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December 26, 2011

‘Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’: Brad Bird takes command

Posted in: Movies

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Jeremy Renner, left, Tom Cruise and Brad Bird attend the after party for the New York premiere of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images)

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Tom Cruise, left, and Paula Patton at the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil premiere of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Antonio Lacerda / EPA)

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Tom Cruise, left, and Simon Pegg attend the UK premiere of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" in London. (Dave Hogan / Getty Images)

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Brad Bird, left, Paula Patton, Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg attend the Madrid, Spain premiere of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images)

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Paula Patton, left, and Tom Cruise attend the Munich, Germany premiere of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Andreas Rentz / Getty Images / Paramount Pictures)

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Anil Kapur, left, Brad Bird and Tom Cruise at the Dubai International Film Festival, where "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" premiered. (Nousha Salimi / Associated Press)

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Brad Bird, left, Paula Patton and Tom Cruise attend an event for "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" in Seoul, South Korea. (Lee Jin-man / Associated Press)

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

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Jeremy Renner, left, and Paula Patton in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

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Jeremy Renner in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

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Paula Patton, left, in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

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Paula Patton, left, and Tom Cruise in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

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Josh Holloway in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

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Paula Patton, left, and Léa Seydoux in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

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Tom Cruise, top, in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

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Director Brad Bird on the set of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

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Director Brad Bird on the set of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Paramount Pictures)

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Michael Nyqvist, left, and Samuli Edelmann in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (Joe Lederer / Paramount Pictures)

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Tom Cruise in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (ILM / Paramount Pictures)



Brad Bird won two Oscars for his animated accomplishments at Pixar, but taking on “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” for his first live-action feature film was, in its own way, just as audacious as the aerial stunts Tom Cruise executes in the new spy thriller.

Bird knew that to succeed he would need to draw on his experience — and that meant reaching for a sketch pad and a pencil at every stage of the project.

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Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" (Paramount)

“I would never claim my skill set is unique in all the world, but when you come from animation, you have to know how to represent things visually,” Bird said. “If you have a thought, you don’t have to just talk about it, you can sit down and draw what you have in mind…. There’s so much wiggle room in the way we interpret words, but a drawing can cut through in a different way.”

Dazzling visuals are certainly a key component in the fourth installment in the big-budget action film franchise: “Ghost Protocol” finds secret ops veteran Ethan Hunt (Cruise) working with a new team of agents (played by Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Paula Patton) who must stay alive to catch the shadowy forces that have framed them for a bombing at the Kremlin.

The adventure takes the group from a dank Moscow prison to the top of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, but the landscape they are most concerned about is downtown San Francisco, which they discover has been targeted for a missile attack.

Domestic box office is expected to reach $72.7 million by Monday for “Ghost Protocol,” which had already brought in $118 million overseas coming into the weekend; It opened Dec. 16 in many countries, the same date it began a run of limited preview screenings at Imax and select prestige theaters in the U.S. before expanding to a wide release Dec. 21 — and that bodes well for a movie with a $145-million production budget.

It also means Bird will likely be able to move forward with his career plan to alternate between live action and animation.

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

“That would be the ideal for me because I love animation, and I think it is a perfect way to tell certain stories,” Bird said. “There are some stories perfect for animation, and some that are perfect for live action. But to me it’s all storytelling.”

The 54-year-old Montana native fell in love with animation and art as a youngster and his visit at age 11 to the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank sealed the deal. He declared his aspiration to be an animator, and he also became a student of Walt Disney, both the company and the man.

“He presided over all of this amazing stuff, and it went all over the place — it included live action and animation and nature films and theme parks and technology, like audio-animatronics,” Bird said of Disney. “That was the early dazzler.”

Bird attended the California Institute of the Arts, where his classmates included Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Henry Selick and John Musker. After graduation, he began his career as an animator at Disney with early credits like “Animalympics” in 1980 and Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound” a year later. In the mid-’80s he worked as a writer on “Amazing Stories,” Steven Spielberg’s television anthology series, and then wrote the screenplay for “*Batteries Not Included,” the 1987 film about mechanical alien visitors who bond with humans.

