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

Dec. 06, 2011 | 3:32 p.m.
mi4 4 Mission: Impossibles tall order: Filming the skyscraper stunts

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

mi4 3 Mission: Impossibles tall order: Filming the skyscraper stunts

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

mi4 2 Mission: Impossibles tall order: Filming the skyscraper stunts

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

mi4 Mission: Impossibles tall order: Filming the skyscraper stunts

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

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

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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.

mi4 2 Mission: Impossibles tall order: Filming the skyscraper stunts

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

  1. Josh says:

    I have never seen a MI movie. Never. Never wanted to until now. If someone can risk their lives to make a movie believable, I can check it out and see what the hoopla is about. Now, I can't wait!

    • Tyrone says:

      How much were you paid to post that?

    • That Guy says:

      Totally agree with this. I'm not into popcorn action fare (unless it actually engages your brain, like Inception) and have never seen any of the MI's either as a result. However, I will see this. And as for Tom Cruise, while I still think he's a little cuckoo… there's no denying what a man's man this guy is!

    • Ninestunts says:

      Their lives were not in danger. Stunts are very safe and directed by experts. Take a look at Vicarmstrong.com or just google Vic Armstrong. He is the best stuntman and stunt director in the world. Never been in danger of loosing a life yet !

  2. MJP says:

    So, I guess Paramount decided to work with Tom Cruise again after being fired by them back in 2006?

  3. MJP says:

    No wonder there are no comments…they have to be approved by Admin. LAME…fine, don't publish my comment, i care not.

  4. MARK GEORGEFF says:

    This looks cooler than anything. Cruise has simply done it again. I don't know of any other actor or star or, in Cruise's case, both…that keeps upping the ante on his work. He's got the acting chops and just keeps pushing his star to the outer limits. Just don't see how he can have any real detractors anymore, unless it's just out of pure envy and jealousy — regardless of the Scientology stuff. Which is not what his devotion to his work and craft is about at all.

  5. Mark Sutton says:

    Amazing! Can not wait to see the film and I stayed at Zabeel Saray on the Jumeirah Palm where some of the scenes with the prototype BMW are shot, I am sure its going to be an amazing film, when is it out in the UK? Thanks for the piece.

  6. Sue says:

    Great piece. Really appreciate having the script excerpts too.

    Looking forward to seeing the film.

  7. david says:

    Sounds freaking awesome! That article got me pumped to see the movie, a tall order for someone as jaded and cynical as me…good work. Scientology or not, you have to respect the heck out of Tom's commitment to his craft. Not many people would have the cojones to do those stunts, if anyone.

  8. rhddddddddddd says:

    he claims he did the rock climbing in the last movie….not true…watch the movie…

  9. Marni Spencer-Devlin says:

    I CANNOT WAIT to see this movie. I suspect that I will see it more than once. Cruise is simply amazing. He defies the laws of nature! I loved the other MI's but this one looks to trump them all!
    Well done to everyone involved in this adventure!

  10. Keissy miranda says:

    Ohhh.. I love to see it.. I just love Tom Cruise’s Movies their awesome

  11. DecentDiscourse says:

    Pretty slick way to promote the film and actually, Mr. Cruise earned it. It's extremely impressive to read how much he put into this and it definitely puts the film on my list whereas before, it was not. Congrats to you, Mr. Cruise.

  12. Buckley says:

    This is so ridiculous. "Star does own stunts!" Is Cruise that insecure? Wow, does this make him a man? Sorry, that's what stunt performers are for. Truth is, the building is so tall you don't get the sense of danger. It could easily been done with DGI … or was it?

  13. FutureUser says:

    The M.I. movies have always had something "extra" and I've gotten a big kick out of them. They're among the very few movies I see per year, and I usually go back a 2nd or 3rd time. Clever little humor spots, too. I liked Ethan's cover as a "traffic engineer" for the "Virginia D.O.T.". Just spacey enough to confuse someone who asks about work, yet a totally believeable occupation.

  14. steve says:

    I loves me some T.C. And, when you put as fantastic (Last Samurai) an actor as he, née Malpother, onto the tallest building in the world, he remains, as I am, 5'7".

  15. briguyx says:

    I've been to Dubai and if you see the building, the top of it is actually in the clouds. Kudos to Mr. Cruise for doing this!

  16. testsite1808 says:

    Say what you will about TC—his beliefs, his height (and really, some of the tallest guys I know are the biggest "chickens" I've ever met), he will always have his detractors and critics because…yeah…they're simply jealous. He's good-looking and one bad-a$$ dude.

  17. Brian says:

    An actual, quite-real, dangerous stunt like this will ALWAYS be far, far more exciting than fake CG.

    Special effects have utterly lost their "specialness" with CG. We all know how they're done, so they're not magical.

    This kind of amazing stuntwork actually makes me want to see the movie. (Plus I've loved all of director Brad Bird's previous movies).

  18. Linda says:

    I was so upset when I read that Tom Cruise had been cast as Jack Reacher in the film based on the Lee Child novel. He just didn't fit the image I had of the tough guy I pictured reading all the books in the series. After seeing this, I may reserve judgement and give Mr. Cruise the benefit of the doubt. Maybe.

  19. tc fan says:

    Sounds like an awesome show! Can’t wait to see it. But please, TC, don’t turn rogue and put on a dress and start kissing guys like some other Hollywood superstars out there just for more money. Let fans keep on respecting you.

  20. Bobzarate says:

    It takes a lot of courage and strenght to perform this. Awesome. Someday, i want to be just like Tom. My Hero.

  21. kane says:

    "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
    All I have to say is, That sh*t Rocked! Good to see Tom Cruise winning.

    Hot chicks, Guns, Stunts, Money and actually a decent plot – the only thing it was missing was Ving Rhames who had a cameo at the end.


  22. Saratoga says:

    It's worth every penny! Wow!

  23. Edge says:

    Good movie! I’ve a question. Can anyone tell me what headphones Tom are using in the movie. I would like to buy one of those.

  24. http://www.angeljackets.com/products/Tom-Cruise-M
    great and tremendous skyscraper stunts of 'Mission: Impossible

  25. Dirty Harry says:

    Ahh get over it! In the 'ol days they did stunts without green blue screen brilliant. Gives a kinda 'truth' to film adds more depth etc MORE PLEASE Mr Cruise, & good on you!!

  26. mike m says:

    tom cruise must have balls of steel to do stunts like that

  27. Carolyn says:

    I’m a pretty deadpan/dry personality most of the time but I literally held my hands up in the air and “EEEP”ed uncontrollably for almost a minute during these sequences. Especially when he ran down the building then swung into the room…ACK! Amazing!

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