Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Paramount Pictures - note: contains spoilers
What sets the Mission: Impossible franchise apart from other action films are the real life, really insane stunts that Tom Cruise pulls off. Looking at the latest franchise release, Mission: Impossible Fallout — in theaters now, Cruise does a HALO (High altitude low open) jump — meaning he jumps out of a plane at 25,000 feet and opens his shoot below 2,000 feet. The scene is accomplished in a single, continuous shot, or ‘long take.’ One scene, one shot, no edits. (Paramount Pictures has an incredible behind-the-scenes video here, available further down in the interview).
Sonically, what POV will have the biggest impact on the audience? What will make them feel like they’re experiencing these stunts, too?
Sound is truly half of the picture, so how the audience hears these stunts is just as important as how the stunts are experienced visually. The question of perspective becomes very important. Should the audience hear what Tom hears, or should the audience just be an observer of what’s happening to Tom? Sonically, what POV will have the biggest impact on the audience? What will make them feel like they’re experiencing these stunts, too?
Here, MPSE-award winning supervising sound editor James Mather talks about how he and his team at Soundbyte Studios in West London worked with director/writer Chris McQuarrie to craft a soundtrack that perfectly fits the thrilling, brutal, intense and sometimes humorous action film that is Mission: Impossible Fallout.
I know team collaboration is very important to you. So, who did you have on your team for this film?
James Mather (JM): We had a similar team to Wonder Woman, but with some new members. We had sound effects editors Ben Meechan, Samir Foco, Jed Loughran, and David Mackie and our new intern Victoria Freund, who did the voice for a few of the alarm signals during the HALO jump. She was extremely excited about that.
Tom Cruise likes to do all his own stunts on-screen. Off-screen, is he as involved with the sound of those stunts?
JM: Yes. He’s very passionate about that. Tom has done many action movies and there’s such an emphasis on the nature of the action and the fact that it’s so real. We were getting sequences with no green-screen. It was full action, which is unheard of. Normally, we get a ton of stuff done on green-screen and the VFX for it have yet to be completed.
Tom was very passionate about doing a pass at the end of post production just before we got to the final dub, especially for the HALO jump. That was the one that was the most important for him because the arduous nature of having to jump out of a plane as many times as they did. That had a real physical effect on him and everybody involved. It was exhausting apparently.
Tom recorded a pass for us of very specific, very accurate emotion that he wanted.
We were very unsure how to play that HALO sequence, whether to play it from the perspective of the audience where you hear the wind rushing and you see these people falling through the air but you don’t really engage with their vocals. Or, do we go inside their head to their perspective, and play it on that basis. So we cut in several different ways and ended up leaning towards the perspective of Tom and his jeopardy as he flew through the air. Tom recorded a pass for us of very specific, very accurate emotion that he wanted. That was one of the final elements. The HALO jump was the most specific of all the scenes in the film.
It was kind of like the Rogue Nation underwater sequence. For that one, he was here with us in the UK and he recorded the breaths and efforts on the stage with us while we were dubbing, which was very exciting. He was very passionate about making sure that you got the right expressions for the right bits of action.
That HALO jump was a crazy stunt. The cameraman jumps backward out of the plane before Tom jumps!!
JM: I came on the day they released the press screening of the making of that scene, where you see the cameraman fall out of the plane and then Tom jumps. And Chris McQuarrie (writer/director on Fallout) points out that there was an EPK unit that has already jumped out in order to film the cameraman who’s filming Tom. You then realize the precision and preparation that went into all those action sequences, from the helicopter chase to jumping across a building.
A behind-the-scenes look at the incredible stunts for Mission: Impossible – Fallout
After Tom jumps, there’s this lightning strike and the sound drops out. Can you talk about your design choices there?
JM: There was a conversation happening while we were mixing it. As I mentioned before, we had track laid the entire sequence with sound design, so we had it from the exterior perspective and the interior perspective. For the moment when the lightning strike hits, Chris [McQuarrie] and I were talking about what would happen in that instance if you were hit by lightning and you weren’t grounded. There would be an impact but also everything would probably go quiet because you’d be in such shock. We all talked about experiencing lightning and how everything goes super quiet afterwards because it compresses your eardrums. Your ears shut down momentarily and then the sound creeps back in.
So we felt that was really dramatic and we gave it a go. It took us lots of passes to get everything to do the same thing at the same time — for all the sound to disappear, not just in volume but in EQ. it was a matter of winding down all the EQ so the sound was very muffled, and then slowly crept it back up to normal range.
It was so dramatic and so spontaneous as a mix move— just something we tried on the mix stage that wasn’t preconceived. The lightning visual effects were coming in and they were slightly different from one day to the next. So that scene was one of the last things that we really did. And because of that, we were all a bit unsure of how it would read. Would the effect throw people out of the story or pull them in? Would it sound like we have just blown all the speakers in the theater?