There was a similar theme to “The Iron Giant,” the first feature film that Bird wrote and directed, which is an admired cult favorite now but was a commercial fizzle when it was released by Warner Bros. in 1999. At the time, some reviewers praised the film for depicting the humanity within an alien robot but also for capturing a lively spirit within the hand-drawn lines of a traditional animated film.

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Paula Patton in "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" (Paramount)

Those are interesting topics to Bird, who says cameras and computers are both machines and either is only as good as the director, writer or animator using them.

“When you’re a kid you think of movies, and there is something mechanized about it — there are individual frames and it’s photographed, there’s a lot of resources gathered — so it doesn’t feel as personal from conceptual point of view as something like a painting,” Bird said. “And yet it is personal in the way a conductor can mold a hundred musicians into creating a coherent feeling and sound. You can command an army in a way that’s singular, and that’s the magic part.”

It was his magical work on 2004′s “The Incredibles” — which showed a sly appreciation for classic James Bond films and the spirit of spy cinema — and 2007′s “Ratatouille” at Pixar, however, that led to two screenwriting Oscar nominations and a pair of trophies for best animated feature. The films delivered at the box office too, together racking up more than $1.2 billion worldwide.

To “M:I” star and producer Cruise, Bird’s background made him the right choice, not the risky one, to take over a franchise that launched 15 years ago with director Brian De Palma. Cruise met Bird after “The Incredibles,” a film that impressed the movie star with its composition, the clarity and velocity of the action sequences and also with the emotion invested in the story.

“He’s very special, a great storyteller,” Cruise said of Bird. “We talked about our love of movies, and there are popcorn moments; you know, when you’re there in the theater and you’re eating the popcorn and you’re on the edge of your seat and you stop chewing because of what you see. It’s so suspenseful and entertaining too.”

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

“Ghost Protocol” was shot between October 2010 and March 2011 and covered a lot of ground, visiting the United Arab Emirates, Russia, the Czech Republic, India and Canada.

“For what we needed and what we got, that was a pretty lean schedule,” Bird said in September, sitting in a nearly deserted West Los Angeles movie theater where he had brought some early “Ghost Protocol” footage to show a handful of journalists. “We had a lot to get done and unlike animation, you can’t really go back once you’ve moved on.”

Cruise has said Bird’s detailed drawings and pre-visualization work was a powerful tool, especially with meticulously prepared sequences such as the movie’s signature action scene filmed in and around the Burj Khalifa. Still, Bird concedes that initially he was a bit hushed while dealing with his first in-action movie crew.

“At the very beginning I was definitely swallowing hard and was uncharacteristically quiet to the point that two of the guys on the crew took me to dinner and said, ‘You have to start asserting yourself because people are starting to think you don’t have a point of view.’ The thing is we had no prep time on the movie and we had this huge complicated movie and I was just all ears at the beginning…. They were thinking I wouldn’t be that [outspoken] guy at the beginning, but all I was doing was taking in information of all these people who had done many [films] and just trying to digest it all.”

Bird stepped up and took control —- he knows that the movie would have destructed if he’d chosen not to accept that leadership assignment. “It can spin out of control if you don’t grab the reins firmly…. There are a lot of talented people with different ideas, but we all have to fly in formation, and that’s tough.”

And what’s next for Bird? The director who made animation more lively and, with “Ghost Protocol,” has brought an animated spirit to his live-action debut isn’t specific about his next mission, but most things seem possible.

“I want to be able to do a lot of different things — I don’t want to be ruled out for any genre or medium I like,” Bird said. “Hopefully after this I’ll be considered for action films. And if I do something small and more personal and I pull it off, then hopefully I’ll be seen as somebody who can do that. Basically you want to stay interested and excited. Movies are physically hard to do, but to me it’s the greatest medium of them all…. That’s where I want to be.”

–Geoff Boucher

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