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Fraser Taggart • Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning – Part One

Dec 21, 2023

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 016 July/August 2023)

ACTION MAN

By Ron Prince

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning – Part One has some of the most exhilarating cinematography you’re ever likely to witness, with imagery that makes you feel you’re right in the thick of the nail-biting action with Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Rebecca Ferguson, Esai Morales and other members of the cast, as they seek to track down a terrifying new weapon – a rogue AI known as ‘The Entity’ – that threatens all of humanity if it falls into the wrong hands. Indeed, one critic said he nearly hyper-ventilated whilst watching the breath-taking romp.

The Paramount Pictures film, directed by Christopher McQuarrie (aka McQ) from a screenplay he co-wrote with Erik Jendresen, is the seventh instalment in the Mission: Impossible film series, which will conclude with Dead Reckoning – Part Two in 2024.

Director of Photography Fraser Taggart on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

In less than a week after its release, Dead Reckoning – Part One made a mighty debut at the box office, grossing $253 million worldwide, delivering a new record for the franchise and proving itself to be a healthy lure for people wanting the big-screen experience.

Indeed, as McQ stated after an early showcase premiere’s, “We’re fighting to keep the industry alive, fighting to keep people employed, fighting for the studio, and fighting for cinemas.”

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning – Part One was the first major Hollywood film to resume production during the pandemic in 2020, and took almost four years to complete. 

Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

The task of shooting it fell to cinematographer Fraser Taggart, who says, “As a kid growing-up, I loved it when movies took me to different places around the world, and adored the sense of escapism they provided. I very much wanted this movie to make the audience feel the same way.

“Each film in the Mission: Impossible series is typified by cinematic evolution and I relished the challenge of stamping it with an array of looks across the different locations we visited. Initially, I knew very little about the plot, except for McQ’s desire to crash a train and Tom’s ambition to perform a death-defying motorbike stunt off a 4,000ft mountain side.”

DP Fraser Taggart and Director Christopher McQuarrie on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Principle photography on Dead Reckoning – Part One commenced in July, 2019, and wrapped some three-and-a-half years later on February the 19th, 2023, mainly due to lengthy stops and lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial port of call for the production was Norway, doubling for Switzerland in the final film, where Cruise’s mountaintop motorcycle stunt was filmed first – six back-to-back takes in one morning – followed by exterior action scenes on top of the speeding train.

“I’m an action-oriented cinematographer, and Tom and McQ knew me from previous projects”

The production relocated to Abu Dhabi and then moved on to Venice, where several locations were rigged and ready-to-go, before the city and the country moved into lockdown. After a hiatus lasting several months, production resumed in Venice before switching to Rome and then to London. Production also took place on multiple sets at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden and Longcross Studios, Chertsey, where practical train carriages were built on powerful hydraulic jacks that could lift the carriages 80ft upwards or slam them downwards, for the climactic end sequence. The train crash sequence itself was filmed at Darlton Quarry, Stoney Middleton in Derbyshire.

Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Now, before we go much further, you are probably wondering exactly who Fraser Taggart is, and how he landed a plum job on one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises. The answer is vast experience combined with a little pluckiness, as we’re about to discover.

“I’m an action-oriented cinematographer, and Tom and McQ knew me from previous projects,” says Taggart. “I came through the grades, starting as a trainee, before being a loader for six years – I worked on 1984 (1984, dir. Michael Radford, DP Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC). I then moved on to camera assisting, focus pulling and then cinematography, working on lots of rock ‘n’ roll music videos and glamorous, glitzy commercials over many years. I was lucky at the time because the projects were so good and people experimented – top directors like Gerard De Thame and Adrian Moat and Nick Livesey. Every couple of weeks I’d be off to shoot a car commercial in some amazing location, and I learnt a great deal.

“I also started to DP second units and action units on films like Vertical Limit (2000, dir. Martin Campbell, DP David Tattersall BSC), Troy (2004. dir. Wolfgang Petersen, DP Roger Pratt BSC), The Da Vinci Code (2006, dir. Ron Howard, DP Salvatore Totino AIC ASC) and Stardust (2007, dir. Matthew Vaughn, DP Ben Davis).

