In previous Mission: Impossible efforts, Tom Cruise has scaled the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, free-climbed the Niagara Escarpment in Ontario and jumped off a Shanghai skyscraper. The actor, famous for doing his own stunts, again ups the ante in Rogue Nation by grasping onto the outside of a Airbus A400M as it takes off. Not only that, Cruise rides 100 miles an hour on a motorbike – with no helmet – and performs his fair share of stunts and jumps from great heights and even for long periods underwater.

There’s a rare authenticity in Cruise’s actions, and the Mission movies, in pulling off these stunts. It’s him hanging onto the plane, him holding his breath underwater, him making the jump. That performance is, and always has been, of course, aided by a team of stunt, special effects and visual effects artists – intent on striving for the most realistic action possible.

The A400M sequence is captured by a film crew.
The A400M sequence is captured by a film crew.

“That’s always been the mantra for the Mission franchise – get it in camera, do it for real,” observes Rogue Nation’s visual effects supervisor David Vickery. “And where it becomes unsafe or physically impossible, then VFX helps out. Visual effects are there to enhance and enable the practical side of the work, and to complement it. Not to remove the need to do it, but enhance it and take it to the next level. That was actually a fun part of the film – we were always thinking how we could not do VFX work.”

Ultimately, Vickery and visual effects producer Maricel Pagulayan would oversee around 1200 visual effects shots for the Christopher McQuarrie film. Most sequences were completed by Double Negative (visual effects supervisor Ken Hahn and visual effects producer Kate Phillips), with an in-house compositing team and One of Us also delivering a number of shots. On-set graphics were handled by Territory, with Spov creating many of the final graphics elements, and the main titles designed by Aaron Becker’s Filmograph. We explore some of Rogue Nation’s biggest scenes with Vickery.

Going for a plane ride

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) boards an Airbus A400M.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) boards an Airbus A400M.

The film opens with a daring IMF raid on an Airbus A400M in Belarus with the plane carrying nerve gas intended to be sold to terrorists. As the 4-prop aircraft taxis along the military runway, agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) jumps from a grassy hangar onto its wing, then holds on for dear life as the plane takes off, before nearby fellow agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) manages to open an outside door.

Astoundingly, the stunt was performed by Cruise, both on the runway and as the A400M flew at around 5000 feet. Planning for the shoot, which took place at RAF Wittering in the United Kingdom, began with an extensive previs process carried out by The Third Floor London. “We knew that Airbus was going to be very concerned as to how we used their plane, how we interacted with it, how Tom was on it, how the camera vehicles were placed around it,” describes Vickery. “So we used previs to help plan where stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood and special effects supervisor Dominic Tuohy would place rigs needed to secure Tom to the plane. Airbus was very happy with the level of technical briefing we gave them.”

Director Chris McQuarrie observes the shoot in action.
Director Chris McQuarrie observes the shoot in action.

Previs would also benefit the visual effects team in deciding what their work would entail for the shots. On the ground this involved rig removals, replacing the A400M propellers which during the shoot were tethered or running only at a slow speed, and shots showing Cruise jumping onto the wing. “That was done on greenscreen,” says Vickery. “Tom leapt off a structure onto a set-built section of the wing of the plane. There’s also a wide shot where we see Tom running along the top of the grassy hangar onto the plane. We shot an element of Tom at Leavesden Studios running across the top of a grassy area with a Technocrane, and we did a sort of poor-man’s motion control to retrofit that element back into a helicopter plate we’d shot of the A400M turning on the runway. Then Double Negative created digital grassy hangars in the foreground and re-projected Tom’s element back onto the hangar to make it look as if he was running along and jumping onto the plane.”

For shots of Hunt hanging on the side of the now airborne plane, effects artists painted out safety cables and also produced a new digital background so that it looked like a disused Belarusian military airbase. “We also put the grassy air hangars in the background that we referenced from structures we had found,” adds Vickery. “We put in fencing and also changed the layout of the runway to make it more consistent to the story of the route the plane had taken on the ground.”

Filming the wing run.
Filming the wing run.

