Todd Vaziri and Mission: Impossible III

by Manuel Alducin

Todd Vaziri is of course well known around VFX circles. He recently completed work as Sequence Supervisor in Mission: Impossible III. He took some time to discuss some of the secrets and extensive invisible effects in the film.

The Invisible Effects of Mission: Impossible III

Todd Vaziri

Todd Vaziri is of course well known around VFX circles since he started the amazing VFXHQ website, the benchmark of VFX websites. His career has spanned Flat Earth Productions, on the Xena: Warrior Princess TV show, Banned From The Ranch, on such projects as Inspector Gadget, Hollow Man and Doctor Dolittle, and Pixel Magic on projects like Driven and Hart's War. He joined ILM to work on Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones and has since served as digital and compositing artist on such projects as Hulk, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Van Helsing, Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

He recently completed work as Sequence Supervisor for J.J. Abrams' Mission: Impossible III, which was supervised by Roger Guyett. He took some time to discuss some of the secrets and extensive "invisible effects" in the film.

Manuel Alducin: For Mission:Impossible III you became a Sequence Supervisor, what sequences you worked on?

Todd Vaziri: Personally, I was sequence supervisor of the bridge extraction sequence, along with Doug Sutton. Doug was in charge of all 3D aspects of the sequence, and I was in charge of compositing. The sequence is in the middle of the movie: it starts when the IMF agents are escorting prisoner Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to CIA headquarters. They drive a huge convoy of SUVs onto the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, with Davian in an armored car, when his bad guy buddies break him out. It was one of the main sequences ILM handled, with over 100 shots in the sequence.

Manuel: This is the second time you worked with Roger Guyett. You worked on the Mustafar shots he supervised. What was it like to work with him?

Todd: It was great. The great thing about this show was that is was so different than the normal ILM type of show. Usually, to give you a great example, we do this completely otherworldly environments, creatures, aliens and things that we're working so hard to make come to life and believable. The complete flip side of that are shows like Mission: Impossible where we do everything we can to make our work as seamless and invisible as possible and overall still make it interesting and exciting. And Roger did an amazing job of shifting our gears towards just letting our stuff fill the frame and do its job and not call attention to itself. That's one of the reasons I actually wanted to work on this project: truly invisible visual effects is a passion of mine and something you don't get to do very often at ILM. It's something we all felt we were up to the task. Roger definitely geared us in the right direction in all of that. He is an extremely talented guy. No matter what the project is, he seems really to pull it out, come up with great strategies to make it all work.

Manuel: Did you have to go to the location shooting or did you stay at ILM?

Todd: I was here at ILM. Roger was on the set the whole time and our Associate Visual Effects Supervisor Russell Earl was on location for a little bit, Dennis Martin was at Shanghai, Russell was also on the bridge set along with CG Supervisor Gerald Gutschmidt in the Virginia shoot. We also had a matchmover, Duncan Blackman, on set as well the whole time. So really a small ILM contingent on location, but I was here at ILM the whole time.

Manuel: What preparation work for the bridge sequence can you do while shooting is going on?

Todd: M:I:III was shot in anamorphic which basically means that everything relating to visual effects is that much harder, so we had to do a lot of prep for that. Every composite, every render is much harder. There is severe lens distortion, you get all sorts of exposure changes, lens aberrations, weird different types of flares, edge of frame effects that are going to be inherent to anamorphic film photography. So I did a lot of research on that, how it all relates, what types of "gotchas" are we going to come across. The lens issue was definitely the big one and one of our matchmove leads, Brian Cantwell, perfected a lens warp plugin tools, that we have that were originally created for The Island and some other projects. We just took them to the next level, making them easier to work with. That was a big thing.

Of course, for all the characteristics of anamorphic photography, like chromatic aberrations, the lens flares, etc., I developed a huge library of reference, of anamorphic movies that the entire team of compositors could look at. Trying to get like similar lighting, the environment, similar night time skylines, etc. We looked at the movie Heat a lot, that was one of our main sources of inspiration. Die Hard definitely. That library really helped us out, sometimes to point at our synthetic shots and say "no, that flare is too CG-y, we need to make it look more like this," and point at a real anamorphic shot. So that was a big point of research for me. This may sound silly but every time I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge or the Bay Bridge here in San Francisco, definitely made a lot of mental notes. Our Lead Digimatte Artist Giles Hanckock definitely took a lot of reference photography of the bridges here to get a sense of atmosphere, the lighting, the surrounding environment, how water looks like from the top of the bridge, things like that.

