The blend of CGI and live action is a common thing in today’s films, but that wasn’t always the case. The bullet train chase sequence in Mission: Impossible is one of the earliest sequences to use computer enhancement, and interestingly, is still one of the best. Join us as we explain why.
The Mission: Impossible bullet train sequence may not be the most outrageous action sequence in the series, it may not be the most important, and it may not be the most realistic. However, it does leave a lasting impression. Not only does it end the first film with a bang, but it raised the bar as far as what action sequences could be, and it therefore pushed our expectations to the next level. Great action sequences shouldn’t just be rehashes of things that we have seen before. They should amaze us. They should open up our mind to new possibilities. More importantly, they should be worthwhile, advancing the plot or developing a character in an important way. The Mission: Impossible bullet train sequence is all of these things and more.
Each month the Cinelinx staff will write a handful of articles covering a specified film-related topic. These articles will be notified by the Movielinx banner. Movielinx is an exploration and discussion of our personal connections with film. This month we're diving into our favorite action scenes in movies, exploring what makes them great, and why they get our hearts racing every time!
If you haven’t seen the film, I don’t want to spoil anything for you. It is a worthwhile movie, especially if you like intriguing spy thrillers in the mold of James Bond. Mission: Impossible is the type of action film that was common in the late 90’s, but pretty uncommon today. Sure, it’s a remake of a television show, but more importantly it is an action movie that puts a lot of effort into seeming realistic. Rather than trying to entertain its audience with non-stop chase sequences and exhilarating action, it relies on a complicated web of character relations in order to create a plot that upon first examination seems plausible. Think about it further and the plot ends up being completely ridiculous. This is different from films these days that seem to pride themselves on being ridiculous in the first place. To sum it up, Mission: Impossible, unlike its sequels, is a plot-driven film, rather than action-driven.
The bullet train sequence is the climax of the film. It may not be the most memorable sequence in the film, but it is the most exciting. It is a scene that half of the film builds up towards, which makes it that much more engaging once it starts. The scene is responsible for finishing the story and it even manages to tie up a couple loose ends. It allows the main character Ethan Hunt to redeem himself from past failure. Above all, it sets a tone for action sequences in future Mission: Impossible films to live up to. It showed how the franchise could be successful in differentiating itself from other action film franchises, like James Bond, and it gave audiences a taste of what future action films would bring to the table.
Specifically, the bullet train sequence is able to relate to every action junkie's thirst for the ridiculous. Action films had always been able to divorce the possible from the impossible using increasingly expensive and elaborate stunts (and/or explosions), but in the late 1990’s a whole new frontier of possibilities opened up. Computers were quickly advancing to the point where their use in film could enhance rather than distract from the final project. The Mission: Impossible bullet train sequence is one of the earliest action sequences where CGI and live action were blended realistically. With the use of CGI, this one sequence somewhat betrays the filmmaker’s focus on realism. However, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a bad thing. In fact, the reason that this is one of my favorite action scenes is that it is the perfect blend of realism and outrageous.
Let’s start with the outrageous. For one, physics have to stop working correctly in order for people to have a scuffle on top of a bullet train at 200 mph. Because this lack of science is also the case with most famous action sequences, we’ll forget about the equations working out for the time being. Besides physics, there’s the problem of piloting a helicopter in a tunnel. Plus the fact that two trains are never allowed in the Channel Tunnel at the same time. But again, for the sake of mind-blowing entertainment, we won’t focus heavily on those head scratchers. Tom Cruise even argued with director Brian De Palma about having the helicopter in the first place. He argued that it made the film too unrealistic, but De Palma thought that the film needed an explosive finale. De Palma may have won that argument, but Cruise was right. No other scene in the film makes the movie feel so fake.
If a film is based on fiction, there’s nothing wrong with fake. The problem is that you need to keep the audience engaged, and if they can’t believe in what is happening onscreen, they could tune out. Therefore, in my opinion, action sequences are successful when they balance both the real and unreal. Movie viewers need something to blow their minds, but it can’t be too far outside the realm of possibility. Perhaps it’s by default that the bullet train sequence falls into this perfect blend. Let’s just say that it has a number of things working for it in that regard. For one, it is one of the earliest such blends of live-action stunt work and CGI. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was hired to complete the effects in this scene, and at the time, there was no one who could have done it better. However, ILM was still a product of the technology and developments that were available at that time. As an early adaptor, the film was exploring new territory and therefore couldn’t push things as far. Making CGI representations of a character for extreme stunt purposes was still a few years away. Therefore, it had to rely as much on the CGI to complete the scene as it relied on the stunts and performances of the actors to make it exciting.
