Brad Bird, the director of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, talks about his love of film, using IMAX cameras and the lost art of the movie-going experience.
Bird made his name as a director and writer of critically acclaimed Pixar films, such as The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and has won two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature.
The fourth instalment of the Mission: Impossible series marks Bird's live-action directorial debut.
We had the opportunity to ask him about the technology behind some of the most spectacular scenes in the film, and why he chose to shoot with IMAX cameras rather than present the film in 3D.
Given that there's been so many Hollywood films that are presented in 3D or shot in 3D, what was the decision behind choosing the IMAX camera for certain scenes?
While I'm very interested in 3D, and I'm very curious to see what people like Peter Jackson and James Cameron are doing next, I have some technical issues with 3D, and I feel that people are forgetting the power that really big, bright, sharp images on a massive screen have. Simply seeing movies presented the way they used to be presented, in the top theatres, is an unbelievably powerful experience. But most people see them in multiplexes now with small auditoriums and small screens with dim projectors. Part of what I liked about IMAX is that people are forced to sit forward, the screens are huge, the bulbs are turned all the way up, the sound systems are good and they're getting the experience we intend them to get rather than the one they often get.
What about other high-resolution cameras in 4K and 5K territory; do they offer the same level of experience that a film camera such as the IMAX delivers?
No, not yet. I think that they will, and I look forward to that day. There are tremendous advantages to filming in digital in terms of convenience and being able to shoot in low light. But right now, film is still the highest-resolution stuff you can have, particularly large-format film when it gets larger than 35mm. Nothing that they've done digitally matches it yet. It's akin to when recording went from analog to digital, people like Peter Gabriel rushed to record their next album digitally. What's interesting is that after that, everyone went back to analog, because digital recording was still not to the level that analog was. They use digital equipment for all the remastering and blending of the tracks every step after the recording, but most people stayed with analog because it was still the best way to record sound.
While I think digital is absolutely the best way to get prints made, and a good digital projector is a wonderful way to see a movie, in terms of acquiring an image I still think that film is the best. But I'm really interested in what people are doing in digital with higher frame rates, and I welcome any increase in resolution and sensitivity. I think that the new Arri Alexa camera is really interesting, and has produced some really beautiful images. I'm not dogmatic about it; I'm just looking at what my eyeball likes. And my eyeball thinks that large-format film is still the most impeccable viewing experience you have.
Most films you see in IMAX are not filmed in IMAX; they're just blow-ups of conventionally shot movies, and very few films offer what we offered with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Christopher Nolan offers with his last and next The Dark Knight films.
Are there specific things you have to keep in mind when shooting with an IMAX camera rather than a more conventional movie camera?
Yeah, it's slower, the rolls shoot out more quickly, it takes more time to reload the rolls, the cameras are bulky and they're loud, meaning that any dialogue you record is only usable as a guide for looping. You can't actually use the soundtrack you record, because you can hear the camera whirring away in the background like a lawnmower. There are absolutely considerations, and it becomes a hassle to shoot in IMAX, but for me it was a hassle that was worth it, because those sequences, when you see them presented in IMAX on a really big, well-maintained screen, it's a very powerful way to experience it.
It reminds you how powerful relatively old technology is, if you use the very best. Lawrence of Arabia was shot in 70mm over 50 years ago. If you see it projected in 70mm on a big screen, it's still a jaw-dropping experience. For me, it kicks the butt of a lot of 3D, but people are used to seeing these things on video and on small screens, so the effect is very different.
It's interesting that you asked [given the recent release of James Cameron's Titanic in 3D]. A reviewer asked Cameron to explain what 3D added, and while he thinks that it added significantly to the experience, for him the bulk of it was that audiences were seeing it on a movie screen again, on a big screen, and not being able to have the pause button or a telephone ring, toilet flush or a dog bark. For him, just getting audiences to see it on a big screen straight in a row in a theatre was what was really genuinely rare and worthwhile about it.
I guess it gives you complete control over the audience's experience by shooting in this particular way and having these tools at your disposal?
If you go to a conventional movie theatre, a lot of people sit at the back, which is kind of like sitting across from their television in the living room. In an IMAX theatre if you sit in the very back row, the screen still fills your field of vision and it forces you to be in the movie. If you shoot the movie with really high-resolution stuff and project it bright, it's like you're living inside a dream; it's really powerful.
You've brought in a lot of real-world elements to Ghost Protocol, particularly when technology fails. Was there any particular experience of yours that prompted this?
It's kind of a thing that I am interested in and amused by. It more approaches how we interact with technology in our real life. I like it when those sort of unpredictable aspects rear their head in fantastic films. I was always very impressed when I saw Disney's Cinderella that the fairy godmother started to do a spell with her magic wand, and the wand didn't work and she had to whack it against the palm of her hand a few times to get the magic to come out, almost like it was a pen that was clogged. I thought that was a wonderful thing because it told me something about the world of magic, that things don't always work.
I love it when Han Solo is trying to escape with his Millennium Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back. He starts it and the engine doesn't turn over. He has to whack the side of the control panel in order to get it to come back online. Even though they're in a fantastic world, the mundane aspects of gadgets and reality rear their head. It's something that I myself really have enjoyed in movies that I've seen and I have fun with it in the movies that I direct.
JJ Abrams said to me early on, "are there any things that you have always wanted to see in a spy film", and I said, "Absolutely". One of them was, "I want the gadgets to not be totally reliable". They embraced that idea, and we got a lot of it in the film.
How many of the gadgets in the film were based on some sort of reality?
We had a guy come in who was a consultant and he was up to date on the kind of cutting-edge tech and where it's headed. The little lens cam stuff that fits in a contact lens is based on something that they're working on and getting close to. There are other aspects that are just in the ideas stage, but they are far enough along that it's conceivable that we could have something like that.
Some of the stuff that critics are thinking are a little farfetched now are actually kind of real, and probably will not seem so farfetched 10 years from now.
You recently tweeted that Ghost Protocol was viewed at the International Space Station. How did that come about?
Well, they request things every once in a while. For those of us who love space flight, it's a particular thrill to imagine that something you worked on is being watched in outer space. There's just something really cool about that. So when we heard about that, the word kind of spread among those of us who worked on it. That's a proud moment, when your silly little story gets spun in space.
Is there one particular technological tool that would make your film-making life easier?
Yeah, I would love an app that created automatic financing for a movie idea. That would be great. I would be using that very often [laughs].
There's been a lot of talk about The Iron Giant on Blu-ray; have there been any more developments on that front?
I've talked about it with Warner Bros many times over the years, and there are some issues that are technical and some that are more about how something is ushered out into the world; marketing-oriented. We'll get it straight one of these days, and when we do, I hope that people will be ready for it, because we have gotten a lot of requests for it.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is released on Blu-ray on 18 April.