It should all be prefaced by mentioning that no actors or stunts from Mission: Impossible III were ever on the real Chesapeake Bay Bridge. No first unit, there was a second unit that took some photography, actually the very first shot of the sequence where the armored cars are driving on the bridge, that's the only thing shot there. That shot is all the real Chesapeake Bay Bridge. To create the backgrounds, we knew we would have to shoot a lot of "generic" plates of the real bridge in Virginia. We did go out with a helicopter and tried to shoot the bridge from similar angles from the Calabasas shoot. And with a helicopter as your primary platform, we knew we were going to get close to the angles we needed, but it won't be exactly perfect. And the helicopter pilot ILM was working with got amazingly close to the backgrounds we needed. We were basically trying to create a library of Virginia plates that then we manipulate and composite into our Calabasas shots.

Mission: Impossible III Chesapeake Bay Bridge shot
While a lot of the action, explosions and stunts were done for real on the Calabasas bridge set, ILM added elements such as the water to make it appear it was shot on the real Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

They (the art department) built a bridge set on a hillside in Calabasas here in California. Almost like a semi-racetrack, somewhat like an oval, where cars could really go, the whole thing was shot there. All in all, the bridge set was a couple of hundred feet long. It was built on a hillside so that when literally you're standing on the bridge, depending on the angle you were looking at, you couldn't see a horizon. So you had a very similar feel to being in the real Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Of course once the camera got looking above 4 or 5 ft. the height off the bridge the illusion is kinda blown. You see all sorts of stuff, mountains and hills and houses, stuff like that. So all the stuntwork, all the action with Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames and Hoffman, all of it was shot on that fake bridge set. But whenever that camera went above 5 ft. or a wide, establishing shot, the illusion was blown: you could see the hillside. That's where we came in. Pretty much every shot needed full matchmoves with complicated camera moves, adding water, adding the bridge, adding extensions of the real bridge. We used the whole cache of different techniques to totally make it feel like all that action happened on the real bridge.

Mission: Impossible III Chesapeake Bay Bridge wide shot
To create the wide shots ILM composited the water, Virginia plates, extended the Calabasas bridge set to place the action on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. They also added such details as the missile contrail to complement the pyro shots.

Manuel: So it seems most of the work was 2D.

Todd: We tried to do as much in compositing as possible because we knew our digital matte paintings would be focused on other things, and because I knew we could do it. In the bridge sequence in particular the destruction that happens, the missile that destroys part of the bridge and the giant gap, part of that was the set that had to be extended. The set was dressed really well, with actual set-dressing of a blown out bridge piece: a nice job for some shots. Any time you see like a wider shot of the destruction of the bridge we used an extremely detailed digital matte painting for the bridge destruction itself, and then we in compositing added the water, horizon, and extended the bridge. Giles and Joe Ceballos made some great artwork for the blown-out gap in the bridge. Their work allowed our compositors to focus on things like all of the water, bridge supports, smoke, fire, and other tasks in compositing. So it allowed our team to focus on things like that and in Shanghai we tried to do as much of the layering and creation of the background, as well as for the bridge, in compositing. I was really happy how that all worked out.

Mission: Impossible III bridge comparison image
Comparison between the completed shot of Chesapeake Bay Bridge (left) and the plate photography in the Calabasas set.

Manuel: How much 3D work and miniatures were used in the sequences?

Todd: In the bridge sequence the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) was entirely computer generated. All the missiles and contrails were also done by the CG department for the bridge. The bridge destruction paintwork and extensions were done by our Digital Matte Department. Other than that it was entirely done in compositing, with significant contributions from our matchmove department and our roto/paint team. The rest of the movie included much more significant CG work. We had a lot of CG helicopters in the helicopter chase. Shanghai was a huge digital matte painting and CG effort. The vast majority of miniatures we built were related to the helicopter chase sequence. We had a 1/6 scale Cobra and it got rebuilt for the destruction of the Cobra when it lands by the windmill lane, which worked really well. We also built something for the giant big pyro blast that the Cobra flies through it. That explosion was really cool. And then we built a couple of set pieces for when one of the windmill crashes and lands unto a truck and then a couple other windmill destruction type of things. Relatively a modest Model Shop show but it was definitely incredible.

