Large Format

Elswit captures all the action in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Director of Photography Robert Elswit, ASC on the set of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

The Kremlin is rocked by an explosion, and the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) is supposedly to blame. Team leader Ethan Hunt and his crew turn rogue and must trot the globe to clear the IMF name in Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, the fourth installment in the M:I franchise. Tom Cruise reprises his role as Hunt, with a supporting cast featuring Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Tom Wilkinson. J.J. Abrams again produces through Bad Robot for distribution through Paramount Pictures.

Handling the visual aesthetics is Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC—whose credits read as a very long list of very fine work (including Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood; Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck; The Town; Syriana; Magnolia). Handling the directing duties is Brad Bird, whose prior, highly successful directorial efforts involved characters of the animated kind (Ratatouille, The Incredibles, The Iron Giant). M:I-Ghost Protocol marks Bird’s live-action debut.

Stylistically, Bird veered away from the previous films’ elaborate setups that pulled off with deliberate, clockwork precision. Instead, plans fall apart from the get-go, and the team has to survive on wits and improvisation, so Bird wanted a matching approach to the visuals. “There was a little more of a chaotic style to this one,” says Elswit, who is in New York preparing to shoot The Bourne Legacy with director Tony Gilroy. “Brad was less interested in a formal approach to the design of the movie.”

That said, Bird did build some “wow” moments into the film—four of them, to be exact—that were shot in large-format 65mm IMAX. The inclusion of these stemmed from the success Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister, ASC had with the format on The Dark Night. “They proved that you do absolutely anything with an IMAX camera,” Elswit says.

The IMAX material was shot with the 15-perf IMAX camera, as well as the smaller, lighter 8-perf Iwerks camera for shots involving more camera movement or Steadicam. Hasselblad lenses were used. Elswit gravitated toward wider focal lengths—40mm, 50mm, 60mm and 80mm for IMAX—in order to fill the large-format frame with visual information. “If there is one weak element in IMAX, it’s these 30-year-old lenses,” Elswit notes. “They’re OK, just not great.”

The rest of the film was shot in 2.40 anamorphic with Panavision cameras and mix of G-series (main), C-series and E-series (longer focal lengths) anamorphic lenses and Panavision zooms. Elswit composed for both large format and anamorphic simultaneously. “In the 8-perf and the 15-perf, there is a lot of leeway there to extract a 2.40,” he says. “The nice thing about the IMAX frame is that during a shot, you can actually recompose it—slide it vertically up or down—to get all the elements into a 2.40 frame.”

Most theaters will get anamorphic release prints, but there will be special IMAX presentations. Naturally, seeing the movie in IMAX is where one can truly appreciate the large-format set pieces. Elswit especially highlights one IMAX sequence in which Tom Cruise’s character scales the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, currently the tallest building in the world. The crew took the windows out of the 156th floor to stick the crane-mounted camera outside the building and shoot downward. “Tom is actually climbing this building, and you’ve really never been that high except in an airplane,” Elswit remarks. “Seeing it on an IMAX screen, I do believe you’d actually experience vertigo!”

Elswit choose Kodak Vision3 200T 5213 Color Negative Film and Vision3 500T 5219 as his stocks of choice. “We were traveling so much, and it was an IMAX release so pretty much the mandate was to shoot on film,” he says. “Plus, Brad is an old-school guy, and we’re building on the previous movies—all shot on film.”

The interior portion of the Dubai daredevil sequence, before Cruise steps outside and climbs up, was shot later in the production schedule in Vancouver on stage with bluescreen wrapping around the extensive windows. “I had to mix stocks for that and be very careful because as soon as we go outside, we’re looking at IMAX stock,” the cinematographer says. “The trick in cutting back and forth is to not see a huge change in grain structure. I think the different aesthetic in the interiors covered that up a little bit.”

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt.

Complicating matters was getting an exposure for 5213 for IMAX inside these day interior sequences while at the same time matching to the exteriors, as well as getting the quality of light for the bluescreen work to feel like indirect ambient skylight coming through very large but somewhat tinted windows. “I mixed 5219 and 5213—I wasn’t always successful at it, and I’ll probably have to play with it in the DI,” Elswit notes. “It was the hardest technical thing I had to do on the movie. To match, I had to go with HMIs, a wall of 6Ks on stage positioned far away from the set with one-quarter CTB to be the correct color temperature and then had them diffused enough to feel ambient.”

Elswit hedged a bit for the subsequent IMAX sequence set in Dubai in a raging sandstorm, or haboob. Tests revealed that no increase in visual quality could be gained shooting 15-perf IMAX because of the degrading grainy aesthetic windblown dust had. After Elswit bookended the sequence with IMAX shots, the cinematographer had second-unit director of photography Mitchell Admundsen, who did the bulk of the haboob work, shoot 4-perf spherical Super 35 and composing for the IMAX 1.40 aspect ratio. The resulting footage was then blown up.

Elswit considered this sequence the most interesting to approach after viewing some footage shot during one that had been posted on the Internet. “It changes the color of the light,” he remarks. “It starts as a pale yellow, and as the sand gets thicker and the storm whips higher it turns to a vivid red. Then it gets darker and darker. It’s extraordinary, and we wanted to re-create that.”

Large 40’ and 60’ plastic Griffolyn sheets colored yellow, orange and red were hung in a row over the streets on location in Dubai to filter the sunlight and mimic the gradation of color seen in perspective as if Tom Cruise’s character was truly traveling through a sandstorm. “Amazing work by the grip crew there,” he says. “We wanted to do as much of that look in camera because just coloring it in a DI room wouldn’t be natural. Filtering the light was much more organic. It was a bigger production issue, but I’m really glad we did it that way.”

Wherever the production happened to be filming, Elswit utilized the regional lab for processing. “It’s really hard to ship film now,” he notes. “I lost some film once on a commercial—it wasn’t directly x-rayed itself, but it was kept someplace long enough that the x-ray machines that were working nearby fogged it. It’s better to process the negative where you are, and Kodak maintains the standards.”

The 35mm footage was developed by Kodak’s Cinelabs in Dubai and in Mumbai, India, as well as by Barrandov Studio’s film laboratory in Prague and by The Lab in Vancouver. FotoKem processed all the 65mm negative.

“The nice thing about having a negative that big is you can get away with pushing,” says Elswit, “which we did with the high-speed stock for a lot of the night interior and exterior work. I pushed a half stop for almost all the end sequence of the movie on which I used 5219, which is just a fantastic stock.

“Because of how complicated this movie was with material all over the place,” he continues, “the production let me print almost the whole movie, which is unheard of these days, while we were in Vancouver because I was matching shots from all over. I would go to dailies in the morning and look at everything. I had a wonderful dailies timer in Ed Dobbs. He was fantastic, and it was so much fun to go there in the morning. Probably the best processing I’ve ever had occurred in Vancouver on this movie.”

The digital intermediate is being timed by Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 in Santa Monica, California, and even though Elswit has moved on to The Bourne Legacy, he’s still be able to supervise the digital intermediate in Company 3’s New York facility—remotely with real-time video hookups. “It’s fascinating,” he says. “I really like that.”