Esai Morales, Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Work of that calibre, including some significant reshoots, continued through many years on even bigger budget movies like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, dir. Christopher McQuarrie, DP Robert Elswit ASC), Rogue One (2016, dir. Gareth Edwards, DP Greig Fraser ACS ASC), Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, Christopher McQuarrie, DP Rob Hardy BSC ASC), Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (2019, dir. David Leitch, DP Jonathan Sela ASC) and The King’s Man (2021, dir. Matthew Vaughn, DP Ben Davis BSC) – and I sort of got pigeonholed as the guy who does all the action stuff.

“However, I remember standing on a runway in New Zealand with producer Jake Myers, when I was working on one of Tom’s stunts for Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and told him how much I appreciated shooting second unit work, but asked ‘Why can’t I shoot a main unit sometime?’. He said something along the lines of, ‘It’s not as easy as that… politics!’

“I was absolutely thrilled to lead a film of this scale and magnitude”

“But Jake must have put my proposition to McQ and Tom at some stage, as I got the call about Dead Reckoning – Part One. I really didn’t think I would get it, as I was up against some seriously big hitters. But, my proximity to McQ and Tom the other Mission: Impossible films I had worked on, and an earlier experience with Tom on Edge Of Tomorrow (2014, dir. Doug Liman, DP Dion Beebe ACS ASC), must have swung it my way, and I got the job.

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“I was absolutely thrilled to lead a film of this scale and magnitude, but one of the things about Tom’s movies and the Mission: Impossible franchise in particular, is that he and the main actors were always there on the second units I’d shot, but they felt like more like main units really.”

Fraser says Buster Keaton’s classic action-adventure comedy, The General (1926, dirs. Clyde Bruckman/Buster Keaton, DPs Bert Haines/Devereaux Jennings), was an inspiration for McQuarrie and Cruise in their visual reckoning for the film, as were the train wreck sequences in director David Lean’s Bridge On The River Kwai (1957, DP Jack Hildyard BSC) and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962, DP Freddie Young BSC). Nuanced moments in Ford vs Ferrari (2019, dir. James Mangold, DP Phedon Papamichael ASC GSC), plus the Dutch camera angles and story beats from early movies in the Mission: Impossible franchise were more contemporary references.

Esai Morales and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Mission: Impossible films have typically been originated on analogue film, and this was the original intention for Dead Reckoning – Part 1.

“McQ and Tom share a great passion for film, and I’d happily shoot on film all day long given the chance,” says Taggart. “However, the more we discussed various sequences – like the fight on top of the train – the more we realised how impractical it would become having to stop and reload the film cameras every few minutes on protracted scenes.

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“We also had a heady mix of extreme action sequences, like the car-chase in Rome, to think about. When McQ said he wanted to film the Abu Dhabi shot-out in a sandstorm, that was game over for film, as I knew reloading, and checking the cameras for dust and sand, would create long resets and turnarounds between takes. With digital we could just keep rolling along.”

Thankfully, Taggart had previously tested film versus an array of large format digital cameras, which, along with filming the cast, also included a salient stint in Venice.

“Beyond The Grand Canal, the labyrinth of water and alleyways in Venice have little or no illumination at all,” he says. “You get little bit of light on the ground floor, but the rest of the city is just dark, there’s nothing there. When I assessed the camera tests, it was the Sony Venice, with its two native ISOs of 500 and 2500, that registered things best. I wondered if 2500 ISO setting might prove a bit noisy at on the dark end of the scale, but it looked absolutely amazing. Out of all of the other digital cameras, the sensor was also the most forgiving on faces and skin tones too.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“The other attraction for me in choosing the Sony Venice as our principal camera, was the Rialto extension system, which allows the removal of the front image block of the Sony Venice camera for mounting with different housings and supports. When I paired the Rialto system with Steadicam, and especially the StabilEye gimbal, I knew it would allow us to get right into the action and be very good in bringing a controlled kinetic energy to the camera moves for the fight and other actions scenes.”

Working with Panavision London on the camera package for the film, Taggart went with C-series Anamorphic lenses, supplemented with a D40mm Anamorphic lens from the backroom, which had been used on the very first movie in the franchise, Mission: Impossible (1996, dir. Brian De Palma, DP Stephen H Burum ASC).