Mission: Impossible III Cobra helicopter flying through pyro element
The ILM Model Shop and stage crew setup a huge pyro element for this shot of the Cobra going through it, in the Berlin sequence.

Manuel: What a lot of people want to know is that shot when Tom Cruise gets slammed to the car on the bridge as the missile strikes. There has been a lot of speculation how was that done, especially since it features prominently in the trailer.

Todd: I know that shot very well, I comped that shot. That was one of the first things we started on because we knew it was going to be a tough shot... (laughs) of course I really didn't expect it to become a cornerstone of the marketing (laughs). I just knew it was going to be really hard. Yeah, it was really an amazing experience to work on that shot. And I read a lot of things online like from VFX folks that were like "wow, ILM really did good digital double work, and the transitions and morphs from stuntman or face replacement...", and stuff like that. It was really great to read that stuff because none of those guesses were even close. Actually it's great because, by J.J. and Roger's design, the shot is pure illusion. Even if you start thinking about the shot you might come up with all these ideas. It was designed to be as natural and in-camera as possible, and after all the compositing, it feels very natural and in-camera. All of the theories about how the shot was done (and how wrong they were) and that really means we were doing our job and selling the illusion of the shot, the illusion of filmmaking.

In actuality Tom was photographed performing the stunt on a wire, with a jerk rig or something like that is called. He would basically run full blast towards the camera and at certain point he got jerked with the cable sideways at a tremendous rate and speed, lifting him off the ground and and slamming him into the white Dodge with plenty of padding there. He slammed into that and fell to the ground which also had padding painted to make it look like concrete, with no explosions happening behind. It was far too dangerous to be performing that explosion behind him. Also, throughout the whole shot, the camera is dollying backwards. So basically we did all that.

I watched that footage more than anyone on the planet and it's just stunning. When you do digital double stunt-work, you have to work so hard to get all of the spontaneous details right. In this case, since the actor did his own stunt, I didn't have to alter any of his motions at all because they were so raw and so real. Like his facial expressions, for example.The fact that you can always recognize it's him the whole time really helps sell the shot. For that I did have to paint out a lot of the padding and stuff like that.

I should say that the other main piece of footage was the truck pyro explosion, a huge, massive explosion with the camera dollying backwards. In addition in the same pass, the white Dodge's rear windshield breaks. The on-set Special Effects guys did such an amazing job choreographing all those events. It was really a remarkable source of photography to work with. It worked so well. I wished it had been motion controlled but the realities of film production are such that it is very rare to have first-unit motion control anymore. The time it takes to setup, break down, execute it all, it's not feasible anymore, from an economic standpoint. Time is money, on the set, and when they're spending tens of thousands of dollars a day (or per hour) on the set, no producer wants to approve the potentially time-consuming process of motion control. Roger and the camera operators did the best they could matching the camera moves from the Tom plate and the truck explosion plate.

In addition to make things even harder for me, Roger and J.J. wanted to make sure that we had enough image flexibility to create any kind of camera moves we wanted in compositing because we were working on a shoot with J.J.'s trademark handheld style. The entire sequence has a raw, energetic camera style: lots of handheld camera work and long lenses. For this shot, we needed the plates to be as solid as possible, to aid in all of the compositing work. So the passes were shot with as little camera bobble as possible. Plus, we didn't want to shoot it anamorphic because of lens issues and things like that. So to maximize the photography and get as much out of it as we could, Roger designed an ingenious two camera rig which allowed us to double the horizontal field of view, and shoot spherically. So we had two cameras on a rig, with their lenses as close together as possible, basically recording twice as wide a field of view with some overlap for both the Tom pass and the explosion pass. We also had a third anamorphic camera behind the main rig for both passes. In the end that meant 6 pieces of footage, all non-motion controlled that needed to be blended together: the Tom stunt, the explosion, the helicopter behind the truck, the exploded gap in the bridge, the bridge extension, and the Virginia water. To pull it all together, the shot required an enormous amount of roto, paint, 3D tracking and 2D tracking, to make it all work. We didn't have to embellish the explosions very much, however. I added a subtle like a shockwave effect, and dust being kicked up after the explosion, to wrap around Tom and hit the camera.

Mission: Impossible III Tom Cruise is slammed by explosion
This shot was created from six main non-mocon shots: two tiled of Tom Cruise performing the stunt and two other tiled of the explosion; plus two other plates. ILM would also add the UAV, helicopter, shockwave and additional debris and dust.

