The first article in an ongoing, periodic series of scene analyses from non-new releases. I love writing about individual scenes more in-depth—with a close eye on both the technical aspects of the filmmaking and the philosophical undertones of that filmmaking—and there’s not really an outlet for these sorts of pitches at the moment. So, I’ll just put them here instead. Enjoy.
The fourth entry in the Mission Impossible series features one of the most recognizable stunts in action movie history, the Burj Khalifa scene with the real Tom Cruise actually dangling off the world’s tallest building. It’s one of the great scenes of largely analog filmmaking and practical effects in an era dominated by CGI: the world’s biggest movie star risking his life to satiate the audience for nine minutes in IMAX. Of course, this doesn’t mean the scene is free of all computer generated images, but the most important visual elements are real: Tom Cruise and the Burj. It’s a scene of simple wonder. The reflections on the windows capture the movements of the real Dubai: cars, people, and all.
It’s ironic that this scene forces popular and collective memory to deem this the “practical effect film” or something along those lines—because an earlier scene, the hallway projection scene at the Kremlin (full scene ), might be the perfect marriage of analog and digital filmmaking philosophies. (The tech-parking garage scene likewise uses digital tools in a fascinating way, though to a lesser extent.)
With no exposition required, the Mission Impossible team infiltrates the Kremlin. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), in half-hearted disguises and minimal linguistic flexibility, make their way to an intersection of a long hallway with a single guard at the far end. Using in-world gadgets that generate water-droplet sounds in the direction in which they are pointed, Benji distracts the guard and inspires enough curiosity to distract the guard and leave his post ever-so-briefly. Hunt and Benji set up a corridor-wide screen, reflective on one side and translucent on the other. Using a camera that reconstructed the space virtually, they superimpose the reconstructed space onto the reflective or far side of the screen. This allows the two spies to break into the archival room without alarming the guard. A robotic arm on the near side of the screen mimics the eye movement of the guard, allowing for the optical illusion to imitate his perspective point.
The camera illusion itself, even on the surface, depends on a technique as old as Georges Méliès and as such has lost all truly illusory power. The Cruise-Pegg perspectives include the corridor set-up described above, while the Guard perspective shots do not: the hall is empty, other than some composited images that look superimposed. It’s a magic trick that the guild of magicians revealed almost a century prior. The same technique was even employed in a different context for the original television show in the season four episode “The Falcon. Part 3.”
Director Brad Bird seems to be doing something rather counter-narrative to the Cruise-Impossible pubic image, especially after Christopher McQuarrie was given the proverbial keys to the franchise. Bird, a Pixar director making his live-action debut while shooting on 35mm (and some IMAX), marries the tools of digital filmmaking with those of analog filmmaking; more daringly, he asks if there is even a difference. We believe the technological achievements of the MI6 world, despite also knowing, even if subconsciously, that nothing is there; the guard can’t see shit. Yet, the anxiety we feel for Hunt and Benji is genuine: it’s as if the guard might actually see them.
Apparently, Cruise forced extra footage of the guard coming dangerously close to the fake screen to push this idea even further, though these shots ultimately were deemed superfluous. What if the tech fails, even if just for a second? Does our threshold for image manipulation change depend on the medium it’s delivered to us? Bird asks, informed by his animation experiences, what if all images are equally real? Or perhaps, equally not real?
The scene reaches a new visual height when Hunt is forced to abort the mission after their digital signals are compromised. An array of guards eventually works their way to the corridor where the original guard kept duty. The eye-tracking robot arm, however, was built for a single set of eyes, causing the machine to malfunction.
The image produced is astonishing. In coordination with cinematographer Robert Elswit and the visual effects team, the diegetic reflective screen flickers, much like a heavy box television in its final hours or a computer screen that comes too close to a magnet, giving away the technology and alerting the officers that they are on the right track. The screen transitions from a digital effect, likely a composite of two images (shot on film but edited through the Digital Intermediate), to a real screen for the police to interact with.
The layered optical philosophy is most impressive: a fictional image is produced by a “real” image which in turn produces a “fake” one that then becomes “real” again through what might be described as a Texas Switch of real and “fake” camera work and effects. The only possible reference shot I’m aware of comes in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, with the red zone shield generator—which also takes place in a hallway.
But in Phantom Menace, the trick is substantially less “real,” likely requiring more effort from the visual effects department than the special effects one. The comparison here doesn’t seem forced given the locational and plot-objective similarity: to not be confronted by the bad guy at the far end of the hallway and the other side of the optical shield. Bird’s experience as a director of animated features (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, The Iron Giant, etc… ) proves particularly helpful here: analog or digital, practical or computer generated, is not a moving-picture produced either way?
The two palates—more or less—are the same, at least to Bird.