With a track record that includes The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, the question wasn’t if Brad Bird’s live-action debut was going to be any good, but rather, how good it was going to be. The man has a wealth of fill knowledge (as anyone who follows him on Twitter well knows) and in his lengthy career, he’s utilized that study of classic film techniques in every way possible. Dynamic camera work, playful comedy, pairing himself with bonafide movie stars — Bird has an uncanny ability to mishmash every element that makes for a great time at the movies into one cinematic extravaganza. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the latest, great example.
The fourth installment of Tom Cruise’s passion franchise recruited Bird for the director’s chair and he shot the heck out of it, plain and simple. His imagination, never constrained in his animated films, was on full display in Ghost Protocol, through crazy stunts, explosive action choreography and the film’s stunning IMAX work. How’d he do it? The special features on the movie’s Blu-ray (available now) she a lot of light on that very subject, but I had a chance to sit down with Bird to dive even further into his philosophy, influences and the idea that the theatrical version of M:I—GP was the definitive version:
The definition of an action movie has never been in more flux. With on-going debates on practical effects vs. CG, film vs. digital, the idea that “spectacle” may be its own brand of film…is there a definitive form of action filmmaking?
I think it all comes down to what you do with it. Anything can be done well, poorly. Some people have commented on shaky cam. I think in the hands of someone like Paul Greengrass and the Bourne films it’s really effective and great filmmaking. Very adrenalizing. I think a lot of people…what’s a diplomatic way of putting it — far less ability then Paul Greengrass — have used it as a way to cover up hacky filmmaking. I think it gives opportunities for vague directors to put in fake adrenaline. But there’s nothing wrong with the technique if it’s done well.
The original Die Hard is an amazing action movie. It’s about caring for geography and having enough confidence to stay with a shot rather than cutting every eight frames. Because a lot of action films cut every eight frames, and that’s fine if you need it, but if you do it too much it diminishes the power of the cut. And it diminishes the power of fast cutting. If everything is cut with a fast edit, a dialogue scene cut with fast edit, then the effect wears off after awhile. An audience builds up resistance to any rhythm that becomes too regular. One of the tricks that I admire, from Raiders, Die Hard and a lot of James Cameron’s films, is that the pace is always varying. It’s never settling in to one rhythm. That’s like life because even when you run, you can only run a certain while before you need to take a break. You feel the acceleration more if you’ve had moments to slow down.
The special features on this disc give you a clear picture that Tom Cruise is committed to his craft. But he still feels like a mysterious presence.
He has two settings: 400% or off. When he gets into it he gives it his all. That’s apparent in [the climbing sequence] and every other sequence in the film. He trained very intensively for them. He is incredibly knowledgeable about the film process. I would be composing a shot close to him, and I’d tell him, ‘Tom, your chin isn’t exactly lining up…’ and he’d say, ‘What lens is it?’ and I’d say, ‘it’s a 40’ and then he’d [Brad shifts his head] — and it’d be perfect. He knew it that well.
I think he’s afraid of making a bad movie. I think he respects the cinema-going experience. He’s always pushing to make the films as good as he can before the clock runs out. If there’s anything that motivates him is that he never wants to give less than his all. That’s one of the things that makes him such a pleasure to work with.
Do you think that the Blu-ray version of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the definitive version of the film? With IMAX being an essential part of the action, part of your design, are we ever really going to see Ghost Protocol the “right way” again?
I’ve tweeted something about this — I can’t believe I’m saying those words — some people have said they’re missing that on the Blu-ray because we didn’t shift aspect ratios. But to me…that was my choice. That was not forced upon me. I actually thought that was a better experience at home than shifting ratios. You are not viewing it at an IMAX theater, which forces you to sit close and then the screen is five stories high. It’s a very different experience than sitting across the room from a little monitor and watching the shape of the box change. That said, if enough people wanted it I suppose we could do another version. It would have to make sense to Paramount.
We made it so when we shot the IMAX footage it would look good to people seeing it in Panavision. And all of the resolution that the IMAX stuff has you can see in the Blu-ray. It has a sharpness to it that’s only gotten that way. It’s not the same as seeing it in a theater.
Having spent nearly a decade working on The Simpsons, do you think you picked up sensibilities or learned lessons that you use to this day? Do you see them somewhere in Ghost Protocol?
I’m attracted to the kind of humor that was in The Simpsons. Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons, is from Oregon. I’m from Oregon. I think there’s a certain sensibility that I relate to. I learned a tremendous amount on the show, simply because I saw very sophisticated stories — they’re crazy, but they’re complicated — we had to do 22 to 24 episodes a year and you couldn’t linger over any decision.
It was kind of like that episode of I Love Lucy where she’s working on the conveyor belt with candy, and she gets behind and keeps shoving stuff back. Well, pretty soon candy is coming everywhere and she can’t keep up with it. And that’s what television is like. Because if you linger over one episode too long, you start to lose the next episodes coming after it. I saw some miraculous saves where people fixed episodes that were always a problem. I saw some that didn’t get fixed, but mainly I saw the ability to make decisions quickly and stick by them. That was very helpful for me, not only in the subsequent animated films I made, but in this one too. You don’t have time in these kind of schedules to pontificate. You just have to go — and then be able to live with it. That was really a great film for me.