Tom was completely removed from his plates, and put into the truck plates. The UAV opening fire and missile trails that were all CG. As soon as it hits and the UAV passes overhead, J.J. asked us, while the shot was already in production, "oh, wouldn't it be great when the UAV passes overhead that we pan and tilt to follow the UAV and kinda come back to see Tom afterwards". We didn't have the plates for that so I had to paint a big set extension for that and then they extended the shot by about 3 seconds. So it was all very straightforward! (laughs)!

Manuel: I guess you could call it the signature shot of the film!

Todd: In addition to all that, I comped it all as steady as possible. But the finishing kiss of reality to the shot was adding J.J.'s trademark handheld camera move and crash zooms to the shot. I love creating real, believable, appropriate camera shake and movements to shots in 2D, and I knew this would be a tough one. J.J.'s style is very distinct, and I had to be careful not to overdo it. But with that massive explosion happening behind Tom, I didn't want to oversell the camera shake on that event, because I didn't want to make it seem like we were hiding something. There's tendency to hide stuff with 2D camera shakes: it's all too easy to just slam the camera in post to give a hard-hitting feeling to a shot, but that becomes old and cartoony really fast. Plus, we didn't want to lose the moment, of being able to see Tom the whole time, and clearly illustrating that he was doing the stunt. Finding that balance of creating a believable, exciting camera move and still maintaining the quality of Tom's performance was a huge challenge. I think it turned out really well.

Manuel: I imagine a lot of the other tasks was adding things like fire so that the actors could perform without danger.

Todd: The whole purpose of that shot is let Tom do what the amazing Tom could do, which is absolutely brilliant. The rest of the shots are a combination of Calabasas fire elements, adding appropriate Virginia plates, motion tracking, 3D compositing, digital matte painting, etc. The gap which Tom jumps over to get to the other side, the full shot looking into the water right over Tom's shoulder really worked out well. Those leaping shots and him scrambling up the edge were comped by Marcel Martinez, Cathy Burrow, Kela Cabrales, Barry Safley, and Will McCoy. Those are all real camera moves, we rarely had to embellish the natural camera movements. J.J. never really wanted to have unrealistic or implausible camera moves and choreography, and with very few exceptions, everything had to appear real and raw because the plates were shot very real and raw. We couldn't have a Spider-Man moment or a Van Helsing type moment, where (laughs) you just go "what the heck!!! there's no way they got that shot!!!". And that was the whole purpose of the show, part of the whole style of the shoot as well. Mainly from the point of view which is very very raw so we had to make sure all our shots fit.

Mission: Impossible III Tom Cruise jumps over bridge gap
ILM enhanced the Calabasas bridge set to enhance the apparent danger of the shots.

Manuel: You also worked on part of the helicopter chase sequence.

Todd: Yeah it turned out really well. It was one of those awesome combinations of fantastic stunt piloting shot on location and visual effects. The pilots flew so close the windmills, and like what the pilot shot in Calabasas, we were looking at the shots and saying "those guys are nuts!!!". Absolutely insane how close they got to the real windmills, but of course in Hollywood, never close enough. So we had to augment a lot of shots, sometime have full CG shots of the whole windmill farm. We built CG windmills, CG terrain and two helicopters as well, the Huey (good guys) and the Cobra (bad guys). By the end of the show we were creating shots totally from scratch in a few weeks with full on choreography and lights. It turned out really well. So we had a combination of in-camera, stunt work, there was a lot of bluescreen, all of the interiors in the helicopters were shot bluescreen, crazy handheld camera moves and wacky lighting which created a huge compositing challenge; that was a huge challenge. Bruce Powell and Mike Conte were the sequence supes. We had a bunch of plates we knew we had to add CG windmills and then a few that needed miniature shots, all miniature or partial miniature work combined with the live action. That was a good sequence that basically showcased a lot of different techniques. Personally, I did a few shots at the end, where the Cobra gets slammed by a windmill blade, they were fun shots to work on.

Manuel: So how was your typical day like?

Todd: This is my first sequence supervising gig at ILM. I've done a bit of compositing supervision before, but never at ILM. The difference was that it was really a thrill to not only get to work on a lot of shots but work with the team and handle the collaboration of the show: TDs, compositors, matchmovers, roto artists, animators, etc. Everybody had a hand and great ideas to make it all work. A lot of folks here say this was their favorite ILM show because of the environment that Roger, with Shari Hanson (our producer) and J.J. created. J.J. is an amazing director and guy who cares so much about every aspect of the production.

