The sixth film in the franchise, Mission: Impossible — Fallout has been called a culmination of all of the previous films in the series, with characters returning and storylines tied up as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team and allies race the clock after a mission goes wrong.
Presented by Paramount Pictures and Skydance, the Tom Cruise/Bad Robot Production takes the audience to some new locations as the pace never lets up and Cruise performs his most amazing stunts ever. Dneg in London and Mumbai was the primary VFX vendor for the film, with British-based BlueBolt, One of Us and Lola lending a hand. An in-house VFX team from Cheap Shot worked alongside editorial and music, while Blind provided post graphics.
McQuarrie and Cruise, on-set
“The first approach was always a practical solution,” says VFX supervisor Jody Johnson, who is also VFX super for DNEG. “Director Christopher McQuarrie was very vocal about shooting the stunts practically. We worked with him, the stunt team led by Wade Eastwood, and the special effects team led by Neil Corbould, to achieve certain sequences. After shooting the stunts, VFX came along to sweep up the bits and pieces with rig and camera removal, set extensions, weather changes and some bluescreen work.”
As outrageous and exciting as the stunts are, they never cross the line into fantasy or cartoons. The action is grounded in reality, and VFX helps to sell their believability. “Throughout the film we augmented what the guys did for real,” notes Johnson. “We took up the pieces and finished things off.” The film shot on three continents for almost a year, with Johnson on-set for the duration.
THE BIG STUNT
The biggest stunt sequence was the HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jump, in which Hunt and CIA agent August Walker (played by Henry Cavill) parachute 25,000 feet from a C-17 Globemaster III military plane flying over Paris and land on the glass roof of the Grand Palais, only to realize there’s no way down. Hunt crawls to a high-tension wire, disconnects it and uses it to swing back, grab Walker and rappel to the ground.
Cruise and Cavill received intense training in skydiving and the use of oxygen for the high-altitude flight. The stunt was originally scheduled to shoot at an RAF base near London but when Cruise broke his ankle pushing production into winter, the location shifted to Abu Dhabi.
“The HALO jump is almost three minutes long and appears to be one take,” says Johnson. “We talked to the director and DP Rob Hardy about what kind of lighting they wanted for the sky scene. They wanted that blue moment when the sun dips over the horizon and you get that beautiful orange line and a lapis blue sky a few minutes before nightfall.
“To get the most authentic results they needed to shoot at that time of day, so they only got one go at it every day over a three-week period. Tom and his team did four to seven practice jumps daily, then at the last moment, they’d jump for the camera at exactly the right time. So there weren’t that many takes to work with — maybe 18 of them. We had to take the best parts of each jump and join them together for one take as they leap out of the plane, pass through a storm, come out of the storm over Paris and land on the roof of the Grand Palais. We only used digital doubles for a couple of moments to join the A-to-B sides and match positions.”
Dneg created the storm with VFX and crafted a digital matte painting and 3D Paris to replace the Abu Dhabi desert.
“We got up on the roof of the Grand Palais at night, 300 feet over Paris, to shoot live plates and photogrametry with a drone to allow us to build the model you see at the end of the HALO jump,” Johnson explains. That was no mean feat given the proximity of the French president’s residence and high-security measures.
“As Hunt and Walker are coming in for a landing we replaced Abu Dhabi with the CG palace and, as they got closer, with a full 3D model of the palace. When they cut to the landing, that’s a big set in England. Production designer Peter Wenham and his team built an amazing facsimile of the roof they land on, which we set extended out with our model, lidar and the live plates of Paris we shot.”
Johnson notes that an enormous amount of material was captured in Paris to use in VFX shots. “Wherever we went we always gathered as much photo reference, data and live-action material as possible. We had a three-camera Red Weapon 6K array in a fast and nimble Bombardier off-road vehicle to shoot driving plates. We also had lidar and photos of locations to give us flexibility in post when we had to remove cameras from shots, change signs, add cars and add people into the deep background. Turns out we needed all that information.”
Although some of the hire-wire stunt sequence did not make it into the finished film, Dneg performed crowd replication to create 20,000 ravers in the Grand Palais below using full CG and 2D sprites to expand the number of dancers.
Early in the film Hunt is involved in a high-speed chase involving a motorcycle, a classic BMW M5 automobile and an armored truck. “We were lucky to have unique and unprecedented access to Paris — the local authorities gave us access to incredible locations,” says Johnson. “But the Arc de Triomphe was only closed for two hours Sunday morning starting at 6am and the Opera also for only a short time. So there was no time to set all the vehicles precisely to make sure the Russian arm or a camera vehicle were not in the shot. We had to paint out crews and do some set extensions. So there was a lot to clean up to help tell the story.”
For the part of the chase that finds Hunt driving the BMW sedan down a set of stone stairs, the art department had to construct a protective layer to cover the real steps. “We had to remove that layer and make the stairs look original,” Johnson reports.
New Zealand’s South Island was the site of some thrilling helicopter stunts, with the location doubling for Kashmir. The “long line” sequence featured Hunt climbing up a rope dangling from a helicopter flying at about 2,000 feet and then free-falling 40 feet onto the payload at the end of the rope.
