Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Brad Bird...
“In the period before The Iron Giant , when I was trying to get movies made, and running against all the walls a lot of filmmakers run up against, half the projects I had on the runway were live-action,” reveals Oscar-winning American filmmaker Brad Bird who won Best Animated Feature for The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007). “It’s something that I’ve been circling for a long time.” When the Great California Earthquake tale 1906 failed to get made, the native of Kalispell, Montana was offered an opportunity to helm the fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise by producer J.J. Abrams (Super 8). “With animation you’re pushing people toward a finished state,” states Bird who decided to direct Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011). “You keep pushing the shot forward whereas live-action you’re rolling the dice on catching the shot. You get a lot more tries at bat but you have to work more quickly.” He explains, “In animation, it’s a problem of having to build everything and then being able to describe what you want to artists; when it doesn’t reach the mark being able to be very specific about what will get it there, down to lift an elbow one inch and snap it a little more, take two frames out kind of direction. You’re still struggling to capture a moment only you’re gaining the ground at an inch at a time whereas in live-action you can not hit it and then hit the perfect take on take six and gain 20 yards all of a sudden.”
“If it’s not working you have to have a solution right then,” states Brad Bird who had to adjust to the quickness required during the principle photography for the action thriller starring producer and actor Tom Cruise (Collateral). “We had a deep bench of really good people so if something didn’t work you had the best people who are probably prepared for it not to work and have an option for you. It wasn’t like a super low-budget film where you’re prepared to do it one way and if it doesn’t work you’re screwed. You could jump on options but the options had to happen fast. If something wasn’t working you had to figure out why it wasn’t working very quickly. In that sense my work on The Simpsons [Fox, 1989 to present], even though it was animated, was very instructive because even though you were doing animation we had to do 22 to 24 episodes a year; you couldn’t linger on any decisions they had to be made quickly.” His experience on the longest running American television series left a lasting impression on the young writer and animator. “Even though the characters are goofy looking and the stories are crazy storytelling wise, a lot of the episodes were pretty sophisticated. They had A stories and B stories. You had to tell the stories quickly and efficiently. Sometimes the ideas were challenging to put over quickly and cleanly. It was a great training ground. When stories didn’t work people had to stay in a room, figure out why, and come up with a revision before you left the room. Because whatever we decided by two o’clock in the morning, on the night the show had to be locked, was the way it was going to be forever.”
While promoting Star Trek (2009) in the Middle East, J.J. Abrams became fascinated by Dubai. “I don’t think J.J. had anything specific in mind but he did want to have something there,” states Brad Bird as to the origins to the sequence where Tom Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. “When Mission came you’re always looking for a set piece and they happen to have the tallest building in the world there. It became this thing. I think that was the first thing that we decided upon for stunts in this film.” Logistical issues had to be sorted out. “The biggest challenge was physically getting to do so much of it on the actual building and I made it more difficult by filming it in IMAX.” The decision was inspired by Christopher Nolan shooting about half an hour of The Dark Knight (2008) in the format. “We said, ‘If everything goes wrong what is the minimum number of shots that will be okay with.’ It was something like four or five shots.” Complications ensued when the film crew of the $140 million production wanted to make alterations to the landmark structure. “We started talking about taking out windows and at first they were like, ‘What? You want to take out. This is a building. There are businesses here we can’t.’ We said, ‘Well, look. If you can take a thing out you can put it back. We’ll put everything back. What do you guys think? We won’t wreck anything. We’ll put it exactly back it was before.” In the end 27 windows were removed to get the necessary camera angles of Cruise and his vertigo inducing escapade.
The Robotic Parking Garage Sequence was also shot in the IMAX format. “It was financially impractical to build the entire thing,” states Brad Bird. “We figured out what we needed to get all of our angles. We could get it with moving some cars around but we really leaned on John [Knoll] and ILM to finish out the set to give us all of the stuff that wasn’t there. We had the bottom floors built all the way around and then it got smaller as it went to the top. It was another sequence that we did film largely practically meaning that we had real people there jumping and doing all that crazy stuff. Being able to put stuff outside the windows and do it at a resolution that was staggering, I give ILM huge props for making the sequence have the visual size that it does. It’s a lot of exceptional work. They had a lot of stuff to do with cars being invisible and I think the very fact that it doesn’t look that there are any effects in there is one of the great things about it.”
“It’s interesting a lot of people, when James Cameron had 15 minutes of Avatar  and showed it at the end of the summer before the film came out, were saying it looked phony. It looked like a CG cartoon,’ remembers Brad Bird when discussing the effectiveness of the 3D technology. “Those same people had no trouble with it three months later or four months later. Literally the difference between the stuff he showed in August and the stuff he finally released was that last 10 percent of finished which makes the complete difference between something that looks 100 percent believable and something that doesn’t. The difference is that last 10 percent.” Bird adds, “At this point I’m interested in 3D. I’m interested to see how it develops. I’m interested in the experiments Peter Jackson [The Lord of the Rings] is doing with increased frame rates. For me the biggest impact you can give an audience is a very old fashion one. That’s a big screen with a bright, sharp image and 3D can’t match that right now. I don’t care how many people say it does. It doesn’t. You sit in a theatre and watch it. 3D is about three stops too dark. I’m not a huge fan of glasses but I love high resolution bright images on a gigantic screen. When they started tearing all the old theatres and making multiplexes, they generally decreased the size of auditoriums and screens. Basically, it is one of the reasons people are not that hypnotized by movies anymore. We’ve diminished the theatrical experience. IMAX to me is one of the few things that steps in the right direction in making the experience spectacular; I was anxious to use that because it plays more off of the emotional power of images than what 3D does. They keep saying 3D is more immersive and that this is something you can’t get at home well, three, two, one, you can get it at home. But there’s one thing that you’ll never be able to get at home and it’s the same thing that has been for a 100 years with movies. It’s a really big screen with bright, sharp images and it’s an audience; that’s what separates movies from everything. The rest is just gravy.”
Many thanks to Brad Bird for taking the time out of his schedule for this interview.
Visit the official Mission: Impossible website here, and be sure to check out Trevor's in-depth article looking at the making of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol over at the CGSociety.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.