Several animation directors are trying their hand at live action of late, most notably Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), who talks to Bill Desowitz about Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which boasts a new trailer and featurettes starring daredevil Tom Cruise (below).
The whole reason Brad Bird was drawn to Ghost Protocol after his San Francisco earthquake epic, 1906, fell apart at Warner Bros., was the opportunity to mix it up. Bird admits that live-action offers more spontaneity than animation, and cites Raiders of the Lost Ark as his inspiration: humor and suspense with character twists along the way. "Let's face it: Life is always funny — things don't work out."
Cruise, who Bird says has ruined him for all other actors because of his tireless energy and passionate dedication, takes his M: I superspy to a darker place. After a Kremlin bombing, Hunt's on the run with a shadow IMF team (Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Paula Patton) to clear his name and find the real baddie who's stolen the Russian nuclear button.
But Bird contends that Cruise lightens up more. "My favorite moments acting wise are the scenes he did with Vanessa Redgrave because he came alive in a slightly different way," Bird reveals. "You could tell that he had respect for Redgrave and knew he had to be on his game because she was [at the top of hers]. Overall, it's a little more playful than previous Mission: Impossibles; hopefully, without undermining any of the suspense or action."
Bird is definitely more of an IMAX guy than a 3-D advocate. In fact, when recently previewing some choice action sequences from Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol in the large-format process, he admitted to a select group of online journos that even his three boys prefer IMAX to 3-D. They actually find it "more real."
"I'm as big a fan of Avatar as anybody, but what is not discussed often is the power of the really, really, really big screen," Bird suggests. "And part of the pitch of 3-D has been, 'It's more immersive.' And I agree that added depth perception is immersive, but you dim the image down, so now I'm taking a step back. You put on glasses, so now I'm taking another step back. And they say it's exclusive to cinemas, but, 3,2, 1, now homes are gonna have 3-D. But the [two] things that movies have that you can't get anywhere else –and this has not changed in 100 years — are really big screens and audience."
And Bird makes a very strong case for IMAX, judging from the thrilling sequence in which Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt perilously scales the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. IMAX is perfect for conveying the sense of scale and danger, made more ominous with an oncoming sandstorm (courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic).
"When we were first looking at the image of Tom climbing the Burj, in the long shots we could not only see the traffic in the reflections when he presses down on the glass," Bird adds. "But you actually saw the glass warp slightly because of the pressure of his hand. You would never see that in 35mm. The fact that the screen fills your vision and is super sharp seems more life-like."
Speaking of the sandstorm, although it wasn't originally planned, the payoff is also striking in IMAX, as Hunt finds himself in the middle of the storm, chasing the baddie on foot through a market and then by car, but to no avail.
"I was looking at shots to convey how tall the Burj is because even when you see it in long shot, you don't know really how tall it is," Bird explains. "It is almost double the height of the Empire State building, and so I thought if I had clouds coming in but don't go all the way up, that would be a good way to show it. And one of the producers, Jeffrey Chernov, said, 'Don't have it be a cloud: have it be a chamal, a sandstorm.'"
But ever the diligent storyteller, Bird didn't want the sandstorm to be a cheat, so in the interest of cinematic "fair play," he wove it into the movie slowly and suspensefully. Interestingly, the storm wasn't made of sand but a wood-based product, and, wouldn't you know it, when a real sandstorm invaded the set, they had to stop shooting.
But these are the happy accidents that Bird lives for. He recalls how a frail Peter O'Toole surprised everyone during the Ratatouille voice sessions with a loud "Raaa!" intonation. Where did that come from? He learned it from Audrey Hepburn when they worked together on How to Steal a Million . Sure enough, Bird found a place for that "Raaa!" at the end of a nightmare sequence.
Obviously there was a learning curve with live action, and at first Bird held back before asserting himself. He says he was merely soaking up all the expert advice. "I absolutely want to pursue live action," he offers. "But I'm not like some animation directors who want to sit at the adult's table. I have other ideas I'd like to do in animation. My ideal career from here would be to jump back and forth and let the project dictate what medium I'm working in. Hopefully after this, I'll be considered for action films. And then if I get to do something small and personal, I'll be considered for that. Basically, you just want to stay interested and excited about doing a movie that's physically hard to do. To me, it's all storytelling."