence; that gave our compositors a good place to start. Our compositors have a great eye as well. The comp team, led by Ben Campanaro, focused on even the smallest of details to make sure our shots looked good.”


Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was an enjoyable experience for the Academy-Award-winning visual effects supervisor. “I had a fun time on the show,” states John Knoll who believes that the director has made an indelible mark on the action-thriller. “People will be pleased of how well his personality comes across in the movie.” Brad Bird reveals, “My favourite action films are Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981] and Die Hard [1988] which have humour that comes out of characters and situations but not at the expense of the intensity; those I think were a tremendous inspiration for me.” Within three weeks of being released, the $140 million production earned over $410 million worldwide. Acknowledging the box office success of his live-action directorial debut, Bird remarks, “It worked out. I’m really happy about that.”




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