Once inside, Hunt straps himself to the nerve gas payload and pulls the rip chord, launching out of the plane’s cargo door. “That was filmed at Pinewood Studios,” explains Vickery. “We built a gray buck of the interior of the A400M and we put Tom on an actual payload, strapped him on and put him on a sprung ratchet that pulled him back at speed. So again he’s doing that stunt but not in the plane on the day. DNeg reconstructed the interior of the plane and comp’d Tom into it.”

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A night at the opera

Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in position during the opera.
Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in position during the opera.

Hunt discovers that IMF has been compromised when he is captured by an international crime consortium known as the Syndicate. He escapes with the help of undercover British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) whom he meets again at the opera Turandot in Vienna, having traced the Syndicate there. Hunt has also managed to bring Dunn to the performance, which unfolds while above the stage Cruise takes on an assassin posing as a flautist intent on killing the Chancellor of Austria. Faust and another assassin are also set up to shoot the Chancellor.

Since a whole production of Turandot in front of an audience would have to be staged while the fighting took place, the sequence was actually filmed in different locations and pieced together along with crowd replication to bring it to life. “Main unit went out to Vienna in order to shoot Benji’s arrival at the Vienna subway and exteriors and some front of house at the opera house,” says Vickery. “Then we went in with a plates unit and three ALEXAs shooting spherical plates for the entire of the interior of the opera house and the auditorium. It’s around 2500 seats and we shot it empty from eight different camera positions and tiled the entire thing under three different lighting conditions.”

The next step was to film crowd elements. From eight camera positions, 50 extras and a full orchestra were shot and moved around the theater. “We captured them applauding, filmed them under full house lights up, filmed them under house lights down,” states Vickery. “It was like a military operation. And just to add to the complexity we were shooting all of the background plates there before they shot any of the foreground plates.”

To acquire those foreground plates, production utilized a purpose-built large-scale production rehearsal facility in London called LH2 Studios. Says Vickery: “They have really high stage heights and are used for rehearsing rock concerts or music gigs. They have all of the proper lighting gantries, too, where Hunt was to fight the flautist. They were rigged 40 feet up in the air and in the space below we built the entire of the back stage of the opera and the entire of the stage and scenic dress for a production of Turandot, with the auditorium represented by a large greenscreen.”

Additional insert shots were filmed at Leavesden Studios, including more of the flautist on the trestle and other parts of the fight, which were captured at ground level surrounded by greenscreen. DNeg then had to paint out several wire rigs in the high light rig shots, replace greenscreen and fill out the auditorium with a projection of the clean plates captured in Vienna, plus add in the crowds. “We’d fill the seats with the opera crowd and make sure that the piece of stage action at the opera was the right piece,” notes Vickery. “There was a very specific piece of choreography of what’s going on backstage while what’s on stage versus the flautist and the assassin in the lighting booth. It was a massive jigsaw puzzle of pieces shot at different locations that DNeg had to sew back together.”

Benji (Simon Pegg) peruses his E Ink computer.
Benji (Simon Pegg) peruses his E Ink computer.

Many of the crowd shots were challenging, notes Vickery, including one of a long pan from a chandelier over the crowd to the stage. Another, where the director was looking to see the crowd clap enthusiastically at the end of Act 2, initially went through a clip spotting process where DNeg pieced together various angles that had not initially been intended for that shot. In the end, new plates of 50 extras filmed with multiple passes were acquired at Leavesden for DNeg to fill the auditorium with 2,500 applauding people.

During the opera sequence, Dunn helps Hunt look for the assassins via an ‘E Ink’ display. “Chris McQuarrie has this digital/analogue cross-over throughout his films,” says Vickery. “There’s the record-player at the beginning of the movie which is a nod to the record player in the original Mission TV series. But you can’t just throw Minority Report or Star Trek-esque graphics and tech in. It has to be based in some sort of science or reality or it’s not going in the film. With the E Ink display it was like a Kindle but also manual. That was always the remit – not sci-fi, but science fact.”

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Masks revealed

In this screenshot from the film's trailer, Benji is revealed to be posing as a businessman to get into the nuclear facility.
In this screenshot from the film’s trailer, Benji is shown to be posing as a businessman to get into the nuclear facility.

