How "Crazy" Was That Tom Cruise 'Mission: Impossible' Plane Stunt? The Movie's Cinematographer Tells All

"They can slow down pretty quickly, but it still does a complete circuit," says Robert Elswit.
Bo Bridges/Paramount Pictures
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation's plane stunt

In the run-up to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Paramount's marketers and Tom Cruise himself have turned the movie's opening sequence in one of the film's main selling points.

The scene features Cruise's Ethan Hunt hanging onto an Airbus 400 as it taxies down a runway and takes off. And the media has taken the bait, describing it under headlines that have called the stunt "dangerous," "crazy," "insane" and even "death-defying."

In fact, the stunt, which was filmed at RAF Wittering air base in the U.K., did actually take place — the sequence wasn't created digitally. Testifies Robert Elswit, the film's director of photography, "There’s no digital Tom, and there's no fake plane. He’s really strapped to an Airbus."

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Elswit said, “It’s pretty damn crazy; it's over a hundred knots when it takes off. They can slow down pretty quickly, but it still does on a complete circuit. They go up, get altitude, make a complete circuit and land. I think it’s up in the air for about 6-8 minutes before it lands again. It had to be at least 1,000 ft. up. And he’s attached to the thing the whole time. The visual effects that were involved were erasing the wires (which held Cruise to the plane).”

But, at the same time, there was plenty of planning and practice involved in order to minimize the risks.

“Tom was in a full body harness and he’s cabled and wired to the plane through [its] door. Inside the aircraft was an aluminum truss that was carefully bolted to the plane, which held the wires that went through the door, which held Tom," the cinematographer said of safety measures. “He was also wearing special contact lenses to protect his eyes. If anything hit him at those speeds it could be really bad. They were very careful about cleaning the runway so there were no rocks. And we took off in certain weather conditions; there were no birds. And he’s sort of protected by the way the air moves over the wing."

Elswit, an Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood, explained that to get the shot of Cruise, a truss device was built to attach to the plane an ARRI 35mm film camera with a Panavision anamorphic zoom, housed in an aerodynamic Nettmann System's stabilized head. Elswit and members of the camera crew were inside the Airbus, watching the [Airbus-mounted] camera on a video tap. “I could remotely pan and tilt the camera, " he added.

"We did the takeoff twice, possibly three times," he said. "We taxied a lot. But the actual takeoff is so grueling and so specific, I think that may have been only twice."

A helicopter flying alongside the plane, was also used. According to Elswit, "There was a helicopter flying next to us. From the helicopter, we were shooting [the additional aerial perspective] of Tom attached to the door. In the VFX, they erased the [Airbus-mounted] camera that we were shooting with [as it was in the helicopter shot].”

The cinematographer added that the sequence came together with careful planning by the camera and effects teams, working with the Airbus Defense and Space flight test team (Airbus announced its involvement here). “The first time they did a test with a dummy,” he said. “They then flew with the camera rig, and the day before we went up with a stunt double just to make sure everything was okay.

"When he wants to do something, he’ll figure out a way to do it," Elswit said of working with Cruise. "He's the most obsessive artist. ... If it couldn't actually be Tom on the plane, I think he wouldn't want the sequence in the movie. That's what happened on the Burj [Khalifa skyscrapter in Dubai, for an action sequence in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol]. I'm always stunned. What inside of him makes it possible for anybody to do that kind of shit — and not be scared shitless? He loves it.”

Rogue Nation hits theaters on Friday. 

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