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HomeCraftsMission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One Cinematographer Fraser Taggart Shoots Romantic...

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One Cinematographer Fraser Taggart Shoots Romantic Action

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Dead Reckoning
Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning, Part One.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is a Thanksgiving feast of an action movie. Director Christopher McQuarrie‘s latest addition to the Tom Cruise-led franchise is a reminder that less is more isn’t always the case. Ethan Hunt’s latest adventure, which pits him against artificial intelligence, doesn’t forget charm and humanity in its go-for-broke style, either.

McQuarrie, cinematographer Fraser Taggart, and editor Eddie Hamilton let shots breathe and allow emotions, not only punches, to linger and resonate. There’s a gracefulness to the chaos in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Recently, the cinematographer behind the action epic took us behind-the-scenes of its artful grandiosity.

[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length]

BTL: As a cinematographer, you’re working on scenes that have never been done before, like the motorcycle jump. What questions did you have for yourself about pulling off that sequence? 

Taggart: “How the fuck are we going to do it?” That was my initial thought. It’s just because you don’t do it every day, Jack. You go through all of the [questions]. How do we get the best coverage? How do we know it’s Tom? All of those things obviously worry you, but you’ll go through and look at every possible piece of kit that you think you should use to do this. And you don’t initially know the location. It’s, “Are there points where we can actually get longer lenses on a viewing point?” And then you get to the chosen location, and you go, “Okay, no, it’s a sheer 2,000-meter drop with nothing around it. Brilliant.”

BTL: [Laughs] How was your drone experience with that sequence? 

Taggart: I don’t love the look of drones. They’re brilliant for the right thing, but there’s something heavier and more flowing with a full helicopter and a good head. We used both in the end. As much as we weren’t going to use a full-size helicopter, in the end, we decided that it was necessary to make it more cinematographic. We went back to old school, which we quite often do because it works and it’s classical.

BTL: What other prep did you do for that sequence? 

Taggart: In England, they found a place where we could practice Tom’s jump for speed, safety, and everything. Eventually we brought a full helicopter into the practice site to see if the downwash was going to knock Tom off the bloody ramp or whatever. We test everything so thoroughly in preparation, but then you turn up the actual location and it’s not the quarry pit that we were in, and it’s now got a 2000-meter cliff with updrafts, the wind conditions are different, and the ramp did actually get bigger and bigger.

You arrive on the day to do it and feel like, “Oh God, we’ve made this as safe and as thoroughly researched as possible, but now you’re here, it’s all a bit different.” There’s always that. But you always question. All of the crew going, “Is this a really good idea to make this the very first shot of the film?”

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 / Paramount

BTL: The fight between Ethan and Paris in that very tight alleyway, it’s so aggressive but so coherent. How did you and McQuarrie want to create that sense of viciousness with the camerawork in that sequence? How was shooting that intricate of action in such a confined space?

Taggart: It was horrible. No, it wasn’t, it’s great. You’re always questioning, “How am I going to light this? And where can I get lights that don’t look too out of place, but give it the energy that it needs as well?” We always looked at doing a top shot as a sort of geography shot and using a crane above that we could track with them a little bit. Otherwise, you’d think, “Well, I’m just stuck in an alley where there’s no change of angle.”

You had to give it some relief at times and just breathe a bit and go, “This is where we are.” And then get back into the tighter fighting. We didn’t want the camera to be too frenetic with its movement because then you don’t clearly see the hits.

No disrespect to Bourne films, I mean they were brilliant, you know that handheld, very flashy, but [we] wanted to bring it back from that a bit. In the alley, it was all handheld with an anchor called a Rialto Rig. We didn’t want to be too frenetic, as I say, because you’ve got to read the hits and the expression of reaction and emotion. We did it handheld, but with controlled camera movement.

Again, it’s just finding the right angle in there to sell [it] and to make it all real. You want to be standing exactly where that camera is as an audience and going, “Bloody hell. Wow.” The choice of lensing is important so that the audience feels that I’m in that alley with them. I’m actually feeling those physical hits. And so, that’s how we did it in the end, really.

And you don’t want it to be too quick cut. You want shots to have duration or you go, “Well, I think anyone could do that. I could do a one, two-second cut or 10 frame cut.” But you try to get away from it and make the shots longer duration, so that it is more physically affecting and you feel tired as an audience from the fights. 

Dead Reckoning
Pom Klementieff in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One

BTL: For the those hand-to-hand fights, it also feels balletic and more artful, especially watching Ilsa and Gabriel (Esai Morales) fight on that bridge. 

Taggart: We wanted that to be sort of quite flowing and not romantic, but sort of romantic in a non-romantic way. Again, it’s not to make the camera make the action work, not to shake it when you hit someone, like when there was a lot of that going on for a long time in movies. You are hiding the fact that the hits aren’t very good by making the camera make a hit work.

We wanted the action to work for itself and to really observe it in a balletic sort of way, to be a moving camera around that action and not excuse things with camera movement, because that distracts from the fact that contact isn’t physical enough.

The stunt side of it, they’re brilliant. The rehearsals they do, they’re constantly in there rehearsing to sell the fight. Once you get to shoot it, they’re so rehearsed in making that work through all their practice that you put a camera on it and then it’s a gift. All of the actors go through a lot of real physical training and fight training and just physically being fit enough to do it. 

