By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 23, 2011 at 6:35PM
For John Knoll, it didn't matter that "Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol" only required 700 VFX shots, and most of them invisible. It was the opportunity to work with director Brad Bird, whom he's known for years, on his first live-action film away from animation stardom at Pixar.
Besides, the Oscar-winning senior visual effects supervisor from Industrial Light & Magic ("Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest") had previously made "M: I" back in 1996, and was no stranger to animation, either, having worked on Oscar front runner, "Rango."
"Brad has all of the important characteristics of a good director," Knoll suggests. "Strong story sense, able to get good performances from your actors, and, at least what's important from my point of view, he's got a good eye for shot composition and visual storytelling: and so all of those features were on good display on this project.
"Probably the biggest part of the learning curve for him was the harsh reality of having to commit to things right then and there when you're shooting live action. In animation, you can often defer decisions or make changes later. But here, you look at the first version of a scene, and make a whole variety of tweaks and changes and iterate on it to get it to your ideal state. And it can be a stressful thing to carefully think everything through because you only have what you shot."
But then the spontaneity factor can be exhilarating, too. For instance, the idea of the sandstorm slowly approaching in the distance when daredevil Tom Cruise free climbs the exterior of the Birj in Dubai -- the tallest building in the world -- came as a suggestion from producer Jeffrey Chernov. Bird then ran with it for a thrilling chase with his superstar right in the middle of the storm. Although most of the dust (in actuality, ground paper pulp) was practical, ILM's Singapore studio evened out the density and consistency of it with a hardware-accelerated simulation tool called Plume (which also worked wonders on "Super 8").
"Then about half-way through the sequence, it switches to a car chase, where Brad really loved the idea of the contradiction of a car chase in dense sandstorm where it's too dangerous to drive fast," Knoll explains. "And you think about the logistics of shooting that. Again, they tried to get as much practical dust as possible, but it's a little too dangerous to do a huge amount for the same reason it would be in reality. You could really get hurt driving in those conditions. So there was lighter dust for the driving scenes where we had a little more augmentation for the last half of the scene."
Speaking of driving, for a chase across Mumbai featuring the BMW Vision concept car (a full-hybrid four-wheel drive 2+2 sports car with plug-in technology), they decided to use the only drivable prototype. However, Knoll says they were warned by BMW to be careful not to drive more than 40 mph and to treat it very carefully. So they used long lenses and tight framing and lots of quick cuts to give the illusion of a high-speed chase.
"But despite the best of intentions, after the first evening of shooting, we catastrophically broke the transmission and it couldn't be repaired in time for us to continue the shoot," Knoll laments. "And this is the only one that existed so it had to get shipped back to BMW. And, meanwhile, we proceeded to shoot the scene with a target car and it ended up being computer-generated in a little over half the sequence. Ideally, you will never know that you're seeing a computer-generated car."
Nor are you supposed to notice nearly 200 CG cars in the climactic chase and fight that happens inside a big, robotic parking garage. It's modeled after the Autostadt in Wolfsburg, a big cylindrical building, 20 stories, with 18 bays around, and then a central column with two robotic paddles that can come up and park cars in those bays or retrieve them. "And so we built a set [in Vancouver] that was two stories high on one side and five stories high on the other and tried to get as much of that in camera as possible," Knoll relates.
But one of Knoll's favorite scenes occurs early on when Cruise and company break into the Kremlin. There's a guard sitting at a desk at the far end of the corridor, and somehow they have to get to the vault, so while the guard looks away for a moment, they set up a screen that completely fills the corridor with a camera that projects a view that fools the guard into thinking he's seeing an empty corridor. And whenever the guard looks down or looks away, they slide the screen down toward their target until they get to the door. "It's a goofy idea but the scene plays well," says Knoll.
To Knoll, the action/adventure genre has gotten too ridiculous in the last couple of decades, so he found the sense of jeopardy as well as the sense of humor refreshing in "Ghost Protocol." Not surprisingly, Bird wanted to revisit the best of Bond and "Raiders" in his first foray into live-action.
Brad wanted to have guys getting injured and not having everything work out," Knoll continues. "So what happens if they have the fancy gadget, and just as the mission is starting, the thing breaks? That's where you show how good they are when plan A doesn't work and they have to improvise to save the mission. And so there's some nice situational humor that comes from the team figuring it out together. The emphasis on the team is nice too because that's one of the things I liked about the TV show. And then Simon Pegg steals every scene he's in as the geek. You can really see Brad's personality and sense of humor come through in a strong way."