Manuel:Do you have any other interesting tidbits about the film, something we should watch out for or maybe something we don't realize is VFX?

Todd: Lets see. For the bridge sequence none of the actors were on the real bridge, that's something that really shocks people. For Shanghai, although there were a lot of amazing views of the city, Tom was never jumping off the rooftop in Shanghai, nor ever on any rooftop of Shanghai at all. That was staged with a lot greenscreen then combined with our Digital Matte Dept. in compositing, it worked really well. Basically all of the shots of Tom in the air swinging were entirely digital matte paintings or environments. The only real, 1-to-1 elements was Tom Cruise doing the gag. When he jumps off that rooftop he was really jumping off from the studio parking structure to an airbag. Once again just like the explosion on the bridge, it's him, that jump he's doing is scary and it's really dangerous but we didn't have to augment his performance in those types of shots.

Of course everything around him is completely synthetic. When he's jumping off the rooftop in Shanghai, that's him and the entire environment is synthetic, where for safety sake we got plates of the complete Shanghai skyline. What it gave us was a lot of flexibility to move the camera, to completely art direct it. It also gave us the realism of real physics with Tom doing the jump. I really love that shot: him psyching himself up for the jump, he goes right by the camera, and looking over the edge, and that's really Tom getting ready to jump into the airbag down where all Shanghai is. The physics from him are all there and that gives it more credibility than other approaches. That's pretty cool.

Mission: Impossible III Tom Cruise about to jump in Shanghai sequence
Tom Cruise about to jump from the rooftop in the Shanhai sequece: the entire backdrop is synthetic envionment based on real plates.
Mission: Impossible III Shanghai sequence shot
ILM recreated Shanghai, including the building which Tom Cruise jumps off.

The whole Shanghai sequence really showed off the amazing talents of the team, particularly our comp supe Pat Tubach, and the sequence supes Robert Hoffmeister and Richard Bluff. They all did some stunning work on the Shanghai shots that people will never guess are visual effects. Of course, none of it would have been possible without Beth D'Amato and her brilliant crew of roto/paint artists.

Mission: Impossible III J.J. Abrams in the Shanghai set
Director J.J. Abrams directs the action in the Shanghai hotel room set with a giant greenscreen. ILM would later add the Shanghai skyline to the shot as Tom Cruise explains the plan.

The mask making sequence were pretty interesting in the way they were designed: a lot of CG augmentation with some makeup work. I love that shot where Tom puts on the mask. Your first thought when the camera goes behind Ving Rhames "oh well they'll just cut or wipe to Philip Seymour Hoffman", kinda quaint and old fashioned. But the shot just hangs there as you're watching Ving adjusting the mask around Philip's neck, and you're asking yourself "what is it? is that a mask? and what is happening around his eyes?". You see Ving adjusting the mask, pressing around the eyeballs. You could really feel the mask being put on and that was totally cool. That was a lot of intense matchmoves and CG and roto and comp work by Leandro Estebecorena, Tia Marshall, David Hisanaga and their team.

There are a ton of augmentations throughout the movie. We had over 520 shots. In terms of shot count it was huge.

For the helicopters shots, none of the actors were inside the flying helicopters.

I did read some of the complaining about the ILM CG fireballs not being that realistic; I would definitely take it under advisement that we didn't have any CG fireballs in Mission: Impossible III. There were many fireball shots that were real at 1-to-1 scale and we did have one miniature fireball. I think part of that had to do with color timing, they really pushed it, they were very aggressive with anything that would be moderately saturated with fire or with any bold colors. They pumped the shit out of it so it's really lit like lava. Especially if it's like a daylight scene, the fireball is outdoors so to push its saturation, you have to darken the shot (or part of the shot). When you start bringing all that stuff down in color timing you want to have that stuff more visually exciting but it kinda blows what you expect from a real one.

Manuel: Thank you very much Todd for all the insight! And have a great vacation.

Todd: Thank you very much man.

Todd would like to thank Roger Guyett and the entire ILM Mission: Impossible III team.

Many thanks to Megan Corbet for all the help conducting this interview and to Todd Vaziri as always for his time and amazing insights.

All Mission: Impossible III images © Paramount Pictures. Courtesy of ILM.