How ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ made those groundbreaking aerial scenes soar
Before filming “Top Gun: Maverick,” with actors taking real G-forces in Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets sporting Imax-grade cameras, cinematographer Claudio Miranda pulled a Tom Cruise and climbed into the cockpit himself.
Running months of camera tests and experimenting with in-cabin rigs, the Oscar-winning “Life of Pi” director of photography was searching for the right combination of technology, precision and artistry to capture the visceral effects of high-intensity aerial flight on the human body. He wanted to put the audience in the pilot’s seat like never before as Cruise’s Maverick took to the skies again, decades after the original “Top Gun.”
So he strapped into an L-39 Albatros jet, the same aircraft Miles Teller, Glen Powell and their castmates trained in to prepare their minds and bodies for the real thing. “I only went four Gs,” said Miranda, smiling at the memory of his own flight missions, “and that was enough for me.”
In the feature films Miranda and director Joseph Kosinski have collaborated on to date (including “Tron: Legacy,” “Oblivion,” “Only the Brave” and the upcoming sci-fi thriller “Spiderhead”), they’ve used green screen and seamless VFX to fantastical effect. But “Joe and I always try to figure out how to be as real as possible,” he said, by filming in-camera and using natural lighting.
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He watched how his own body reacted in the test film and learned some invaluable lessons. “Because we were doing experiments with cameras I was reading menus and I realized that’s a terrible idea — as you’re spinning, I’m in the plane trying to reset the camera,” he said. “Anyway, I didn’t feel very good after that.”
The experimentation proved how filming actors practically in actual flight could create a sensory, visceral connection with the audience. He even got his pilot’s license in the process. Speaking with The Times over videochat from Australia, he dove into how — and why — the “Top Gun: Maverick” team went to such great lengths to push the limits of action cinema.
Caution: Mild spoilers for “Top Gun: Maverick” follow.
Camera tests and military approval process
Miranda, Kosinski and star-producer Cruise worked closely with the Navy to develop the cinematographical approach to “Maverick,” shooting a test of Maverick’s rogue practice run after which he devised a months-long training program to get his younger castmates up to speed. A set up of six cameras each was installed in two F/A-18s flown by actual pilots.
Making precious space in the cockpit by removing unnecessary hardware, the filmmakers installed 6k Sony Venice digital cinema cameras with lightweight lenses and the new Rialto system extending the camera’s sensor blocks, allowing for film to be shot over the actors’ shoulders and in toward the plane.
Cameras had to clear the ejection path, run on batteries so as to not tap into the plane’s power, and safely and securely withstand shocks, vibration and more than 7.5 Gs. Once Miranda made it through the exacting trial-and-error and approval process, he was good to go.
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The result? The filmmakers were able to capture not only character performances but the real effects of flight maneuvers in their actors’ faces, a quality that Miranda believes makes a perceptible difference to the moviegoer.
For example, Miranda points to Cruise’s catapult launch from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. “You see Tom taking off from the aircraft carrier and you see him do that drop. In most movies all they do is [jerk backwards] and then they take off. But when you see Tom, what’s exciting is that there’s another little drop when he leaves the deck.”
“For some reason when you see that, you go, ‘We’re really with him,’” he said. “I think that is what makes this movie really special.”
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Ground rush, flapping wings and the thrill of low-altitude flight
Another element Miranda played with in his own test flights was how speeding vistas visible in the background during low-altitude runs — like the dangerous route Maverick trains his hotshot class of aces on, below the safety standard “hard deck” — enhanced a sense of cinematic excitement.
“It was great to have foreground mountains and canyons, whatever made it feel exciting,” said Miranda. A wide-angle lens mounted on an inward-facing camera was perfect for showing the ground on both sides of the jet, with Cruise centered.
“Normally it’s not a flattering lens because if people get off to the side, they get stretched in a funny way. But since Tom stays mainly in the middle of it, it doesn’t hurt and looks kind of bad ass to see all this ground around him,” he said.