Tom’s last note on the final screening was, “Can we hear some more of my breath slightly earlier out of that lightning hit?” Then Eddie Hamilton (picture editor) suggested that we use it as an exit on the lightning hit as well, so that we keep Tom’s presence in that moment.
You don’t expect the sound to drop out halfway through the action scene but it works.
It’s the subtlest addition but that solved it for all of us. It feels like Tom’s been hit and he’s coming to and the sound is coming back. It reinforced the perspective that the audience is experiencing what Tom is experiencing. It was a last minute option and a brave choice that Chris made. You don’t expect the sound to drop out halfway through the action scene but it works.
For the helicopter chase, you’re dealing with proximity — how close Tom and the other helicopter are to each other, and how close the helicopter is to the canyon walls, and also how close the camera is to Tom in the pilot’s seat. What was your approach to the sound for this sequence? What was your goal for sound?
JM: When we got this scene, Eddie [Hamilton] said, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to make this exciting because it’s just a couple of helicopters and some gunshots. It’s all percussive sounds, like the blade flaps and the gunfire and it’s going to be very hard to give a sense of momentum and movement with just those sounds.’
So, we had to investigate how much sound a helicopter could and would make if it was doing these different aerial stunts, like pitching over the cliff and dropping into a canyon faster than it should be. Would there be alarm sounds? Would the engine be under stress? What sounds would the prop blades make? There was a lot of stress put on these helicopters.
We wanted to get our helicopter sounds, engine whines, and stress and twisting metal sounds to be part of this Shepard’s Tone movement.
We had a look at different sampling software, because we wanted to explore the Shepard’s Tone — this tone that sounds like it’s rising or falling continuously but never actually stops. It’s a really unnerving sensation because it’s not moving far but it feels like it’s constantly rising or falling. So we wanted to get our helicopter sounds, engine whines, and stress and twisting metal sounds to be part of this Shepard’s Tone movement. The sounds (the gunshots, bullet bys, and blade flaps) needed to have more tonality because generally they were percussive and they’d get in the way of the music. But, those were equally very important sounds because they communicate what the jeopardy was.
The thwapping blades alone was a lovely sound, and it’s great to hear when they fly over the canyon before the cat and mouse game is on. It’s a really evocative, Walter Murch-type sound. But we then abandoned that stuff when we got into the chase because only during the flybys did you really get the sense of the blades thwapping.
For the chase, we wanted to give the sense that the engines are really hammering it to the point where they’re maxed out. We used a lot of tonal elements in there and we worked very closely with composer Lorne Balfe to make sure that where he let go of one element we could then take over. This way the chase would always have momentum, whether it was the music pushing it or the sound design. The chase was always consistently barreling through these crevasses.
The sound of the helicopters was more like the sound of Formula One cars. It was more like a car chase where you have these high-pitched engine whines. Tom’s was much more jet sounding and Walker’s was much more blade-heavy. It was a quilt of helicopter sound effects. But the key thing was to make these bending pitches, to make it feel like he wasn’t in total control. When he lost it over the ridge, pitching down into the valley, it wasn’t supposed to feel controlled. So that design took us months of trying different things and working with the composer to make sure sound and music were complementing each other and not stealing each other’s space.
The fact that this mix was in native Dolby Atmos gave us an immediate third dimension to play with, which also helped us with this sequence, enabling us to weave our effects in and around the score, and the audience.
Were the helicopter sounds custom recordings? Did you get anything from the production sound?
JM: We got loads of stuff from production. In fact, they did recordings using a 5.0 surround microphone, so we got to hear exactly what it sounded like in the surround sphere. Production sound mixer Chris Munro did loads of recording, even for the HALO jump. They were really busy getting recordings, even if those were only in there as a guide.
Sound isn’t always meant to be sexy and defined. Sometimes, there’s an energy to a sound that makes people feel that they’re actually experiencing it.
What we found with the production recordings for the helicopters was that it lent a reality and an energy to the soundtrack. A lot of library material is very carefully constructed so that it doesn’t have any distortion or too much of a rough edge. It can be used in many different ways. What the production sound did was give us a sense of reality all the time. In terms of the helicopters, often we would use the interior recordings for the helicopters and then later on for the shots of the exterior we used the takes that had wind buffeting the mics. This gave it an almost documentary-style sound. Instead of being beautifully polished, clean and sexy, this felt dangerous. For the HALO, when they jump out, we used a lot of wind that was recorded in their headsets to give these perspectives some semblance of reality. Sound isn’t always meant to be sexy and defined. Sometimes, there’s an energy to a sound that makes people feel that they’re actually experiencing it.
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For the motorcycle chase and car chase, where Tom is driving through traffic the wrong way around the Arc de Triomphe or evading Isla’s pursuit, what were your challenges for sound there?