One of those people responsible for making the scene exciting is Tom Cruise. Cruise, who is known for his insistence to do his own stunts, really does a fantastic job. He is emotionally and physically devoted to the role, but his role went beyond what was featured on screen. Cruise was committed to doing whatever he could to make the film that much more fun to watch. To begin with, the film was written such that the final climax took place on the famous TGV train. Originally, the people responsible for the operation of the train didn’t want anything to do with filming the movie, they thought that it would be too dangerous. Once ILM got involved, it became apparent that the action wouldn’t have to actually be filmed on the train. It took Tom Cruise sitting down for dinner and then charming the owners of the train to eventually allow the film production onboard.
The train sequence was actually filmed on the set that was traditionally used for James Bond films at Pinewood Studios. The entire shooting process took more than 6 weeks, plus the post-production time to fill in the background and layer all the composites. A wind machine and a model of the roof of the train were used to film a majority of the main confrontation between Ethan Hunt and Jon Voight’s character, Jim Phelps. Those shots were completed in front of a blue screen. Because the use of CGI to enhance an action scene was still a somewhat new idea, the filmmakers wanted to “protect” the audience from being bombarded by too many special effects. As such, successful chase sequences in the past (including Raiders of the Lost Ark, and T2) were mined for ideas. The filmmakers looked at what made those famous sequences so engaging, and then figured out how to use CGI to assist in achieving a similar outcome.
What they found was that a good chase sequence isn’t just about the action. It is important to create an entire complete scene with all elements choreographed well together. Factors such as the camera angle, camera movement, vehicle speeds/motion, music, timing of stunts, and even sound effects meant the difference between a good and a great action scene. When filming on the blue screen, special care was added to add shakes and bumps to the camera. The locations of the vehicles (train and helicopter) on screen were specifically chosen to highlight the performance of the actors. The camera views were purposefully obscured by trees and bridges to make it seem like the camera was on a car running besides the train, rather than stationary on a soundstage platform. Finally, the director chose to use no music for the first half of the scene. This was to focus on the sound effects, and also probably because if you were on the roof of a bullet train running at 200 MPH you wouldn’t be able to hear anything anyway.
At the end of the scene, the helicopter explodes and hurls Ethan Hunt onto the back of the train. This stunt was achieved by having Tom Cruise jump in front of the 140 mph wind machine. The force from the fan blew him forward and he had to land on the train and hang on. Tom Cruise recalled, "I ended up doing it three or four times and it hurt – I was black and blue for days. But I wanted to make it real, to make it believable.” For the shot where Ethan Hunt is shown flying towards the camera, Tom Cruise was hung from a crane and moved at a steady pace towards the camera. The explosion of the helicopter was created using several models, each of which flew inside a model of the tunnel. Both were created in ⅛ scale, and each was enhanced with CGI, and added into the background of the shot.
Another complication of this part of the sequence was the fact that the action was now taking place inside a tunnel. To make the various composites seem like one shot, special care had to be made to keep the lighting, and the pacing of the moving background consistent. To overcome the lighting issue, the filmmakers used flickering lights during the live-action shots with Tom Cruise and then the exploding helicopter model. These flickering lights were timed in order to mimic the lights in the tunnel as they flew by. In post-production, the arduous task of layering all the live action shots together was completed. The background shots were actually taken in Scotland, not France, and the train and railroad track and bridge were all added in digitally.
Overall, I love the bullet train chase sequence because it has all the right ingredients, and the filmmaker’s planning doesn’t waste them. This is an engaging and exciting scene that features not only great acting and stunt work, but formidable and cutting-edge special effects. Above all, the way that the chase utilized many complex film and digital composites to create a final product is an impressive achievement for 1996. While other films would eventually surpass it in CGI-fueled excitement, it was an important stepping stone for the future.