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‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’: How They Staged That Crazy Helicopter Battle

Editor Eddie Hamilton and sound editor James Mather emphasized how Tom Cruise mastered the machine in the most dangerous and thrilling stunt of his career. (Warning: Spoilers revealed.)

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Mission: Impossible – Fallout”

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

With “Fallout,” director Christopher McQuarrie made the sixth impossible mission more personal for Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, which resulted in a series of amazing stunts that were choreographed to emphasize his heroism and vulnerability. These included the HALO jump, the bathroom fight, the motorcycle and foot chases, and the climactic helicopter battle.

The latter, of course, marks the most innovative and thrilling stunt of Cruise’s career, in which editor Eddie Hamilton (“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation”) and sound designer James Mather (“Wonder Woman”) teamed up to emphasize his mastery of the machine.

“Tom was keen to fly a helicopter on camera and attempt some incredibly dangerous things, which, probably, will never happen again in any other movie, unless you can find an A-list movie star who is prepared to put in the hundreds of hours training,” said Hamilton. “And in doing these stunts and crazy maneuvers, sometimes teaching the instructors, he would do it over and over again just to reassure himself, and to monitor the physical stress levels of the helicopter.”

Read More: Tom Cruise’s Most Insane ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ Stunts, Broken Down by Director Christopher McQuarrie

“He plays this really clever balance between action hero and stooge,” said Mathers. “He gives a sense of vulnerability, which we then wanted to impart on the machine. The dance between him and the helicopter is all about trying to get something out of this machine that shouldn’t really be done. So you’ve got these twisting metal sounds, these high-end alarm signals going off, and this ugly jet engine sound with intense energy.”

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

The helicopter battle took three weeks to shoot in New Zealand last summer (in the freezing cold), and Hamilton assembled 70 hours of footage, which he methodically whittled down to seven and a half minutes. It’s about Hunt taking command of one helicopter to retrieve the crucial nuclear bomb detonator from Henry Cavill’s Walker in another.

Hunt climbs up the rope, then fends off two foes and takes control of the helicopter to pursue Walker, who blasts him with a machine gun. The highlights include a 360-degree spiral over a cliff and a race through a narrow canyon, and then diving into the clouds and coming back up, culminating with a crash into Walker’s machine. After they crash land, Hunt must get the detonator while struggling on the ledge of a steep rock cliff.

As they shot the sequence, though, they learned what the most dynamic shots were and what the helicopters and cameras were capable of doing, and what Cruise was capable of doing. Two cameras were attached to Cruise’s helicopter as well as Cavill’s helicopter. They had a set of locations they would use in a day and it was up to the editor to keep track of time of day. He watched all of the footage, including Cruise’s practice maneuvers, to make sure he didn’t miss anything useful.

Henry Cavill as August Walker in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Mission: Impossible – Fallout”

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

“So what you see in the film is the greatest hits of the most dangerous things that Tom was doing from the best angles that were used to film them,” Hamilton said. “The one thing that really saved me in editorial was I asked the sound recordist to develop a way of recording the comm between Tom and Chris (who monitored the action in a video station helicopter). So when they were talking back and forth, I was able to listen in and figure out what they were doing for each little beat of action.”

“And then it was a case of getting 70 hours down to 30 hours and then down to 10 hours, then down to four hours, then down to 90 minutes, 50 minutes, 20 minutes, and then eventually down to seven and a half minutes. The correct length was based on audience feedback. Chris is a great believer in testing films and listening closely to the audience.”

For his part, Mathers concentrated on distinguishing the sounds of the two helicopters. “Walker’s helicopter was open and he was leaning out; therefore, his was very much about the blades swapping,” he said. “And Ethan’s was much more about the grinding and twisting of metal as the helicopter was being put into positions and dives that it shouldn’t really have to go through.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt and Henry Cavill as August Walker in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Mission: Impossible – Fallout”

Photo Credit: David James

“And we used a generator that created a Shepard’s Tone using helicopter jet whine. So we had this ascending and descending, long hank of helicopter pitching and lurching. Which we used to great effect because Lorne Balfe’s music was doing an awful lot of percussive stuff to get you through some of these twists and turns. And so when the music stepped off, we could then hammer with an array of jet sounds and textures but with enough percussive space for gunfire and other loud noises.”

Throughout the screening process, though, the sequence always played too long until they reached the definite spot. “We’re literally talking about two or three shots in a scene that were repetitious,” said Hamilton. “Or some of the stuff was a little unbelievable. You see a sequence in the second trailer where Tom is flying towards a jack-knifed truck in an avenue of trees. We replaced it with Tom disappearing into the clouds and re-emerging to chase Henry.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Mission: Impossible  – Fallout”

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

“I used quite a lot of editing tricks to give it more energy. We added camera shakes, we would occasionally chop single frames out, and re-speed shots to also give them the right amount of danger and force.”

They did a last-minute pickup shot when McQuarrie decided it was better to have Hunt be the instigator of Walker’s demise on the cliff ledge, sending the hook at the end of the rope falling down on him. “That’s something we discovered through the editing process that we needed to really make the scene satisfying,” Hamilton said.

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