How Mission Impossible made the leap to 4K and HDR

It's a lesson in how to modernize older films.

Mission Impossible is an unusual film franchise. It's spanned more than 22 years and five directors, each bringing his own distinctive touch to Tom Cruise's increasingly over-the-top escapades. Brian De Palma's 1996 film, which kicked off the series, hearkens back to classic '70s conspiracy thrillers while John Woo's Mission Impossible 2 is pure '90s action blockbuster excess, complete with dueling motorcycles, elaborate shootouts and his signature doves.

To prime audiences for the next film, Fallout, Paramount re-released the entire Mission Impossible series on 4K Blu-ray last month. The new discs are not only a huge upgrade for cinephiles but also a fascinating glimpse at how studios can revive older films for the 4K/HDR era.

"In terms of any re-transfers or remastering that we are doing for our HDR releases, we will go back to the highest resolution source available," Kirsten Pielstick, manager of Paramount's digital-mastering group, said in an interview. In the case of Mission Impossible 1 and 2, that involved scanning the original 35mm negatives in 4K/16-bit. As you'd expect, the studio tries to get the original artists involved with any remasters, especially with something like HDR, which allows for higher brightness and more-nuanced black levels.

Pielstick worked with the director of photography (DP) for the first Mission Impossible film, Stephen H. Burum, to make sure its noir-like palette stayed intact. Unfortunately, the studio couldn't get Woo to visit for the second film's restoration, but Pielstick said they had multiple conversations with him about how it was being handled. Though they're very different movies, they each show off the benefits of HDR in different ways.

Watching the first film on 4K Blu-ray was like seeing it for the first time. I could make out more details in the dark alleys of Prague and in the infamous aquarium-explosion set piece. Mission Impossible 2's bombastic explosions and vehicle chases, on the other hand, almost seemed three-dimensional thanks to HDR's enhanced brightness.

"Our mastering philosophy here is always to work directly with the talent whenever possible and use the new technology to enhance the movie but always stay true to the intent of the movie," Pielstick said. "You're not going to want to make things brighter just because you can, if it's not the intent of how you were supposed to see things."

When working with directors and DPs, Pielstick said some are more aggressive than others during the restoration process. But if it can't get the original talent involved, Paramount's mastering group relies on the original film as a reference and works together with studio colorists for every project. "[A remaster] should be what they were seeing through the lens of the camera at the time they were shooting it," she said.

"But on the other hand, we've also found times where there's a look where things were previously blown out, intentionally," Pielstick said. "We have to go in and work to get things brought down and blown out in this world. It's really hard to blow out any whites when you have 4,000 nits available to you [with HDR]. So there's a different approach to some of those to, again, maintain intent.

"You also have to remember that we're not putting in anything that didn't exist on the film [for HD remasters]," Pielstick added. "It was always there; we just didn't have the ability to see it. So we're not adding anything new, we're not doing anything to increase those. We're just able to look at the negative in a much clearer way than we ever could before."

In some cases, though, HDR can make things worse for older films. The Goodfellas 4K Blu-ray, which Warner Bros. released in 2016, was practically a step backward from its standard Blu-ray. Mostly, that was due to a weak HDR conversion. Reviewers dinged the disc for its lackluster implementation of the technology, since it led to image softness and other issues throughout the film.

"While the 4K image could no doubt be re-graded with accurate black levels, it is uncertain whether and how much the corrected image would offer any meaningful improvement over the Blu-ray," writes's Michael Reuben. "Regardless, Goodfellas stands as a demonstration of why HDR is not automatically a benefit. As UHD progresses, it may turn out that some -- possibly many -- older films should be left in SDR, without any attempt to 'enhance' their blacks, contrast or colors."

Ultimately, Pielstick said she's happy to see the arrival of HDR and Dolby Vision in cinema. "I think that the 4K originally was more of a technology that people didn't necessarily felt like they needed," she said. "But by adding the HDR, you really are getting an enhanced experience, and I think that hopefully it catches on."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.