Stunts are not the only trademark of the Mission: Impossible franchise; another key component in each film so far has been the mask creation and reveal scenes, aimed at adding twists and turns into the plot. In Rogue Nation, Dunn wears the mask of a businessman in a theoretical flash-forward scene, while one of the biggest reveals comes from a mask worn by Hunt. In each case, visual effects compositing aided in transitioning between mask and actor, while one mask scene used little visual effects at all.

“When I first got onto the film, the mask reveals were the thing I was most excited about,” recalls Vickery. “Those shots in all the other films are so great, it’s one of the reasons the films are super fun. We went back and spoke to visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, he comp’d one of the shots in Mission 2 with Dougray Scott. Janek Sirrs was also one of the compositors on the early Mission films and we talked to him too, about the various passes you tend to need to shoot.”

Vickery determined the necessary plates, for say a shot of Tom Cruise revealing himself as Hunt in a mask of a bad guy, were as follows, as the supervisor explains:

1. The first thing you do is film Tom in the bad guy’s mask and you do a pass where you take the mask off.

2. Then you have Tom stand there without a mask on and you get him to do two more versions, one where he mimes taking the mask off in exactly the same way, but doing it clean so you haven’t got the mask obscuring his face. Then you do another pass where he doesn’t even move his hand to take the mask off – you just see his face completely clear – which acts as a clean pass.

3. Then you get your bad guy who Tom is supposed to be impersonating to stand in. He wears a rubber neck prosthetic only, from under the collar up to the chin. He then does a version where he pretends to tear his own face off, but he’s just tearing the rubber neck prosthetic. Then he does another version of him just standing there, for a clean pass.

4. These passes are designed so that effects artists can take a pass of the bad guy, remove his head and track that back onto Cruise’s body. As Tom’s hand wipes across his own face, you can transition from the bad guy’s real face to Tom’s face. And you can use the rubber mask that Tom was wearing to help create the deformations in the rubber mask – you’re basically projecting the bad guy’s real face onto the mask that Tom’s wearing.”

The original plan was to carry out these passes with a locked-off camera. But, says Vickery, “when we went to see Chris about the shots he didn’t want the camera locked off. He said, ‘I think people know you’re cheating if you do that.’ He didn’t want to take the easy route. So in the end we did all the mask-off shots with moving cameras and no people walking in front of the frame. For Benji’s reveal we were able to do a motion control repeat pass. Mask shots can be kind of painful but they absolutely worked.”

However, not all of the mask shots required a set of passes or much visual effects intervention. One shot, in particular, was the set-up scene where Dunn’s businessman mask is applied by Hunt in front of a mirror. “Believe it or not that was all captured in-camera,” advises Vickery. “It’s a mirrored set. On the A side, on the non-mirrored side of the set, you’ve got Benji who sat there. Tom’s double puts a mask over Benji’s head.

“Then the camera pans around and looks in the mirror, and the mirror is not a mirror but a hole in the wall and behind that is a mirrored set. In the mirrored set is the bad guy that Simon is impersonating and Tom Cruise. They’re basically perfectly mimicking each other’s actions. Tom’s wearing a shirt which is cut in the reverse, and his hair is parted on the wrong side. I think we’ve got Rebecca and her double in the shot too.

“Everyone is in perfect sync with each other and moving in perfect time. The art department did a fantastic job of building this mirrored set – there was an entire library on one wall where all the books had to be built with the names on the spines in reverse, all the costumes were mirrored. The shot required 17 takes for the action to perfectly sync up, with only minor grading and VFX adjustments done in post to match the mask prosthetics.”

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An underwater adventure

Watch part of the underwater torus sequence.

Hunt, Dunn and Faust attempt to infiltrate a secure server below a power station in Morocco, accessible only by a water-filled torus. Again, real locations, studio-builds and literally death-defying stunts came together to make up the sequence.

Exteriors for the nuclear facility – which included views of Hunt and Faust parachuting in – were sourced from aerial plates of Fawley Power Station in the UK that were matte painted to look more like Morocco. “The parachuting and landing shots,” says Vickery, “were done with Tom and Rebecca on descender rigs against greenscreen and then we went to the roof of Fawley Power Station and shot with spherical panoramic plates, which we then stitched back together and did matte paintings into the background of those plates and recombined them with the elements of Tom and Rebecca and put chute rigs behind them.”

