Thriving on Pressure: DP Rob Hardy is a key member of the intrepid 'Mission: Impossible' team
With opening day only a few months away, cinematographer Rob Hardy was deep into color grading on Mission: Impossible—Fallout when FJI caught up with him in late April. Director Chris McQuarrie and star Tom Cruise hadn't ruled out some possible last-minute pick-up shots. Like the previous entries in the Paramount series, this production went down to the wire.
Speaking by phone, Hardy claims that he and the rest of the Fallout team thrive on the pressure, even when facing unrealistic time constraints and an accident that sidelined Cruise for weeks.
Hardy was operating a "wire cam" the day Cruise attempted to jump from one rooftop to another. Hardy's team wanted to capture the stunt in one shot, a camera gliding along a wire over the actor as he jumps.
"He's supposed to not quite make it," Hardy points out. "In the story, it's not a smooth jump. It's supposed to feel very precarious. When it did happen, he hit the side of the building and then got up and started limping away. It felt like a great, authentic performance. As a matter of fact, he had broken his ankle. But he kept going because the cameras were still turning."
The accident shut down production for weeks, which worked out well for some departments. McQuarrie and his crew could review the existing footage and refine their work.
"It never really happens in a production of this scale to stop," Hardy says. "It pushed the Norway shoot to later in the year, but other than that it gave us the opportunity to see what we had and make the movie even better."
Fallout continues the narrative from 2015's Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. For the sixth time, Cruise plays secret agent Ethan Hunt. Rebecca Ferguson returns as rival agent Ilsa Faust, as do series regulars Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn) and Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell). Joining them are Angela Bassett as a fiercely efficient bureaucrat and Henry Cavill as CIA agent August Walker. Alec Baldwin (playing Alan Hunley) and Michelle Monaghan (Ethan's wife Julia) are also back from earlier entries.
This episode was written as well as directed by McQuarrie. It is the largest, and longest, production Hardy has worked on. Ex Machina and Annihilation, his previous collaborations with director Alex Garland, were marked by notably creative visuals. Hardy signed on for Fallout in part because he wanted to see how his visual style could enhance an established franchise.
"I tend to serve the story, so that's always the first and foremost thing in my mind," he says. "Then I try to give the audience a sense of proximity, to make it a visceral experience. With Fallout, there was a real desire to go back to basics, make something that was immersive, authentic, honest. So we shot on film. And I’m not averse to making things visually quite dark, particularly with the use of lighting, mood and atmosphere in certain locations. I was very keen to add that layer to the Mission oeuvre."
Hardy credits McQuarrie and Cruise for their willingness to let him push Fallout visually. "I was a real stickler for composition," he says. "My inspirations come from the American movies from the seventies and eighties I grew up with. So that was one of the things we were trying to achieve with this, to enable the audience to sit back and really soak in that classic movie aesthetic. I think we often lose that nowadays in cinema."
Hallmarks of the Mission: Impossible franchise include large-scale action scenes in spectacular locations. Fallout is no exception. One scene unfolds on Preikestolen, an iconic, vertigo-inducing mountain in Norway. McQuarrie wanted to use the mountain's sheer drop for a spectacular fall.
"They practically built a small village on the side of the mountain to accommodate the film crew," Hardy remembers. "Stunt rigs, helicopter landing pads, everything. We would fly up every morning in a convoy. We had something like three or four hours of shooting time each day."
The most pressure came during an extended chase through the streets of Paris and around the Arc de Triomphe.
"The Arc de Triomphe is one of the major traffic hubs in Paris, and it is almost never shut down for anything other than governmental reasons," Hardy says. "But we managed to get a window where we had something like 90 minutes to shoot there."
Hardy and the production crew prepped extensively beforehand, using a pre-viz of the sequence for reference. An electric bike with cameras on the front and back was used to chase Cruise through traffic. Hardy operated the Russian arm, a kind of rooftop crane, on another car, and positioned ground cameras in key locations.
"Essentially we only had time to shoot each stunt maybe three or four times," he says. "Because Tom is such a great precision driver, it enabled us to really nail the sequence."
Key to the success of the production was the collaboration among different departments. Hardy singles out production designer Peter Wenham and stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood in particular.
"We had months and months of planning, because it's so important to align the vision in all the departments," he says. "It's like chipping away until all our visions align. So now I feel there is a strong visual thread throughout the movie."
Hardy points to a key fight that takes place in a men's room as an example. Bucking a trend in movies to depict fights with quick cuts, Hardy wanted to include full, actual stunts in complete shots. That put extra demands on Wenham and Eastwood.
"I strive to make the environment as real as possible," he explains. "If other words, if it's a set, you put a ceiling on the set. You make the lighting integral to the set, which allows you to shoot 360 degrees around the room. That gives space for the actors and stunt guys to really go for it."
Wenham built a gleaming, white room that contrasted strongly with the scenes before and after. Hardy aimed for a stark, almost 2001 feel, with brightly lit white walls and floors that gave the sense that there was nowhere to hide. And then Eastwood went to work, devising a brutal, crushing fight between Cruise, costar Henry Cavill and a performer whose role should remain secret.
"We were scheduled to be in that room for four days, and we ended up being there, on and off, twelve or thirteen days," Hardy says, laughing. "The opportunity to try stuff out, shoot it, look at it and come back and refine it—that is one of the great advantages to a production of this size. And one of the reasons why this fight sequence is so good is because we really explored every possibility as we were shooting it."
Eastwood has worked with Cruise on several films, notably Edge of Tomorrow, a film filled with complex physical action.
"Tom and Wade are very keen for the work to be seen as one piece," Hardy says. "Otherwise viewers won't believe that it's Tom. We need to see him doing those things."
As a result, McQuarrie and his crew pushed for practical stunts over special effects. Instead of using green screens and blue screens, Hardy shot live action in real locations as much as possible, with Cruise in the middle of the stunts.
"Movies on this scale don't necessarily do that," he says. "But Tom wanted the stunts to be practical. He drives that bike through the streets of Paris. He flies that helicopter just a few feet off the ground."
Some of the helicopter chase was shot in digital IMAX. An ex-NASA engineer designed a special camera rig for the sequence. Hardy and his team lined up the shots beforehand at a police helicopter base. After approval from air safety technicians, the team went on location in New Zealand, which was subbing for Kashmir.
Digital was a necessity for the IMAX material, but as Hardy points out, Cruise is a strong advocate for shooting film.
"For me it was an absolute joy working with film," Hardy adds. "It's really malleable. You can 'bend' it to get a very consistent look to the movie. I could feel confident going down dark alleyways and straight out into a bright, sunlit boulevard and not be concerned with the differences in f-stops. I used a very slow film stock to give us as much latitude as possible, knowing that the lighting environment around the camera could change very quickly.
"Film and digital both have their advantages. For me, it's not a case of one over the other. But for this production, film was definitely the right choice. What's really cool now is you have so much choice. I’m always happy to have options."