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Declassifying the VFX of ‘Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One’

ILM, led by Simone Coco and Jeff Sutherland, delivered between 1,100-1,200 shots on the Christopher McQuarrie spy thriller, including a gunfight in an Abu Dhabi desert sandstorm, a Rome car chase, and fight atop a speeding train, and star Tom Cruise’s famed motorbike cliff jump.

Ethan Hunt has yet to tackle his toughest and most dangerous assignment: breaking into the studio vaults at Paramount Pictures to access before and after VFX imagery that proves such images actually exist from Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Visuals have been hard to come by, to say the least.

Supervised by Alex Wuttke on behalf of filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie and his leading man, Tom Cruise, the spy thriller enlisted Alchemy 24, Atomic Arts, beloFX, Blind LTD, BlueBolt, One of Us, Rodeo FX, Territory Studio, and Untold Studios working alongside ILM, which was responsible for signature action sequences including a gunfight in a sandstorm, a luggage bomb search, a car chase in Rome, a fight on top of and inside a speeding train before it then derails, and the “famed” motorbike cliff jump. 

Getting as much in-camera as possible is the ethos for the franchise. “The main thing is Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise know how to do an action film and shot everything for real,” notes Simone Coco, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM.  “For me, it’s much easier because anything that needed to be augmented, we were always looking at real photography.  You don’t need to figure it out and go, ‘Maybe it would look like this or that.’”  Common visual threads can be found throughout the seven installments.  “The mask pull shots are greatly informed by what has come before and how those were done,” states Jeff Sutherland, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM.  “There is a difference in the way that Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise shoot; they react to the locations a lot.  It’s not necessarily all storyboarded out perfectly.  Sometimes decisions are made on the fly.”

In the action thriller, a gunfight takes place in an abandoned oil drilling town in the Abu Dhabi desert during a massive sandstorm.  “Ethan Hunt and horseback assassins track Ilsa Faust there and at the same time a sandstorm rolls in,” remarks Sutherland.  “For the wide shots, we did a lot of volumetric simulations for a cloud that rolls over the dunes and descends on the town.  There are a series of shots where we get closer and closer into the town. We did a number of effects simulations for those shots and at a certain point we get down into the town when the gunfight erupts.  We have numerous closeups and they did a certain amount of shooting of large fans blowing sand around. We augmented that with layers of particulate between the camera and actors, and filling out the backs of the set pieces that were built.” 

Readability and obscurity had to be properly balanced so the look would be cinematic yet believable.  “Things were getting closed in more when you were looking across the land and as the camera tilted up a bit it created an aesthetic where you were burning sun through the blowing sand elements, and it fluctuated with sun flares.  It created a nice look as well as an excuse for being able to see the action more clearly.”

Also taking place in Abu Dhabi is Benji Dunn searching for a bomb hidden inside a piece of luggage. According to Coco, “We extended the background for what was built on set with a digital luggage area with moving conveyor belts and lots of different structures. When Alex Wuttke was on set, they always LiDAR scanned the whole set to enable us to recreate the camera movement.  We had to make sure the extension made the luggage area feel huge and not to do too many repetitions in the background. Everything had to be different, including all the lighting.”  Sutherland was impressed with the seamless set extension. “Those shots to me are the ultimate invisible effects because they look so good, but you would never really know that whole conveyor system was digital.”

99 percent of the Rome car chase was shot on location. “It’s quite a long chase with several highlight moments,” notes Sutherland.  “We had different challenges for each one.  It was all sewn together going through the narrow streets. The challenge for us on the average shot was the camera rigging on the cars in order to capture the performances of the actors driving the cars.  A lot of times we would use CG cars to help cleanup the camera or stunt rigging.”  Streets were blocked off during shooting, so much of the final surroundings ended up being done in CG. “The main vehicles that the actors were driving and a couple of cars around them that they had to interact with might be driven by stunt drivers, but the rest of the congestion and traffic being weaved through was digital a lot of the time,” Sutherland adds. Sometimes car interiors were digitally recreated, and there was some reflection removal from camera windscreens as well as recreation of what in the scene they’d blocked out.  

Challenges were plenty. “The Spanish Steps are a historical landmark that they couldn’t actually shoot on,” Coco explains. “It seamlessly segues onto the Spanish Steps and that was shot on a full-scale build of one of the three flights of steps. Those shots were filmed in a backlot with the Fiat rolling down and Hummer chasing it down the steps. We had to populate that with a combination of extras captured and motion-controlled against greenscreen and digital crowd to fill out those shots. Sandwiching that CG environment into the larger context of the location photography was difficult and fun to do.”