Inside the facility, Hunt and Faust wait on a yellow gantry before Ethan jumps into an inlet for the torus. On location at Fawley, the inlet was represented with a green hole in the floor. Double Negative supervisor Ken Hahn filmed an inlet at Ladybower Reservoir that would fill the green hole. “There is a circular overflow mechanism that sits in the middle of that reservoir,” explains Vickery. “When the reservoir gets too full, it serves as an overflow drain. We waited three months for enough rain to fall in England and the water filled up. Ken went up with a drone and a RED Dragon and shot plates of that intake. We then re-built and reprojected into the photography at the power station. It’s almost exactly the same size as it features in the film.”

Above: a tweet from the director shows the Techno Crane used during the power station shoot.

Double Negative also completed a digital water simulation for the area surrounding the inlet and a set extension to show the rest of the subterranean container that the intake sits in. Hunt then jumps off the gantry into the inlet. “Tom did the jump from 120 feet in the air on a descender rig down onto green safety mats and boxes. Then we basically roto’d him off that. We could re-manipulate Tom’s element to make for the right scale and look.”

Once underwater, Hunt is required to find a targeted hard drive inside a panel while holding his breath and dealing with a mechanical computer arm and currents. This section, requiring several long takes, was filmed in a tank set on D stage at Leavesden Studios. “Initially,” recounts Vickery, “they wanted it to be a single shot and they would use a Thomas Crown Affair-esque split screen device to tell the stories that were happening. So rather than cutting away from Tom they would bring other panels into the frame. The previs from The Third Floor London had those panels and it helped us to show how they could do four and a half minutes of Tom underwater in one take. The concern wasn’t that Tom wouldn’t be able to hold his breath as much as it was that we didn’t know how we would be able to get the camera into all the places it needed to be in order to film Tom in one single continuous take.”

What helped the filmmakers greatly in acquiring the underwater photography was the new ARRI ALEXA 65 and its sensor that roughly equated to 5-perf 65mm film. That would become incredibly useful in being able to re-position Cruise in the frame or do later blow-ups where necessary. “We were one of the first productions to shoot with the ALEXA 65,” says Vickery. “We put it underwater for 20 consecutive days, 10 hours at a time. The camera is amazing, it didn’t break once. In fact, it was so hot off the press that we didn’t have an underwater camera housing. Our underwater DP, Pete Romano, had to get the CAD data from ARRI and then 3d-print his own version of the 65 housing in order to construct the underwater housing.”

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION opens next week – July 30 in the UK and July 31 in the US. The movie has a…

Posted by ARRI Rental on Thursday, July 23, 2015

Above: A Facebook post from ARRI Rental outlining the ALEXA 65 and underwater housing.

The Leavesden tank was approximately 40 feet square. Against one side of the tank were sections of drive bays, around eight wide and four tall. “Inside of that,” adds Vickery, “we built two circular tracks. One of the tracks we could put the camera on a dolly, and on the other track when we needed to we could put Tom on a harness and help him move around the torus at speed. When he’s tumbling end over end or when he and Rebecca are held together, they were being helped move around by a tuning fork rig. The camera is on a second track on the outside of them on a motorized dolly pushing and pulling away from them to get the correct angle. In post, Double Negative would take each of the takes and where necessary stitch those back together by finding the closest blend point from the end of Take A to the beginning of Take B.”

“There were moments where we had to do digital pans off of Tom to look around at the torus or see drive arms or the drive and have the camera settle again,” continues Vickery. “That was part of the reason of having the 65 which meant we knew we’d get a 6.5K wide plate on a very wide angle lens – it meant we could do a 280 per cent push-in and still have a 2K sharp plate – and could keep his performance all the way through, rather than go to a digital double.”

Another crucial effect was the effect of the torrent of water on Hunt. “When we were shooting with Tom,” relates Vickery, “he was insistent that we had water movers from SFX blowing him as hard as they could for the movement of his hair and swimming against the current. We had to tether him to stop him being blown backwards from the water. On top of that, during the shoot we had to make sure the current didn’t have any bubbles because as soon as we started introducing micro-particulate and bubbles into the practical plate then the element we were capturing of Tom is degraded that we knew we’d have to paint out and replace parts in post. The SFX guys were great at keeping the pumps clean. Bizarrely, without the bubbles and particulate it looked like he was in space, although it was green. In post Double Negative had a huge job to put all that torrent and bubbles into the plate to make it look like he was in the water.”