“When we were scouting an airport in a remote glacial field with the director we saw amazing pilots long lining big payloads: The only way to bring big cargo into these locations was by helicopter,” notes Johnson. “Chris (McQuarrie) got the idea of Ethan falling from a helicopter and grabbing onto the payload. A lot of work was inspired by amazing locations with everyone wanting to push things to the next level and coming up with more and more outrageous ideas.
“I didn’t think there was any way for Tom to fall and catch onto a bag the size of a large wardrobe,” he continues. “But the answer was always, ‘Yes, we can do that.’”
A six-helicopter cavalcade captured material to use in the harrowing stunt. As in Paris, “We needed to capture as much data as possible,” Johnson says. “We had six Red Weapon cameras shooting 6K, each with a Canon 24mm lens, mounted on stabilizing Eclipse heads to get live-action plates of canyons and glaciers out into the ocean and into the clouds.”
Dneg built CG helicopters used in parts of the sequence, removed safety harnesses and cameras from the shots, and extended locations with the live-action plates.
A dramatic helicopter chase through the treacherous canyons of New Zealand’s Southern Alps took six weeks to shoot. “We added tracer fire and machine gun hits on the sides of rocks,” Johnson explains. “We also added snow or clouds at times — the weather changes very quickly there so sometimes we had to add digital weather to help the story.”
At the end of the aerial chase Hunt and Walker’s helicopters collide and crash into the top of a mountain. The production headed for Norway’s Pulpit Rock, a small plateau with a razor-sharp cliff that drops almost 2,000 feet into a fjord, to shoot the intense fight scene between Hunt and Walker that follows.
“The only way in was by helicopter and the rigging team built a little town on top of this remote mountain,” Johnson recalls. “We filmed for three days and were harnessed at all times because of the sheer drops on all sides. As we were leaving the weather came in — the last helicopter wasn’t able to get out so 30 people marched down the mountain for six hours in the snow.”
Dneg was charged with removing all evidence of the logistical support required on the mountaintop. “We had lidar, textural references and photogrammetry of the entire area for extensive clean up,” he says. “We added a CG helicopter to hang over the edge. We also did some bluescreen work in the UK toward the end of production when a couple of changes were made in the story to add personal drama. So we used our source material to reconstruct the Pulpit Rock environment.”
After all the high-risk stunts he performed, Cruise’s rooftop chase in London seemed relatively straightforward by comparison. But it was during this stunt that Cruise broke his ankle — after nailing the stunt.
“We had a lot of A-list locations to shoot in London in a short amount of time, so they maximized the number of camera angles and positions, but that meant there were often cameras and crews to remove from shots,” Johnson explains.
To give the audience a sense of being there on the rooftops, one camera and stunt rig was set up for Cruise’s run and another rig for his leap. “They had to cut in the middle of the run,” he says. “Our job was to take out the cut and join the two halves together. They needed to shoot the jump first, which was when Tom broke his ankle. So they couldn’t shoot the run portion until winter, when Tom recovered, and we had to join that footage into shots from a sunny summer’s day and match lighting across the two shots.”
Johnson emphasizes that since Cruise doesn’t use stunt doubles, the production had to wait for their star’s ankle to heal. “They are very experienced filmmakers and film watchers,” he says. “They want the experience to be totally authentic, which means they will go to great lengths to go right in there, up close. There were no compromises, so there were no shortcuts for us. If Chris or Tom had an idea, it had to be executed as described.”
The big challenges for Dneg were handling a high volume of shots with a short turnaround while keeping everything authentic. “Tom’s injury meant they finished shooting much later than planned, and the release date was set,” Johnson points out. “We pulled out all the stops to achieve a huge volume of work in a short amount of time with a high-quality threshold.”
To enable a 24/7 workflow, Dneg enlisted its Mumbai arm. “They have a really good skill set, especially with photoreal work,” he says. “We needed a lot of people working on the film; we had about 400 people on it at one stage.”
Dneg had a robust bespoke pipeline already in place along with a solid toolkit: Autodesk Maya for animation and lighting, SideFX’s Houdini for effects, Foundry’s Nuke for compositing and Isotropix’s Clarisse for rendering.
“The film was shot anamorphic 35mm and IMAX at 8K,” Johnson says. “All film material was scanned at 4K, and all digital material was handled in the same way. Everything went through one-stop digital shop Fluent Image, which had a central server that all facilities could access.
“The other VFX vendors were all London-based so we could pop round to see how they were doing and bring in Chris to fine tune things. The proximity was great, but the vendors also have a long history of great work and they continued to demonstrate that. They were good, friendly companies to work with.”
Johnson notes that, “the key to this film was getting access” to all of the stunning locations. “It was a belt-and-braces (suspenders) kind of situation so we could address anything that came up. Every shot was real. Our job was to add a little icing on top or remove some of the icing dribbling down the side. We had fantastic source material to work with, and that shows in the results.”
Johnson learned two valuable lessons during the production, he says. “Chris told me ‘don’t accept second best.’ That sounds logical, but we’re often under pressure to work very quickly and sometimes we’re forced to compromise. But Chris does not, and it shows in the film. When you have Tom flying a helicopter, acting and operating a camera at the same time, that demonstrates their level of commitment and training. It certainly inspired me not to accept second best.
“And the first AD, Tommy Gormley, taught me that no matter how much pressure you’re under, you can’t let it filter down to your team. You mustn’t let it roll downhill.”
To be sure, there are absolutely no downhill moments in Mission: Impossible — Fallout.