ILM creates a virtual Shanghai, a complex helicopter chase scene, and other ‘invisible’ effects
Interview by Contributing Editor Barbara Robertson
Industrial Light & Magic’s Roger Guyette received a visual effects Oscar nomination for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and won a BAFTA for Saving Private Ryan. Recently, he supervised the visual effects for Paramount Pictures’ M:I:III.
Although the start of the summer movie season is still a few weeks away, Paramount Pictures began its rollout early with Mission: Impossible III, an action-packed thriller starring Tom Cruise as undercover operative Ethan Hunt. Complementing the action are dazzling effects created at ILM by a core crew of around 100 that topped out at 180, who generated 530visual effects in less than four months.
How did you do so much so fast?
A lot of the overhead was in building Shanghai and the helicopters, the CG helicopters and the miniatures, so we pre-built them. Once we had built the assets, JJ[Abrams, the director] could do anything with them. It was a good thing that he didn't change his mind. It would have been terrible if we’d built Shanghai and it turned out that he wanted Berlin.
What was the director's overall aim for the effects?
JJ felt that sometimes technology could get out of control and people wouldn’t believe what was happening. He wanted the movie to be believable, have a strong sense of reality, and be more personal. There wasn’t any black-box magic. You could see the equipment, how people were using it, and how it functioned.
Can you give us an example of this?
He wanted to show people how the mask process worked rather than just showing the result. So, we built a level of reality into it. In the film, the Mission Impossible team turns pictures of Philip Seymour Hoffman into 3D images, which can really be done. And then we had them do a process almost like a CAD application, where they milled the maskout of a piece of rubber, so the audience would see how things worked and, in the context of the movie, wouldn’t question the process.
But, it was a trick. How did you actually do it?
The makeup people made a phenomenally detailed mask. The only problem was that it had no motor inside, of course, so once the mask was on, it worked for only a beat. It didn’t move with the person inside it. So, we had Tom Cruise put the mask on, and filmed him. Then we filmed Philip Seymour Hoffman doing the same motions, and used a CG mask to blend the two. There were a number of these one-off effects like the mask in the film. Plus, we did the action sequences.
Which action sequences required the most CG work?
.The three major action sequences were the helicopter chase through the windmill farm, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge sequence, and the Shanghai sequence. Plus, we did the factory extraction sequence and rebuilt the Vatican.
OK, let’s start with the helicopter sequence. What was interesting to you about that, and how did you handle it?
We shot footage in a windmill farm in Palm Springs, but it was dangerous flying helicopters around the windmills, so we did a lot of miniature work and CG helicopters. And, of course, the actors don’t really fl ya helicopter, so we had the classic blue screen problem where you have actors inside a machine and you’ve got to seethe world outside. I’m always skeptical about this stuff—people know there’s a trick; they’re looking out for it. And, there isn't a lot to see when you’re flying at night inside a big windmill farm. But, I was inspired by the way [director of photography]Dan Mindel used different kinds of light inside the helicopter. The bad-guy helicopter had lights aimed at the good guy helicopter. So, there’s a tremendous amount of light even though it’s dark outside—hundreds of highlights and hits and different colors. We were playing with the lighting to give you the sense of the speed and to make you feel that you traveled through something. That was really interesting to me. We were able to introduce almost completely arbitrary lights. It was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge sequence happens next in the film. How did you shoot that?
We built a 600-foot bridge outside Los Angeles. It would have been very difficult to shoot the sequence at Chesapeake Bay during the summer. The bridge is busy with tourists, and it’s hurricane season. We scouted tons of locations to find one where we could build the bridge. Our bridge had an infinite horizon on one side and hills on the other. We covered the hilly side with green screen and shot angles so you mainly see sky except for some big moments.
You had 600 feet of green screen?
With the help of a company that specializes in complex stage rigging, I designed a truss system that moved greenscreens up and down with electric winches. We had 400 or 500 feet of greenscreens.
“Mission: Impossible III” images from Paramount Pictures. Photo © Stephen Vaughan.
For several scenes, ILM fabricated the
environment around a 600-foot bridge
built outside Los Angeles to simulate
Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
How did you add the water beneath?
We photographed the real bridge in Virginia and built up a library of different views indifferent lighting conditions, both stills and moving. We did the same thing in Shanghai. With this library, were constructed the environment around the bridge. We also added all the rockets, the explosions...all those sorts of things...and did extremely complex 3D digital matte paintings. Giles Hancock, our lead matte artist, built and painted a superb damaged bridge that we could drop in. It was fantastic work.
What did you do for Shanghai?
Essentially, we art-directed downtown Shanghai. We built our own version of Shanghai.
Why didn't you shoot in Shanghai?
We did shoot in Shanghai. But, we needed to do blue screen work when we had impossible angles or it was impractical to get the shots. The other thing was that because of the pollution, shooting was very unpredictable, and they turn off all the lights in Shanghai at10 pm. There’s a sequence in which Tom Cruise does a bungee jump off one of the buildings in downtown Shanghai at night, and lands on the roof of another building. Tom physically jumped off a building, but it wasn’t a building in Shanghai. He jumped off a matching foreground set built on top of the car park at Universal Studios. He did the stunt, but we could control the background. Russell Earle, associate VFX supervisor, went to Shanghai with a team who created a library of photographs and moving plates.
How much of Shanghai did you build?
We built three hero buildings to a high level of detail. The distances are huge, so because of the sheer scale—the buildings are 800 or 900 feet tall—other than the hero buildings, the camera never gets very close. But, we did image-based modeling from the photographs, so you can see details. [The virtual set] has all the dimensionality of 3D without using real architecture. It was a perfect filmmaker's tool. JJ was in control of a giant set. We changed the city around, art-directed it, and added bits of CG. Once we had the library, we jazzed it up so that every angle looked great, all the roads were busy, and there were more video billboards.
Does this film seem like another in a progression off films like War of the Worlds and Jar head, where the effects team is giving directors complete flexibility?
Ultimately, movie making is a practical process. You want to be flexible, and you want control, but you also want to be as creative as you can be. Yet, the environment is very difficult to control. We got the value of Tom Cruise doing real stuff. You want that. But at the same time, you don’t want to have an uninteresting view of Shanghai behind him. And, people know rationally that you can’t fire a rocket into a bridge, but hopefully our work is so invisible that they'll never question it.