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August 28
2018

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Planes, Paris, Masks and Mirrors: The VFX of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

By IAN FAILES

There’s no doubt that one of the big appeals of the latest Christopher McQuarrie Mission: Impossible film, Fallout, is the fact that actor Tom Cruise (playing secret agent Ethan Hunt) performs all of his character’s increasingly crazy stunts himself. This makes for a film heavily rooted in practical special effects, which at different points involves a HALO jump from 25,000 feet, a motorbike chase through Paris, a helicopter pursuit and crash, and a fight scene on a cliff ledge.

But Fallout’s visual effects team, led by Production VFX Supervisor Jody Johnson – who oversaw work by DNEG, BlueBolt, One of Us, Lola, Blind and previs outfit The Third Floor – was also along for the ride the whole time, to the tune of around 2,000 effects shots.

VFX Voice asked Johnson how some of the major set pieces include visual effects work, alongside some of the more invisible effects scenes such as a brutal bathroom punch-up and some classic Mission: Impossible mask reveals.

VFX at 25,000 feet

In the film, Hunt and CIA operative August Walker (Henry Cavill) make a secret nighttime HALO skydiving jump from a military plane above Paris while a storm rages below them. Johnson helped McQuarrie previs the jump, which Cruise ultimately performed himself scores of times with accompanying camera operators.


Hunt during his dramatic HALO jump. DNEG had to track Paris into the plate photography.

“We looked at shooting in a wind tunnel, and then we built a wind tunnel – I think it was the biggest in the world – for the training. And we even tested shooting it day-for-night. But Tom Cruise was adamant that that look wasn’t going to be authentic enough for a Mission: Impossible film. He was very keen on shooting it as close to the real lighting conditions as possible.”

—Jody Johnson, Production VFX Supervisor

“We looked at shooting in a wind tunnel, and then we built a wind tunnel – I think it was the biggest in the world – for the training,” notes Johnson. “And we even tested shooting it day-for-night. But Tom Cruise was adamant that that look wasn’t going to be authentic enough for a Mission: Impossible film. So he was very keen on shooting it as close to the real lighting conditions as possible.”

Ultimately, the jumps were filmed at a time when the sun was just beneath the horizon – “it was called the ‘Blue Minute,’” says Johnson – which provided just enough light to see the actors, but was not so dark that they would disappear into the sky in their dark clothing.

Behind the scenes of the HALO jump.

“That matchmoving [replacing Abu Dhabi with Paris] was a nightmare! We actually shot that last, so there just wasn’t much time. We had to break it down into lots of little sections and have a huge team of about 15 tracking artists working on that, which were then all joined back together into a master camera.”

—Jody Johnson, Production VFX Supervisor

One of the more obvious effects interventions in the scene was the storm – a DNEG digital creation. In addition, the skydiving had also been captured over Abu Dhabi, not Paris, which meant DNEG had to replace the desert below with the French capital. “That matchmoving was a nightmare!” admits Johnson. “We actually shot that last, so there just wasn’t much time. We had to break it down into lots of little sections and have a huge team of about 15 tracking artists working on that, which were then all joined back together into a master camera.”

As the characters get closer to the rooftop they’re aiming for, DNEG’s digital architecture comes into play. Artists re-created the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées – which stood in for the location in the film – using reference imagery, Lidar scans and photogrammetry from drone footage that was taken above the building.

Race through Paris

While in Paris, Cruise evades a whole battalion of police and bad guys, some of it on a motorcycle. Again, real stunts and practical effects made up the Paris scenes, but visual effects helped make several key shots possible.


Filming part of the Paris motorcycle sequence.

“[Special Effects Supervisor Neil Corbould’s] team built a hydraulic rig on rails whereby Tom Cruise would be on a motorbike on a kind of buck with no wheels that shoots down some rails towards the car, which is also rigged up to that rig, and there’s a cable attached to him to lift him up. … Cruise shot down the rail toward the car, and then the stunt team pulled him off the motorbike on wires so he traveled through the air.”

—Jody Johnson, Production VFX Supervisor

The work ranged from cleanup of camera and stunt rigs, to fleshing out views of the city, partly because some scenes were shot with silks hiding the action from paparazzi. “At times we’d need to add some digital cars in there, too,” explains Johnson, “just to help with story points if we ran out of time to film the stunt or didn’t quite get the performance we wanted.”

One signature shot sees Hunt evade pursuers on his motorbike, only to front-end a car and go flying over its bonnet and tumble along the cobblestone road. The shot saw a collaboration between Special Effects Supervisor Neil Corbould and his team with visual effects. Says Johnson: “Neil’s team built a hydraulic rig on rails whereby Tom Cruise would be on a motorbike on a kind of buck with no wheels that shoots down some rails towards the car, which is also rigged up to that rig, and there’s a cable attached to him to lift him up. The bike and car are locked in sync together so that they will always move in the appropriate way.”