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By car and by bike

Hunt speeds along a Moroccon highway.
Hunt speeds along a Moroccon highway.

Faust takes the drive acquired in the torus and a dramatic chase ensues, first involving Dunn and Hunt in a BMW, then Hunt on a motorbike, throughout the streets and a highway in Morocco. Large-scale driving stunts were orchestrated on location, with Double Negative contributing a number of visual effects enhancements to the chase scenes.

One such enhancement completed by Double Negative was the steps the BMW navigates as Hunt pursues Faust. “The stunt team had gone in and put concrete ramps in,” explains Vickery. “Tom is still going down the ramps in the car, but instead of it being 10 steps and a flat, it was a concrete ramp and a flat section, then a ramp and a flat section and so on. In post we took out the concrete ramps and put steps in. It’s funny – it was four months into post and we started turning shots back to the editor and the ramps were gone and it was steps. Benji goes down the steps and he’s going, ‘Stairs, stairs, stairs!’ And the editor Eddie Hamilton said, ‘Oh I wondered when you were going to do something!’”

Double Negative also replaced lower parts of the BMW for a scene in which the car spins in an alleyway – a practical effect achieved by having the vehicle on a ‘lady susan’ that let it revolve. The studio inserted gates for a shot of the BMW doing a reverse-flying jump and delivered a digital car for shots of it rolling end over end. “They had tried that stunt in the UK,” notes Vickery, “by building a roll cage and having it tumble, but it didn’t quite tumble enough. So we created the roll digitally with re-sped clean plates of the parking lot and a load of digital cars in the foreground and background and a CG BMW tumbling end over end.”

Benji and Hunt in the BMW.
Benji and Hunt in the BMW.

Hunt procures a motorbike and sets off after Faust again along the highway, negotiating heavy traffic and Syndicate agents. “Tom rode that bike doing 100 miles an hour with three other people,” says Vickery. “Tom’s not got a helmet on and what they’ve done is thin the traffic out just to make it safe for him to ride at that speed, which means about 75 per cent of the cars and trucks are CG by Double Negative.”

The computer generated vehicles had to hold up to scrutiny sometimes directly alongside the real thing. “There’s a shot,” describes Vickery, “where Tom comes alongside another biker and they split either side of the trucks. The biker pulls back alongside Tom and gets ready to shoot him and just as he’s about to shoot him they split and goes either side of a big 18-wheeler. Tom is pinned in between two of them. All the 18-wheels on the right hand side of him are in camera and on the other side are CG.”

The subsequent shot of that biker slamming into the back of car and crashing required a digital double. “Tom is real in-camera but he’s filmed on an empty highway,” describes Vickery. “The bike and cars he smashes into are digital. But it’s still an example of where we’re not just making stuff up out of nowhere – we’re always taking the real photography and hopefully enhancing it seamlessly and invisibly. These are truly supporting visual effects.”

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Mission made possible

Originally a Christmas 2015 release, Rogue Nation was brought forward to open at the end of July, a tight turnaround for the VFX team. “We finished at 4am on the morning of delivery,” recalls Vickery, “and hand delivered the final shots on a drive to Company 3 and they dropped them into the conform for the IMAX premiere on the 23rd of July at the State Opera House in Vienna.”

For Vickery, who if you watch closely is even featured in the film as one of the rogue assassins shown on a monitor in Hunt’s safe barge (“My very dedicated wife spent about four hours photographing me for that at one in the morning,” he says), the film was an opportunity to capitalize on a rich base of stunts and practical work before visual effects needed to be evoked. “As much as Tom can, for example, he always does the stunt. But when it gets to the point where it’s physically impossible to do it or not worth the risk then there’s occasions where we step in and help out. His performance is still there.”

All images and clips copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures.

1 thought on “Hold on! The VFX of <em>Rogue Nation</em>”

  1. Great piece, wish I’d read it 2 years ago! But…. the BMW would have been on a LAZY Susan; (originally) a rotating table or tray for food service at a table.

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