“The great thing that you see on the F/A-18, the wings actually bend,” said Miranda. “They flap back and forth. You see those wings when they’re pulling the G’s and you see his face, and you see the wings bending in the other direction.”
One “epic” sequence achieved practically was Maverick’s “illegal” practice run, in which he steals a jet to prove to his trainees and to the Navy brass that the mission is, indeed, possible.
“I even think that it kind of looks like CG, but it’s not,” said Miranda. “It’s totally real. They had a Blue Angel who can go below spec level and even, I think, push to 50 feet. And that’s what you see when it goes over the desert floor.”
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Actors calling the shots in the air
After extensive flight training and on-the-ground preparation, actors joined professional pilots to hit the skies for 90 minutes at a time, a few times per day — and had to hit their marks, check lighting and makeup, remember their eyelines and turn on the cameras themselves while airborne.
That meant that Miranda, who relied on the sun as his primary light source, prepped each day by studying flight paths and weather patterns in order to set camera exposures before liftoff.
With no live film feed to track on the ground, it made for some nervous waiting periods for Miranda.
“It got really nerve-racking because it’s really hard to predict,” he said. “I had to set one exposure basically, because we’re not auto exposing the cameras and they’re really specific. So I’d have to look 50 miles [ahead] where they’re going and know the terrain, how deep they’re going to go, and then set the exposure and hope on the way over there the weather doesn’t change.”
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An ode to Tony Scott, and a debt to the original ‘Top Gun’
The filmmakers wanted to honor the original 1986 film and its director, Tony Scott, whom Miranda had actually worked with before becoming a cinematographer on 1995’s “Crimson Tide.” “I was only a gaffer, but I did understand the language that [Tony Scott] was always getting at with ‘warm grads’ and longer lenses,” he said, “And we did pay homage to that in some scenes.”
He spoke with original “Top Gun” cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball about the challenges they’d faced on their production, and added a slight overall film grain “to give it a little bit of antiquing.”
It was while filming “Maverick’s” opening sequence montage, replicating the original’s opening in homage, that Miranda got an unexpected assist.
He’d been told repeatedly that he would not have any control over the directional movement of the aircraft carrier and might not be able to capture just the right backlight. Dejected, he was walking through a hallway when someone asked what was wrong.
“I go, ‘It’d be great if the sun was 20 degrees to the left of the boat at 4:00,’” said Miranda. “I didn’t think anything of it.” Walking up to the set early, the ship began turning. “I was able to get the best light ever and I realized I was talking to, like, the captain.”
Only later did he think of the legend that Scott, faced with a similar dilemma on the first “Top Gun,” had to cut a $25,000 check to change the course of the carrier he was filming on in order to capture his now-iconic backlighted opening sequence.
“Because the original ‘Top Gun’ did so well, and a lot of the people that were on the ships were there because they saw the original movie, I felt that also gave us a lot more support than I think the first one had,” said Miranda. “Tony Scott paved the way for us. I find it hard to believe that anyone else is going to ever get that kind of access again.”
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From actors’ bodies conveying the strain of sustaining G-forces in the air to jet wings flapping realistically and beyond, the practical imperfections captured on film give the cinematography of “Maverick” its unique texture and power.
“Sometimes you’d try to keep it in shot and the mess of what it is had more energy, so a lot of what we wanted was using long lens and trying to keep in the frame but not doing a good job. All that makes it much more exciting and real and human,” he said.
Miranda cited the visceral pre-CGI clunkiness of stop-motion animated AT-AT walkers of “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back.” “Now everything is gazelle-like and [missing] human imperfection, which is what I think gives the energy to [“Top Gun: Maverick”], and I think that’s what people are responding to.”
As such, the filmmakers decided not to clean up one aspect of their aerial photography that keen-eyed viewers might notice: the barely perceptible reflection of the cameras in some shots.
“There was talk about, do we get rid of them? But that would have make it even more synthetic,” he said. “We worked so hard to get it in camera that we left them in there a little bit intentionally, because we’re really capturing this.”
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