By Drew Taylor | The Playlist December 19, 2011 at 5:00PM
Judging by the box office numbers, chances are if you lived somewhere with an IMAX theater, you saw "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," the fourth and arguably the best (at least since Brian De Palma's) film in the long-running, Tom Cruise-led franchise. And the biggest reason why this movie feels so fresh and new and fizzy is that it's the live action debut of director Brad Bird, who had previously given us genuine animated masterpieces in "The Iron Giant" and (for Pixar) "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille." What's so amazing about "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" is how authorial it is – Brad Bird is all over this thing, despite it being a $200 million tent pole that had to be vetted by god knows how many studio executives. It crackles with energy, imagination, and wit and the action scenes bristle with s kind of Zemeckis-y sense of chaos. We got to talk to Bird about the transition from animation to live action, on the biggest scope you could imagine, and his collaboration with producer J.J. Abrams.
"I think that it probably would have been a little more jarring if I had gone from my first film, being a hand-drawn film, to live action," Bird says about the leap from animation to live action, a jump that hasn't worked out well in the past (Ralph Bakshi and Rob Minkoff immediately come to mind). "Because I did 'The Incredibles' and 'Ratatouille,' I think that it was not as big a leap because you light sets in a CG film the way that you would light a set in a live action film. And you are dealing with a 3D space and you can choose the equivalent of different lenses. That, I think, made it a simpler transition."
We also wondered if Bird found the physical realities of live action to dampen his imagination and creative spirit. It is, after all, a process of going from a place where anything can happen, to having to adhere to certain laws and truths. "You deal with some physical limitations," Bird said, and we immediately thought of Dash running on top of tropical waters in "The Incredibles." Still, organization seems to be key to getting anything done. "If you plan something well enough you can get what you want, no matter what the medium is." He then detailed an example: "There's a shot in the movie that no one notices, because you don't want to pull them out of the movie, but it's the kind of shot that you would normally only be able to do in animation because we go through a wall. But since I had the shot pre-visualized early we were able to build a special wall that allowed us to move it as soon as it was out of view and actually have the camera go to a place that it wouldn't normally go. And that's the kind of thing that you can do easily in animation."
Bird had to alter his whole mindset in terms of how a movie is put together, too, since he was transitioning from a way of working where one scene can take months to complete to having "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" come out a little more than a year after it started filming (compare this with the relatively quick work on "Ratatouille," which Bird worked on for 18 months after it had been developed for years). "You have to change your frame of mind from slowly pushing a shot towards the place you want it to be to rolling the dice and preparing as well as you can," Bird said. "But you have multiple cracks at bat in live action." This, for him, was a huge plus. "That's the strength of it – you can try several times to get everything coordinated right and normally if you have a good enough crew you'll get it right. In animation you push the shot forward incrementally towards that finished state. So you're hopefully arriving in the same place storytelling wise but your road to get there is different."
Another plus to a live action shoot was being able to work with artists and craftspeople that he had long admired, but not gotten to collaborate with given the somewhat hermetically sealed world of animation. "I'm a huge fan of a lot of different artists that go into the film," Bird said. "I don't just admire good actors I have my favorite cinematographers and my favorite production designers and favorite film editors. So I got to, because Tom and J.J. were producers on this film and it had a decent sized budget, I could get to meet and discuss working with several of these craftsmen." He cited cinematographer Robert Elswit, sound designer (and fellow Pixar alum) Gary Rydstrom, and editor Paul Hirsch, as all key people who worked on this film.
But why "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol?" Shouldn't he have done something that seemed more outwardly, well, incredible? "J.J. and I had known each other for many years and were looking to collaborate on something and the timing never worked out," Bird explained. "And I met Tom right after 'The Incredibles' and we had this discussion about what we love about movies. And we had similar feelings about a lot of things and this was a chance to work with both of them." He also appreciated the legacy of creative freedom awarded in the series. "The other thing that attracted me to this was Tom's desire, from the first 'Mission: Impossible' film on, to have each film in the series have the style of its director. So the ones that Brian De Palma, and J.J. and John Woo did were all distinctly different from each other, even though they're all 'Mission: Impossible' films, which meant that I had some elbow room to make my own kind of film, which was attractive to me."
In fact, J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot productions reminded Bird of his former home. "Bad Robot is very much a little ecosystem not unlike Pixar in that it's able to function with a big studio but able to have a measure of autonomy and freedom to go quirky directions and do things a little off the beaten track," Bird said. "Even if you're doing a sequel or a franchise, there are still many playful ways to mess with that, and there was that freedom with Bad Robot and was one of the reasons I enjoyed working there." And as anyone who has seen the movie can attest to: Bird exploited every chance he could to play with the boundaries of the franchise, joyfully so.
Bird said that he and Andrew Stanton, another Pixar vet who is about to make his debut in live action (or at least pseudo-live action, there seem to be a lot of computer generated critters) with March's "John Carter," have shared the pain. " We've had our equivalent to the scar comparing scene from 'Jaws,'" Bird said. "I think that we both were staggered by the physical stamina that it requires to make a live action film but I think we both love the process of telling stories in the medium of film, whether its in animation or live action. And I think Andrew is a fantastic storyteller and I can't wait to see how 'John Carter' finishes up." "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" is in IMAX theaters now, and goes wide on Wednesday, December 21st. Come back tomorrow for more from our interview with Bird.