Brad Bird Animates Ethan Hunt In 'Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol'

(Welcome to Team Leaders, a series where we explore how the directors of the Mission: Impossible movies used this franchise as a canvas to explore their pet themes and show off their unique sensibilities. In this edition: Brad Bird brings his animated sensibilities to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.)

For Brad Bird, there's no difference between helming animation and live-action. A film is a film, and a director is a director, regardless of the visual mode an artist is operating within.

Handpicked by Tom Cruise (who loved Bird's work on The Incredibles ['04]) and longtime compadre J.J. Abrams* – thus solidifying Bad Robot's ongoing influence on the tentpole franchise – the Simpsons and Iron Giant ('99) architect viewed Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol as an opportunity to branch out and diversify his already impressive filmography; not as some half-assed, insulting means of gaining the acceptance of his peers, the press, or viewers (as animation has long been relegated to being "for kids").

An Intersection of Animation and Live-Action

Yet there's no denying that crafting animation is a totally different ballgame than stepping behind the lens for a flesh and blood blockbuster. The core goals remain the same: to tell a great story, and mold believable characters – conveying their thoughts, emotions, needs and hopes in a way the audience can connect to on an intuitive level. Nevertheless, the process of achieving these narrative aims is (obviously) much different, even on the most basic level.

Many elements of animation are accomplished in seclusion, as actors often record their lines separate from one another, while multiple panels are meticulously drawn by hand or generated using intricate software, without any concern for environmental factors (such as weather) or a performer having an "off" day in costume. There's still chaos to these productions, but it's contained in a way that requires a different skill set than, say, coordinating a set piece on the 123rd floor of the Burj Khalifa – the Dubai skyscraper that stood in '11 as the world's tallest structure at just over 2,715 feet.

Nevertheless, there's a fascinating intersection between live-action and animation occurring within Ghost Protocol's many wonderful set pieces. When newly promoted field operative Benji (Simon Pegg) helps break Ethan Hunt (Cruise) out of a Moscow prison, it's all set to the swinging brass of Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick In the Head?" The ensuing Kremlin break-in that Hunt, Benji, and Jane (Paula Patton) pursue includes utilizing a holographic image to trick a guard into believing that the corridor is empty (all while the seasoned IMF agents make their way through, inch-by-inch). These are practically Looney Tunes gags, played out by human beings, with Hunt and Benji assuming the roles of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck (though you decide which is which).

Though after a bombing at the Kremlin – a tragic act of terrorism Hunt and his team are subsequently blamed for – the President declares "Ghost Protocol", disbanding the IMF and sending Ethan on the run. Right by his side is intelligence analyst and aide to the assassinated Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) of the Impossible Mission Force, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Now, this rogue branch of a spy service that no longer officially exists (at least in its country's eyes) must track down a Swedish-born nuclear strategist (code name "Cobalt") in order to prevent him from kicking off nuclear war between Russia and the United States, all while attempting to clear the agency and Ethan's team of any wrongdoing.

IMAX and Clarity

In the five years since Abrams' Mission: Impossible III, IMAX cinematography (courtesy of consummate pro Robert Elswit) became all the rage within blockbuster filmmaking (most notably thanks to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy ['05 – '12]). With its ever-expansive frame, astonishing depth of field, and crisp image, Bird conveys vertigo-inducing altitudes when Ethan is scaling the aforementioned Mumbai high-rise (not to mention the slightly shifting glass he stabilizes himself on). Ghost Protocol is a huge step up in the scope department from M: I III, returning the series to its grandiose, globe-hopping Bondian roots via a shaggy dog tale of intel infiltrators on the lam.

Perhaps the relative looseness of Ghost Protocol's narrative has to do with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie – who'd worked with Cruise on the Bryan Singer Hitler assassination adventure Valkyrie ('08) – being called in as a professional "doctor" of sorts to help smooth out the movie's story issues. In the scribe's own words:

"On Ghost Protocol I came in on the middle of the shoot to do a rewrite of the screenplay, though they had already started the movie. I had to communicate with the entire staff to determine what I could and couldn't change, what sets had been built or struck, what scenes I could or couldn't reshoot. I learned so much about production being right there.

The script had these fantastic sequences in it but there was a mystery in it that was very complicated. What I did was about clarity. The mystery had to be made simpler. It's like reaching into a sock and pulling it inside out. It's still a sock, still all the same pieces, but all put together in a different order."

The "clarity" McQuarrie describes could almost be subbed out for "simplicity", which – much like John Woo's Mission: Impossible II – allowed Bird's knack for fluid action to really flourish. And even while he's credited as director on the film, the next era of the M: I franchise had begun behind the scenes, as McQuarrie would go on to helm Cruise's next stab at an action hero franchise (the blue collar, meat and potatoes man of violence programmer, Jack Reacher ['12]) before being hired to write and direct the next installment, Rogue Nation ('15).

Like pieces of a puzzle, the last three Mission: Impossible pictures saw their respective craftsmen working together to create a string of synergetic motion pictures. Abrams put the mythology in place, Bird applied a new, exciting eye for action, with McQuarrie became the utility man who'd eventually ascend to king, delivering the very best sequel in a series that'd already seen more than one high water mark.

*Apparently, Bird was pursuing a picture about the tightly-knit artistic scene in San Francisco when he got a text from Abrams in the middle of the night that simply said "Mission?"