The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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M I3
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The Propositon
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Director of photography Dan Mindel ramps up the action for Mission: Impossible III.

Unit photography by Alex Baily; Jason Boland; Mark Fellman; David James, SMPSP; and Stephen Vaughan, SMPSP
Keeping a film franchise fresh is always a tough proposition, and with a property such as Mission: Impossible, which is typically strong on action and light on character, the challenge is particularly daunting. Paramount Pictures and producers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner have partly tackled the problem by hiring directors who can bring a contemporary spin to the films’ trademark intrigue and kinetic mojo. For Mission: Impossible 2, it was Hong Kong action auteur John Woo, and for the latest installment, the director selected to raise the bar was J.J. Abrams, creator of television’s Alias and Lost. Abrams, who is making his feature-directing debut, clearly has the spy genre down pat, and he is also no stranger to international locations, real or simulated.

With a new director comes a new cinematographer. But when Dan Mindel got the call, he had never heard of Abrams. “When J.J. asked me to meet with him, I wasn’t really sure what it all meant,” says Mindel. “When I did my homework, I was amazed J.J. was taking this project on, and I was surprised Tom Cruise would hire a TV guy to do it. I guess you can tell I don’t watch a lot of TV!” One show he did know, though, was the 1960s-era Mission: Impossible. “I had watched it as a child and had always loved the masks and the way they tricked the audience. J.J. told me it was his favorite genre, and that he was convinced this would be the best [installment] ever made. That was good enough for me.”

For his part, Abrams was attracted to Mindel because of his work with director Tony Scott on the films Enemy of the State, Spy Game and Domino (see AC Nov. ’05). Those films established the cinematographer’s credentials in the genre, but more importantly, they indicated a comfort with photographic experimentation. “J.J. was definitely not interested in making a sequel or a ‘three-quel,’” says Mindel. “He wanted to take what his predecessors had done and move it forward. He told me early on, for example, that he wanted to show the mask thing, the changing of the faces, on camera; he wanted the audience to see how it was done. He wanted to disassemble some of the protocols that were in place for the franchise and re-assemble them in a more contemporary way that would perhaps open the movie up to another generation of viewers. I think J.J.’s ideas gave new life to something that could have gone a little flaccid.”

Mindel defines the new Mission as “three or four massive sequences stitched together with slightly smaller ones.” The plot involves Impossible Mission Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) in the international search for a mysterious weapon known as the “rabbit’s foot,” which is apparently under the control of the villainous Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Ving Rhames is back as another member of the IMF team, which also includes Keri Russell. There are kidnappings and rescues galore, and the action follows the agents and the “baddies,” as Mindel calls them, to China, Italy and various other far-flung locations, some of which were subbed in Southern California. “We did everything [in L.A.] except for the location footage that just couldn’t be shot here,” says Mindel. “It’s a huge franchise, and they do spend a lot of money. Just by trickle down, everybody in the business sees a piece of it. Apart from that, the technicians we have here are the best in the world. And it became obvious once we started shooting that the amount of visual effects was going to be huge.”

Despite the extensive effects, the bulk of which were handled at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) under Roger Guyett’s supervision, the picture was shot in anamorphic 2.40:1. Early on, Mindel told Abrams “the only thing that really, really mattered to me was that we shoot widescreen. Apart from the fact that I just love widescreen, the fact that [the characters] were traveling all over the world provided a perfect opportunity to balance the studio effects footage with nice, big, organic widescreen vista footage.”

Although the first two Mission chapters had been shot in anamorphic, Cruise expressed concern about some focus issues that had cropped up on the second film. Also, as a TV veteran, Abrams had no prior experience with the format’s lenses. “But to me,” says Mindel, “anamorphic is what movies are, and Super 35 is a compromise.” Then, during the testing process, the pesky anamorphic focus issue reared its head. “J.J. had a fit,” recalls the cinematographer, who adds that if John Connor, his regular 1st AC, had worked on the tests, the problem would never have occurred. “We had to edit all the soft footage out of the tests so when the [producers] screened it, it didn’t look as bad. Then we started crewing the movie the way it was going to be shot.”

Going against conventional wisdom, Mindel believes anamorphic is preferable to Super 35mm for effects work. “I think it’s logical to use the most picture area you can get. Being that Super 35 uses less picture area, the rendition in the final product isn’t as good — it’s not as crisp, there isn’t as much color, and there’s grain. I was very keen to give the effects people at ILM as much picture as I could.” From the outset, the filmmakers planned to finish with a digital intermediate (DI), and at press time Mindel was supervising this work at Company 3. “I’d seen The Island, an anamorphic project Company 3 had done a DI on, and it looked stunning,” he says. “So I was very excited that we were going to get that kind of quality with our movie. We went out with vigor and shot as much anamorphic as we could.”

Cameras chosen for the project were Panaflex Platinums, Millennium XLs and Arri 435s and 235s. “As long as I get what I’m looking for with lenses, I don’t really mind what kind of cameras they go on,” says Mindel, who used C-Series, Primo and “anamorphicized” Angenieux 12:1 zoom lenses. “Because of his TV background, J.J. tends to use tighter lenses,” he notes. “We’d shoot multiple cameras all the time, and one camera would always have the zoom. They intercut perfectly with the prime lenses, so we didn’t have the ancient problem of not using zooms on anamorphic.” Steadicam, operated by A-camera operator Colin Anderson, was used “almost daily,” especially during action sequences. “We ended up loving the 60mm close-focusing [C-Series] prime lens, which has a 16- or 18-inch close focus,” notes Mindel. “It allowed us to shoot handheld and Steadicam and actually get into close positions.”

Production began on location in Italy in summer 2005. Although Mindel shot most of the picture on Kodak Vision2 500T 5218, he used Vision2 100T 5212 for some day scenes in Italy and California. “With anamorphic lenses, using 5218 outside in daylight in rainy, dull environments puts you in a place where you have enough light but not too much,” the cinematographer observes. “It’s truly the most amazing film stock I’ve ever seen. But I also needed 5212, especially shooting in midsummer. Rome is a bit tricky because there’s so much pollution and the light is a bit brutal. But the Italians are smart: they paint their buildings in earth tones that absorb all the hard light!” Abrams and Mindel had decided to divide the film into three general looks: one for Italy, one for China, and one for all of the footage shot in the United States. But for the most part, “because of the different light in the places we shot,” the locations did their work for them. Shanghai, for example, “has a river going through the middle of the city, and is incredibly misty a lot of the time. It’s also lit by neon, which creates all sorts of fantastic colors in the misty air.”

The first-unit material in China was filmed at the end of principal photography, but concurrently with the Italian shoot, second-unit work was underway in Shanghai on one of the movie’s most complex action sequences. Comprising a series of spectacular stunts, each of which tops the one that came before it, the sequence is centered on Hunt’s leap from a Shanghai skyscraper. “Ethan jumps off the building with a bungee cord on, and the bungee stretches and then catapults him back up into the air,” details Mindel. “He cuts himself free, lands on another building, and breaks into the baddies’ headquarters. The producers wanted to shoot this against the Shanghai skyline at night, and when we scouted it, the idea was to do it all in camera. I told them the only way we could do it was to shoot from the air with helicopters, because there was just no other way to get up to those heights and see what we needed to see. The fact that the action was set at night also meant we would have to import vast quantities of lights. When we put in our budget, production said, ‘No way.’ So it was decided that the Shanghai skyline would be shot as background plates, but “the fact that we had to shoot the plates at night anamorphically was going to be an issue.” Therefore, the plates were shot digitally.

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