“A man with no fear” is how Mission: Impossible 2 director John Woo describes Tom Cruise, who laughs in the face of death with each Mission: Impossible sequel. Cruise has hung off an airplane, jumped around the Burj Khalifa, held his breath for six minutes, and flown jets and planes, all in the name of entertainment. The Evil Knievel of the big screen accomplished what’s probably his most miraculous stunt yet in Mission: Impossible – Fallout: jumping out of a plane 25,000 feet in the air.
Recently, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie told us about all the hard work that went into the breathtaking HALO jump sequence.
The jump is called a high altitude, low open skydive (hence, HALO). Once Cruise jumped off the plane, he found himself speeding through the skies at 225 miles per hour. No other actor has attempted this stunt before, and it comes as no surprise that Cruise is the first to do it. He says a part of the reason why he does the stunts himself is that he wants to do new things, and hats off to him – he ultimately ends up suffering for his audience’s pleasure. Now that’s a movie star.
During our recent email interview with Christopher McQuarrie, we asked the filmmaker to take us step-by-step behind the execution of the scene. As you’d expect, he spared no detail. Here is how it went down in his own words.
Christopher McQuarrie on the Fallout HALO Jump
Tom and I had long-discussed a HALO sequence, but had not expressly considered it for Fallout. [Production designer] Peter Wenham presented me with some concept art of the Grand Palais sequence, including one image from the air with Ethan skydiving onto the roof. It took off quickly from there.
Rule number one with any Mission stunt is: How do we make it subjective? How do we put the audience with Ethan? I’d seen plenty of people jump out of planes, but always with the camera on their backs. I had to devise a way to “pull” Tom from the plane rather than “push” him.
Next, I wanted the sequence to play as a oner. I worked with a previz team for several months refining what this shot would look like. At the same time, we built a giant wind tunnel for the actors and camera operator to see what was actually achievable. As with the helicopter sequence, we were in uncharted water, learning everything as we went. The camera moves in the previz quickly proved impossible and the sequence was constantly refined and streamlined.
To make matters more complicated, we were shooting a night sequence, meaning we had to shoot in a very narrow window of light just after sundown. Too early, too bright. Too late, too dark. The margin of error proved to be less than a minute on either side.
The gear Tom is wearing is all custom made for the sequence, including a helmet that would allow us to see his whole face. The lights had to be specially rigged with silicone covers. A single spark in the pure oxygen of that helmet would set Tom’s head on fire.
The sequence was originally five shots that would be stitched together into one. By the time we were ready to shoot, we’d refined it down to three. This meant fewer jumps, but it also meant the shots were more complicated. We simply could not predict how many takes each shot required, thus we could not gauge how long it would take to shoot. For this reason, we decided to shoot the sequence at the end of production with a reduced unit. This created an enormous burden on the visual effects team who would have minimal time to do the incredibly complicated VFX work in the sequence (adding the storm and Paris). Every day the sequence went long was a day taken away from visual effects specifically and post production in general. Owing to the delays caused by Tom’s injury, we were down to the wire already and this was creating enormous pressure.
We were, in essence, trying to hit a bullet with a bullet with a bullet.
The first shot involved Tom jumping out of the plane. Tom insisted we shoot as much of the prior scene as part of the oner. The cut was dictated by Tom’s POV of the storm. Everything after that was folded into the oner.
Camera operator Craig O’Brien was an incredibly experienced skydiver and videographer, but had no experience with narrative filmmaking and had to learn as he went about framing and visual storytelling. We rehearsed on the ground for weeks before ever taking to the air. We moved editorial to a trailer on the military base in Abu Dhabi where we were shooting. My days were spent cutting the film with Eddie Hamilton and periodically driving out to the drop zone to review footage with Tom and Craig on their way back to the runway where there would put on new chutes and go up again. We would repeat this cycle five to seven times a day, culminating with an attempt to get the shot just after sunset. The crew would wait anxiously as we reviewed footage, unsure if any one of the three shots we needed would take three days or three weeks. It was incredibly surreal and morale dipped every time we didn’t bag a take. The end was simultaneously just in sight and impossibly far away.
The first shot involved Craig jumping out of the plane with Tom following. Tom had to catch up with Craig and stop exactly three feet from the camera – the minimum distance at which he would be in focus. In such low light, the margin of error was about three inches. It’s important to note, Craig was wearing the camera on top of his head and could not see through it. He was doing everything by sense of feel acquired in endless rehearsals.
The second shot required Tom and Craig to do a complicated aerial dance, culminating in a mid-air collision between Ethan and Walker. This was incredibly dangerous as it could easily result in a three way collision that could have injured or killed one or all.
The third shot was Ethan swapping his oxygen bottle with Walker, flipping him over and deploying Walker’s chute before deploying his own. This was the longest piece and was always at risk of going below minimum safe altitude. Each piece was fraught with incredible tension. I would call action, watch my crew jump out of a plane, then fly back to base to find out if anyone had been injured or worse. This went on for weeks, ultimately requiring 106 jumps, all of which were done while Tom was still recovering from a broken ankle.
Post production was just as complicated. Tracking Paris into the shots could not be done by computer because the actors were not only moving in relation to the camera, they were also falling toward the ground. This meant Paris had to be tracked into every frame by hand. Hundreds of people worked on the assembled shot for three months.
All in all, it the the most work frame-for-frame of any shot in the film by an order of magnitude.
In other words, the sequence was no walk in the park. But as Mission Commander Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins) once put it, “Mr. Hunt, this isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible.” With the HALO jump, everyone involved in the sequence lived up to the franchise’s name and delivered a sequence that won’t be forgotten. The audacity, scope, and tangibility of it pack a sense of awe and intensity that’s something to behold in IMAX. In the future when people think about great moviegoing experiences during the summertime, this sequence will come to mind.
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