(R) Director of Photography Fraser Taggart on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Widescreen 2.40:1 Anamorphic is the traditional format for Mission: Impossible movies, and I wanted the oldest lenses I could find,” Taggart remarks. “I initially tried to track down some old, Russian-made Anamorphics that I’d used couple of times on film jobs before, although I couldn’t find them anywhere. But the C-series are wonderful, so beautifully imperfect, soft and organic. They are forgiving on faces, especially when you consider the harshness of the digital sensor, and they help get you somewhere close to a filmic-look. Tom especially loved the connection of the D40mm Anamorphic having been used on the original film.”

To put the audience in the very thick of the action scenes, especially the car chase around Rome, Taggart went with diminutive Z-cam E2-F6 Pro cameras, which can shoot 6K up to 60fps and 4K up to 120fps, fitted with Zeiss CP.3 spherical lenses.

Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“The Z-cams have full-frame sensors, 15-stops of dynamic range, the same sort of dual native ISO settings as the Sony Venice,” says Taggart. “Although the colour rendition is slightly different to the Sony Venice, they gave a real personality to those scenes where Tom and Hayley variously drive the little Fiat 500. We rigged four cameras on the car and framed so the audience would part of the journey, really tight, up-close and personal with our leads. There’s lots of personal dialogue, little nuanced reactions and exchanges between them in those scenes, and I think the overall result worked incredibly well for that part of the storytelling.”

When it came to devising LUTs, Taggart says pre-production was too-early a stage to define precise looks for the film. Working with colourist Asa Shoul, at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea, who also did the final DI grade, he created a set of basic Rec.709 day/night LUTs. These delivered slight desaturation and raised contrast to the images, and Taggart adjusted the looks near-set during production in collaboration with DITs Ben Appleton and Stephan Bookers. References were then dispatched to the dailies colourist at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea. 

Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Working this way, live-grading as we went along, gave us a pretty good guidebook of looks that I wanted to imprint across the production during the final grade – such as a richer colour palette with slightly higher contrast in Rome, and a slightly cooler aesthetic for Switzerland, where the action-packed climax takes place.”

“Working on a production for so long demands a crew that feels like a family”

During production Jonathan ‘Chunky’ Richmond operated A-camera/Steadicam, with Fabrizio Sciarra, Peter Wignall and Charlie Rizek similarly wielding the camera as required. Gary Pocock led the grip team. The gaffer was Martin Smith ICLS, with Dan Walters working as light desk operator/programmer.

Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Working on a production for so long demands a crew that feels like a family – because you spend more time with them than your actual family,” Taggart declares. “I have to say, my core camera and lighting team, together with local crews who came on-board at each of our locations, all helped to make for a lovely atmosphere and a productive environment under what could sometimes be extreme pressure in hellish situations. I also have to thank Wade Eastwood, and the stunt co-ordination team, for making sure the cast, crew, stunt artists and camera equipment, all remained safe with wires and shackles.”

Whilst Dead Reckoning – Part One has several dramatically-lit scenarios – such as the square of the Doge’s Palace and a long candle-lit colonnade in Venice – Taggart freely admits that that hardest thing facing the DP and their gaffer is the recreation of natural light from a location inside a studio environment, especially when it came to filming final train interior sequences.

‘A’ Camera Operator Chunky Richmond, Director of Photography Fraser Taggart and Gaffer Martin Smith on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Martin and his lighting team built an external lighting rig for those scenes, which we shot on a soundstage at Longcross, which perfectly simulated the shifting daylight as the train moves along the tracks or tilted vertically over oblivion, so that whatever direction the camera was facing, there was a perfect logic to where light was coming from. 

“We looked at using LED walls as background plates, but there was something about the way the foreground and backgrounds slid around that didn’t look quite right, so we decided to go greenscreen in the end. Thanks to Martin the end-result looked brilliant, as did the rest of the film, including the beauty lighting on our stars.”

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Looking back on the experience of leading the cinematography on Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning – Part One, Taggart concludes, “There were plenty of head-scratching moments, when we had to figure-out how were going to film certain sequences, but that’s part and parcel of the job. There was danger and exhilaration in equal measure too. I am delighted to have been part of that, and to bring a thrill ride to the cinema.”

There will be more, because Taggart is currently filming Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning – Part Two. Hang on to your hats!

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

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