JM: There are pass bys, crowd reactions, guns, skids, whooshes, and all the individual elements of Tom’s bike and car! The two scenes were dealt with from a similar starting point where we covered the canvas with all the detail they deserved. When we mixed the bike chase we started focusing on just the key sounds that gave us the sense of Tom’s proximity and jeopardy as he swerved in and around the Paris obstacles. As with Rogue Nation, Chris (McQuarrie) was keen that the bike chase be scored and the car chase just use sound effects.
The bike chase for us was much more about following the camera movement. We were letting the rhythm of the cut dictate how we played the sound effects.
The bike chase for us was much more about following the camera movement. We were letting the rhythm of the cut dictate how we played the sound effects. There’s a lovely bit where Tom drives down into a parking garage and the sound of the exhaust in the tunnel was completely different from sound elsewhere in the chase. But it gives another lift to the score and to the sound effects, so that when he comes out, everything kicks in again and the drums kick in as the bike gets back on the road. That gave us some nice ebbs and flows. The camera and the sound were following the bike and the score was doing a lot of the acceleration for us.
So, where we stripped away the motorbike chase to maintain our perspective with Tom, we had all the bells and whistles of sound design for the car chase because the music was taking a backseat. We had the full frequency range to play with.
The biggest challenge was to define what we were supposed to be focusing on. You look at both sequences to give all the detail they deserve.
The hand-to-hand fight sequences are another fun element in Mission: Impossible. Everyone is talking about Henry Cavill’s arm reload. So, sonically, how did you help to enhance the fight scenes?
JM: Ever since Sherlock Holmes (my first Guy Ritchie film), we got really invested in making fight scenes feel cinematically real. Fight scene tracks can be a number of things but they always evolve around rhythm and dynamics of the cut. They can be slick and martial arts-like. They can be heavy like boxing. There are so many different ways to play these things but what works best from my perspective and the way that we mixed Mission: Impossible was to have fun with the weight and the deftness of this fight. You have a martial artist whose every hit can be a critical strike. He can choke somebody in one smack. He’s got all the moves and technique. Then there are these other two guys who look really cool and really heavy fisted. So it’s a combination of being able to play their punches and impacts as quite brutal and hard, as we did in the fight with Henry Cavill and Tom on the cliff top. We used the phrase ‘scalpel and a hammer’ as our guide and had a lot of fun exploring the difference.
Want to see what happens on the set? Check out this lengthy selection of b-roll material from the film
For the Henry Cavill ‘arm reload’ fight, we wanted more weight in the punches so we pushed the low-end in Henry’s punches. Tom almost played a secondary role in that fight because he was getting beaten up and Ilsa Faust’s character comes and saves him in the end. But he played the stooge in a lot of it. He’s getting beaten more than he should be. There’s a moment when he goes and gets the syringe (scalpel), but he gets taken out by the martial artist and Henry deals with it by smacking him across the head with a laptop (hammer) and breaking it.
We probably had about 10 to 20 elements in each punch including Foley recordings, and different textures. … So there was an awful lot of minute detail work so that it didn’t sound like the same punch three times in a row.
It’s a brilliant action scene because there is so much humor in it. And for sound, humor is a great process to work through because you can make all of these things work by playing the lighter elements against the darker impacts. Sometimes it’s meant to be funny and sometimes it’s meant to be brutal. But at all times you need to have that variety. We probably had about 10 to 20 elements in each punch including Foley recordings, and different textures. From the low frequency to the high-frequency, we would vary the ingredients that we used for each set piece within that whole fight scene. So there was an awful lot of minute detail work in order that it didn’t sound like the same punch three times in a row.
It’s a rhythm thing too. When you listen to each one, it sounds great. When you listen to the whole scene, it starts to sound repetitive in places. It’s a process of subjectivity. You have to keep listening to it with fresh ears so you can hear if you use too much of one thing or another. It’s like cooking. You might have too much chili in here and too much potato in there. You have to pick and choose elements carefully to find the right balance. It took a lot of work but the result is definitely worth it because when the film came out and everyone is talking about the fights you think, “Thank goodness we didn’t just get through it. Thank goodness we gave it the time it deserved.”
If there was one thing you’d want other sound pros to know about what went into the sound of Mission: Impossible Fallout, what would it be?
JM: It’s all about the detail! When you consider the time, manpower and effort that goes into every minute of a film, it is our duty to embellish and promote the story and action as much as we are able.
We made the time to visit locations in London and Paris, recording everything we could there. We’re really proud of the fact that we go out and record vehicles, doors, squeaks, punches, ambience and anything that is needed for each film that we do. We research and find places that will give us the best opportunity to record a library of sounds for that production. So a huge percentage of the sounds we had in this film were recorded specifically.
From my perspective, recording your own sounds is the most satisfying thing. It’s like growing your own ingredients. You need to know where the sounds come from and what they were recorded for and why you had to get them. This investment in the tracks is a form of ownership which promotes pride in your work and ultimately the best results are personal.
A big thanks to James Mather for giving us a look at the action-packed sound of Mission: Impossible – Fallout – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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