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December 06, 2011

‘Mission: Impossible’s’ tall order: Filming the skyscraper stunts

Posted in: Movies

Tom Cruise climbs a building in a scene from the movie "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol." (David James / Paramount Pictures / Skydance Productions)

Jeremy Renner plays Brandt and Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol." (David James / Paramount Pictures / Skydance Productions)

Simon Pegg plays Benji and Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol." (David James / Paramount Pictures / Skydance Productions)

Paula Patton plays Jane Carter and Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol." (Joe Lederer / Paramount Pictures / Skydance Productions)

Tom Cruise and director Brad Bird on the set of "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol." (David James / Paramount Pictures)

Motion-capture apes overran cineplexes this year. Photo-realistic animated worlds teemed with fighting pandas and an adventurous young reporter. But one of 2011’s most jaw-dropping sequences comes courtesy of the human special-effect himself, Tom Cruise, and the craftspeople behind director Brad Bird’s “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” which opens Dec. 21. In it, Cruise’s spy Ethan Hunt and his squad (Jeremy Renner as Brandt, Paula Patton as Jane Carter and Simon Pegg as Benji Dunn) find themselves in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building. Complications force Hunt to travel several stories above the team’s 119th floor command center — from outside the building — using electronic gloves that allow him to climb glass. The dizzying experience is made all the more vertigo-inducing by being shot in Imax. And, yes, that really is Cruise doing the climbing. Here’s a breakdown of how that scene came together, with script excerpts by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec.


Brandt cranes his head skyward, looking at the behemoth building he’s under. It seems to go up forever.

Stunt coordinator Gregg Smrz: We were in meetings, and they said, “Tom’s not going to climb that building. The studio will never allow that.” I said, “Tom’s going to climb the building, I guarantee it.” When you’re on top and you look out, people are going to think it’s CG [computer-generated], and it’s not. You have to see it to believe it.


A window panel is removed and pulled inside the room by Brandt and Benji. Ethan picks up the gloves.

Co-producer, visual effects producer Tom Peitzman: Special mounts had to be made for the 65-millimeter Imax cameras, special safety had to be put in place, because in a building that’s 800 meters tall [it’s 2,723 feet], you couldn’t run the risk of anything falling. Even all of us who are working inside the building, we all had to harness ourselves because the window was open. Being in a building that high, it almost gave you the sense you were in an airplane, watching Tom Cruise outside, actually doing it.

Smrz: We spent hundreds of hours trying to figure out, how are we going to climb this glass and make it look real. In Prague, we had a [replica] section of the building brought over from Dubai and built it on stage. We knew the temperature of the glass and where the sun was going to be on the day of our filming, and we put 50-foot-tall lights on a rheostat so we could adjust them so it was like the sun.

Actor, producer Tom Cruise: We were dealing with a lot of issues — not only the height issue but also the temperature issues and the winds. It can get so hot up there that it could burn me, so we had to really play with different kinds of rubber, different kinds of materials with the wardrobe. A sequence like this, with the amount of manpower and craftsmanship it takes — and also, athletically, what it takes — even for training as we’re trying to figure how we’re going to do it, it’s pretty intense. And then the aesthetics, how it’s going to look.


Twenty-seven minutes ’til door knock …

Ethan slips out the window.

Smrz: We rehearsed in Prague and never rehearsed in Dubai. We flew into Dubai and climbed the building. Kind of like a military operation, where they’re gonna go in and rescue the hostages; they’ve never been there, they rehearse on a set, then they go in there. The only difference was, don’t look down.


Ethan steadies himself on the glass, and gets his first real feel for the gloves — the only things keeping him from a two thousand foot plummet.

Sound designer, sound re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom: The sound of that scene hinges on the gloves Ethan’s wearing. You have to believe they’re really going to hold him up on the outside of the building. The key we found that made it natural and believable was these thumps from an MRI machine. They make these magnetic thumps, which gave it an electronic sound, a sense of power.

Peitzman: The majority of the [visual effects] work we had to do was painting out rigging because Tom was really climbing the building. But there were so many very large cables on Tom, we would actually be replacing the building pieces individually — instead of just painting out the cables. But with a mirrored-surface building, it created a reflections nightmare. We had helicopters in our shots, we had crew in our shots, we had all kinds of rigging. There were many times where we would see six reflections of Tom. So if he has four cables on him, we have 24 cables we have to remove.


Ethan climbs. Stops. He turns to see — a massive sand storm, several hundred feet high, racing toward the city.

Special effects supervisor Mike Meinardus: Believe it or not, when you get to 147 floors, you’d think it would be really windy, but it was completely, most of the time, still. So we made a special 120 mph wind machine, custom-built, that went on an arm that stuck outside the window, to blow on his clothes and hair.

Rydstrom: The scene is believable and tense, but it’s also kind of funny. Tom Cruise’s character gets frustrated by this failing glove — there’s a moment when the glove falls. We tried to find the right combination of a whistling sound that would be realistic but be also, in my mind, an homage to the classic Wile E. Coyote falling whistle.

Jeremy Renner plays Brandt, and Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (David James / Paramount Pictures / Skydance Productions)


Ethan fumbles the laser cutter. As he tries to catch it, he inadvertently twists his right hand — disengaging the glove.

And Ethan falls!!!

Peitzman: That was done on the building, 154 stories up. I remember [Cruise] wanting to do it countless times because he thought his timing wasn’t right. I’ve got a lump in my throat the whole time he’s doing it. Digitally we put in the CG beam and the glass and removed the rigging, but that’s Tom doing it. He’s literally falling two and a half stories.

Smrz: I can only imagine how sore he was. He never complained. He would hang up there for hours. He climbed, I want to say, five days in a row? As far as bruised ribs, there’s just no way around it.


Ethan charges out the window, dangling from a length of server cable, running down the side of the building.

Peitzman: In one shot, we’re looking up, he’s running toward us, he jumps over the camera and then is running down away from us. It was done in camera with just a whole bunch of rig removal. I’ll never forget lying on the platform that he was running towards, right next to Brad Bird and Gregg Smrz, watching Tom running down directly at us, 60 stories above us. It was unbelievable.

Ethan runs along the side of the building — in the opposite direction — swinging himself like a pendulum…

Ethan lets go … arms outstretched, he reaches for the opening [back into the command center]

Cruise: Some of the crew couldn’t even go on the floor [of a room where the window had been taken out] just because of the height issue, it was too much for them. When I’m swinging from the building, I have crosswinds, and, when you see the shot, you’ll see that I’m actually flying. I had to figure out how to do that, I’m on a single rope at that point and when I leave the building and catch that wind, I am actually flying and trying to figure out how to move my feet like a rudder to move across the whole arc of the building.

Smrz: I think it was 1,717 feet [above the ground]. I said, “There’s nowhere to attach a cable. I can send you out, but once you’re out, you’re coming back just as hard.” He was impacting the building pretty hard as it was.

– By Michael Ordoña, Special to the Los Angeles Times


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