The epic train sequence, broken down into story beats, included fighting on the top and inside, travelling through a tunnel, crashing, attempting to survive, and the bridge collapsing.  “It was huge!” laughs Coco.  “The shooting was mostly done on location in Norway and in some parts of the UK.  A couple of shots were done against greenscreen on a backlot.  The biggest challenge was to make sure everything looked like it was shot in the same location in Norway.  The environment team had to recreate the trees and forests exactly.  There was a diesel locomotive and carriages.  The fight on top was shot practically on the train in Norway.  We had to extend the carriages, adding steam and wind.” 

The shots where the carriages start swerving off the crumbling bridge were captured with impressive special effect rigs. “The replica Orient Express carriages could be tilted up 90 degrees and that was a big part of it too,” observes Sutherland.  “Allowing the actors to perform on those full-size rigs made the stunts believable. We didn’t have to replace the limbs of actors because they were actually doing it in a controlled environment on a full-size carriage that is tipping upright.  Our challenge on those shots was to extend or replace the carriage with a digital version. But the stunts themselves were preserved from the original photography.”

As for the scene that resembles a moment from the video game Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, it was important to figure out the forward motion of the carriage.  “The bridge was collapsing one brick at time and the carriage was slowly moving forward as another one was lost,” states Coco.  “That was shot on the backlot.” The falling piano in the bar carriage was entirely CG.  “As the train tilts up and the actors make their way up, we did simulations for a lot of the debris and furniture tumbling through that collects at the bottom of the carriage,” explains Sutherland.  “Then there is that whole moment where the piano is dangling over Ethan and Ilsa. We did a destruction simulation for when the piano lets go and breaks through to the end of the carriage as well as a lot of environment work for the river valley below. Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson were definitely suspended and climbing a pieced of a carriage that was built for the rig.  We basically provided the distance and jeopardy of the river below.”                            

Heavily showcased in one of the film’s supporting featurettes is the now famous cliff motorbike jump.  “A massive jump ramp was constructed and the biggest challenge for us was making sure we wouldn’t touch Tom’s performance,” states Coco.  “Alex and the on-set team managed to scan and get photogrammetry of the environment so we could seamlessly replace the ramp.  We added suspension in the wheels because when Tom was driving on the ramp it was quite flat.  We replaced the ramp with a lot of variation on the ground.  But we left Tom as he was.  He looked amazing.”  Furthering the realism were effects such as dust and dirt coming off the motorbike wheels.  “We object tracked the motorbike to make sure that we had the exact movement and then we replaced and added small details to make it believable,” Coco adds.  Cruise letting go of the motorbike was captured in-camera. “It was done six or seven times,” he continues. “Once he’s off the mountain it was all him.”  Some cleanup was required for the sky.  “There were camera drones [that had to be painted out] and atmospherics added to a shot,” remarks Sutherland.  “But for the most part you are looking at the photography.”  As for the fate of the motorbikes, Sutherland reveals, “Six motorbikes gone!  I bet someone came along [to rescue them].”

Numerous image pipelines had to be implemented to accommodate the various camera formats.  “That was a logistical challenge with all of the location shooting with multiple mounted cameras,” notes Sutherland.  “We had a lot of mounted cameras on vehicles. There was a lot of imagery to keep track of and, just from a technical point of view, and the number of lens and camera combinations was huge on the show.” 

In the end, ILM was responsible for 1,100 to 1,200 visual effects shots.  “The scenes that have a giant room of office workers sitting at desks typing or wandering around were tricky because we used digital doubles to fill out the rooms with typists,” reveals Sutherland.  “We did a motion-capture shoot for that, and they’re all dressed the same way.  One of the challenges there was to get variation in all the different typists in terms of their movements and actions.  You have one shot where you can see literally several hundred.” 

The mask reveal shots are never exactly the same. “This movie had a long single take shot where a mask is put on as opposed to pulled one off in a traditional way,” observes Sutherland. “That meant stitching a number of plates together to create a continuous camera move and to piece together different moments of the action.  It’s a combination of using some digital and old fashion filmmaking tricks at the same time.  The artists have fun working on those kinds of shots and that comes through in the techniques people are using.”                       

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.