BTL: This is probably the most romantic Mission movie.  

Taggart: Yeah, definitely.

BTL: Did you and McQuarrie talk about wanting the romance of adventure in this one a bit more?

Taggart: Yeah, it just became evident as we went along. I mean, the relationship with the whole team has always been a very important point. The love and care that everyone has for each other, really. There’s great care between Rebecca and Tom and his love for Ving [Rhames] and for Simon [Pegg]. It was lovely that that connection was probably put into this one more to show a romantic link, as well. That love is just a love, whether it’s romantic or not, it’s just a love for people. 

It was nice to accentuate that during this particular film. You know, having a little breath as an audience, it gives you a little tiny moment off of going, “Oh, they’re normal people, really,” before you get back into some big fight in Venice or wherever. 

Dead Reckoning
Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One

BTL: As you said, you really want to make the audience feel like they’re there. Say for the sandstorm when Ilsa and Ethan reunite, what were the lens choices you wanted to make the audience feel they’re in the chaos?

Taggart: We never went particularly long on our lenses. As an audience, I want to be a character in all the films. I want to be someone that’s actually in there and sees it happen. I’m at the party and I see Tom and Rebecca arrive. You don’t want to be outside and just observing. I want to be in there and go, “Well, see, I’m dancing or standing, having a chat, and I observe these people coming in and it’s me watching this for real.” So again, I think even in that, even in those close moments, you’re up tight and it’s personal, you’re part of the sequence. 

BTL: We’re talking a lot about challenges, but the party scene must’ve been such a joy as a cinematographer. You have all those beautiful LED lights and candles. What effect did you want them to have? 

Taggart: I loved shooting there. We’re so advanced now that we can decide all the lighting’s in place. We know we’ve covered our lighting for that ’cause we had quite a minimal time in there as such. To get that sequence, you don’t have a lot of nights to actually cover it.

You know, you make a big plan with my gaffer, Martin [Smith] and we say, “Right, this will work from moving lights. We’ll put them here, here, and here, so that we can be quite quick when we’re shooting.” To make a sexy lighting, there are no rules. It’s a sweetie shop, it’s a candy shop, as long as you put the sources in the right place.

Nowadays with LED, which we try to use to be friendly to the world, we have such control over the color, the color temperature of lights. And we used a lot of moving heads like rock n’ roll. They’re originally rock n’ roll heads, so remote; we can be quite quick with our changes, which is so important now ’cause time is an essence on location, very expensive and crowds.

All the facilities are there, you play with them on the day, and it doesn’t take too long, as long as you’ve planned it properly. The artificial lighting at night has a personal feel to it. There’s no rule book. The hardest thing in any movie to me has always been trying to create natural light. You know, you are on a set in a sound stage and you want to make that look like natural God-given light and make it work. That’s the hardest thing to recreate.

If you can do that and make it convincing, then you’re lighting okay, that’s the satisfying point to recreate a natural look to a room or a ballroom or whatever. I love doing the effects-y stuff, don’t get me wrong, and that’s very satisfying but to recreate natural light and do it well is a skill that, to me, that’s always been my sort of mark on it.

Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One

BTL: How challenging was the natural lighting for the third-act train sequence when you’re dealing with so many moving pieces, more CGI, and cutting a lot from interior and exterior? 

Taggart: I mean, it worked. It works well. Myself and my gaffer, Martin, we’d go and scout things, sometimes do a train journey to go on a location scout. We’d chat and he’d go, “Oh, hang on. Get your iPhone out.” I’d shoot Martin in his seat and he’d shoot me, see what was going on with the train movement. I wanted it when we did the interiors, obviously, so we were doing references for that.

And then you reference other films on trains or Orient Express or whatever and then you pick the bones out of that and then you go, “Well, it needs some movement. We do need to put some interactive movement there.” And obviously, for the interiors, we shot lots of plates in Norway so that we could have them outside, which I thought were put in incredibly well by visual effects. As much as you think that’s quite simple to go, “Oh, we just had trees going past and bits of the mountain,” to make it convincing is bloody hard at times.

For the interior lighting to the train, we wanted it to be quite opulent and rich because it’s the Orient Express. There are different colors for each carriage as the Orient Express does have. Some were more difficult ’cause the red’s quite absorbing, the material. I thought it was a good balance in the end and the train was amazing. The actual look of the train was incredible.

BTL: Plus, you’re shooting Tom Cruise — one of the few true movie stars — on the Orient Express. How surreal is that? 

Taggart: I’ve been so lucky over the years. As you said, he is still probably Hollywood’s biggest star in so many ways. You have to pinch yourself a bit and go, “How did I get here?” I’ll walk into the set, see news footage of Tom, go to work, and Tom comes over and puts his arm around and says, “You all right, kid?” I don’t know why he calls me kid, I’m only a year younger than him, and I look terrible. It’s a beautifully weird situation and sometimes you go, “I get to work with Tom Cruise,” which you’ll never get over.

I think that the beauty of working in the industry is you do the most incredible things. You go to the most incredible places, you work with the most incredible people. You do something in your day that makes you think, “My God, people would bite their arm off to be in this position.” Sometimes you start to take it for granted and you do need to sometimes give yourself a slap and go, “You’re lucky, you’re very lucky to be here.”

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is now playing in theaters.

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