Watch a section of the Paris motorcycle chase.

“Cruise shot down the rail toward the car, and then the stunt team pulled him off the motorbike on wires so he traveled through the air,” continues Johnson. “The rail only travels 10 meters or so, but Chris McQuarrie doesn’t want the audience to feel that we’re editing our way out of this. So they wanted a single long shot of Tom driving down the road and then the car pulling out in front. For that, we shot Tom driving down the road, and then we combined that into the SFX rig, added in the motorbike, tidied up the car, and removed the wires and other bits and pieces to finish it off.”

The chopper crash

If jumping out of a plane and speeding through Paris on a motorcycle was not enough, Cruise also learned to pilot a helicopter for an aerial chase against Walker that was set amid canyons and glaciers in Kashmir, before the choppers crash. The two later fight on a rock ledge (the scenes were actually filmed in multiple locations: New Zealand, Norway, and on stages and a backlot).


Filming the helicopter stunts.

“The helicopter needed to go into a roll. ‘Hagrid’s Hill,’ which is on the backlot at Leavesden [Studios, England], is a place that gives you 150 feet of travel. They covered that in snow and then rolled Tom Cruise inside a helicopter down the hill. That was linked to the motion-control rig so the camera would always be in sync with the SFX rig.”

—Jody Johnson, Production VFX Supervisor

For the helicopter chase, Johnson joined in on early discussions about how scenes could be filmed at different locations and then brought together to appear as one setting. One solution was to acquire significant reference imagery from a separate helicopter equipped with a six-camera array, with the footage then able to be used to stitch together environments where necessary.

The crash involved Hunt’s helicopter smashing into Walker’s – a CG shot. For scenes of the aircraft then careening through the air, a Neil Corbould-designed SFX rig was utilized, made up of a chopper body on a wire between two cranes. “Ethan’s helicopter was suspended from that wire, and traveled along the wire for 100 feet in the air before crashing into the earth. We filmed that with a big motion-control rig on rails that could keep up with the speed and the movement of the helicopter.”

“Then,” adds Johnson, “the helicopter needed to go into a roll. ‘Hagrid’s Hill,’ which is on the backlot at Leavesden [Studios, England], is a place that gives you 150 feet of travel. They covered that in snow and then rolled Tom Cruise inside a helicopter down the hill. That was linked to the motion-control rig so the camera would always be in sync with the SFX rig.”

Watch a stunts featurette from Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

DNEG digitally extended the helicopter and added roto blades, additional snow effects and the environment. “The fun part of that sequence was,” says Johnson, “we knew we weren’t getting the helicopter back, so we dropped it off the crevice and filmed it with six cameras and that was used for the piece where the helicopter falls. And then Hunt and Walker end up on that rock in Norway, where there were a lot of cleanup of camera cranes and safety wires. We also weren’t allowed to hang the helicopter off the cliff for fear of damaging the rock face, so we had to add the helicopter. Finally, there was bluescreen work done back at the studio for close-up work, and we added environments based on the live action and photogrammetry from Norway.”

“That’s Mission

Those three major sequences – the HALO jump, Paris chase and helicopter scenes – represent the majority of VFX work in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. But there were several other scenes that required complex, and invisible, artistry. Mask reveal shots, a mainstay of Mission: Impossible films, required meticulous compositing when Benji (Simon Pegg) is revealed to be playing Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), and earlier when he takes on the role of news reader Wolf Blitzer.

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

“For the Lane shots,” outlines Johnson, “we wanted to see two Lanes back to back and then what appeared to be Benji as Lane walking out all in one shot, because that was an important story point. We did a little test at DNEG and worked out we’d need to do that motion control.

“For the Wolf Blitzer scene, McQuarrie wanted that more hand-held. We shot an ‘A’ side with Wolf Blitzer and then a ‘B’ side with Simon Pegg pulling the mask off, and then joined the two together. But to get a kind of natural feel we had to do that just on a traditional dolly and track as a ‘poor man’s’ motion control so we could join those pieces together in post, along with some extra little greenscreen pieces to tie it all in.”

Another invisible kind of effects intervention was required for the bathroom fight scene where Hunt and Walker take on a man who they think is fundamentalist John Lark. Since it was a bathroom setting, the set included mirrors – the stuff of ‘visual effects supervisor nightmares,’ according to Johnson.


The fight scene in the mirrored bathroom required an extensive amount of cleanup work.

“In a fight scene like this, you typically shoot with a lot of cameras, because it’s only safe to do it as few times as possible. What you end up with is a lot of cleanup. There are a lot of mirrors and nowhere to hide. So you’ve got the crew and the cameras in some shots, and then you have the reflections of the crews and the cameras. And then you have reflections of the reflections of the crews and the cameras. So just in terms of cleanup, it was a major challenge in itself. But that’s Mission.”


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