‘Top Gun: Maverick’ aerial cinematography secrets from set

Prior to filming Top Gun: Maverick, which features actors capturing real G-forces in Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets with Imax cameras, cinematographer Claudio Miranda donned a tom cruise and climbed into the cockpit himself.

After months of camera testing and experimentation with in-cabin rigs, the Academy Award-winning Life of Pi cinematographer searched for the right combination of technology, precision, and artistry to capture the visceral effects of high-intensity midair flight on the human body. He wanted to put audiences in the pilot’s seat like never before as Cruise’s Maverick took to the skies decades after the original Top Gun.

So he strapped himself into an L-39 Albatros jet, the same plane that Miles Teller, Glen Powell and their castmates trained in to prepare their minds and bodies for reality. “I only went four Gs,” Miranda said, smiling at the memory of his own flying 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 have used green screen and seamless VFX with awesome effect. But “Joe and I are always trying to figure out how to be as real as possible,” he said, while filming on camera and using natural light.

He watched his own body react in the test film and learned some invaluable lessons. “Because we were doing experiments with cameras, I read menus and realized that’s a terrible idea — while you’re spinning, I’m on the plane trying to reset the camera,” he said. “I didn’t feel very good afterwards anyway.”

The experiment proved how filming actors practically in actual flight can create a sensory, visceral connection with the audience. He even got his pilot’s license. Speaking to The Times via video chat from Australia, he dived into how – and why – the Top Gun: Maverick team went to such lengths to push the boundaries of action cinema.

Warning: Mild spoilers for Top Gun: Maverick follow.

Camera testing and military approval process

Miranda, Kosinski and star producer Cruise worked closely with the Navy to develop the cinematic approach for “Maverick,” shooting a test of Maverick’s villain practice run, after which he devised a months-long training program to bring his younger castmates up to speed to stand. An array of six cameras each was installed in two F/A-18s flown by real pilots.

To free up valuable cockpit space by removing unnecessary hardware, the filmmakers installed Sony Venice 6k digital cinema cameras with lightweight lenses and the new Rialto system, which lengthens the camera’s sensor blocks so film can be seen over the actors’ shoulders and in Direction of the aircraft can be rotated.

The cameras had to keep the ejection path clear, run on batteries so as not to affect the aircraft’s power supply, and withstand shock, vibration and in excess of 7.5G safely and reliably. After going through the rigorous trial and error and approval process, Miranda was good to go.

An expansive, intimate POV that feels real

The result? The filmmakers were able to capture not only the characters’ performances, but also the real-world effects of flight maneuvers on their actors’ faces, a quality Miranda believes makes a perceptible difference to moviegoers.

For example, Miranda points to Cruise’s catapult launch from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. “You see Tom take off from the aircraft carrier and you see him do this drop. In most films, everything they do is [jerk backwards] and then they take off. But when you see Tom, what’s exciting is that there’s still a little drop when he leaves the deck.”

“For some reason, when you see that, you think, ‘We’re really with him,'” he said. “I think that makes this film very special.”

The whoosh of the ground, flapping wings and the thrill of low-level flight

Another element Miranda played with in his own test flights was how to speed up prospects visible in the background on low-altitude runs – like the dangerous route Maverick trains his hotshot class of aces on, below the “Hard Deck” safety standards – the feeling of enhanced cinematic excitement.

“It was great having mountains and canyons in the foreground, whatever made it exciting,” Miranda said. A wide-angle lens mounted to an inward-facing camera was perfect for showing the ground on either side of the jet, with Cruise centered.

“It’s not usually a flattering lens because when people step to the side, they get stretched out in a weird way. But since Tom mostly stays in the thick of it, it doesn’t hurt and looks pretty shitty to see all that ground around him,” he said.

“The great thing about what you see on the F/A-18 is the wings that actually flex,” Miranda said. “They flutter back and forth. You see those wings as they pull the Gs and you see his face and you see the wings flexing the other way.

One “epic” sequence that practically succeeded was Maverick’s “illegal” practice run, in which he steals a jet to prove to his trainees and Navy executives that the mission is indeed possible.

“I actually think it kind of looks like CG, but it’s not,” Miranda said. “It’s absolutely real. They had a Blue Angel that can go below spec level and even go as far as 50 feet I think. And you can see that when you walk across the desert floor.”

Actors call the shots in the air

After extensive flight training and ground preparation, the actors would join the commercial pilots to take to the skies a few times a day for 90 minutes at a time — and had to hit their targets, check lighting and makeup, remember their eye lines, and turning on the cameras themselves during the air.

That meant Miranda, who relied on the sun as his primary light source, prepared each day by studying flight paths and weather patterns to set camera exposures before launch.

Since there was no live film transmission on site, this made for some nervous waiting times for Miranda.

“It got really nerve wracking because it’s really hard to predict,” he said. “I basically had to set an exposure because we don’t auto-expose the cameras and they’re very specific. I would have to search 50 km for that [ahead] where they’re going and they know the terrain, how deep they’re going to go, and then set the exposure and hope the weather doesn’t change along the way.”

An Ode to Tony Scott and a Commitment to the Original Top Gun

The filmmakers wanted to honor the original 1986 film and its director, Tony Scott, who Miranda actually worked with before becoming cinematographer on 1995’s “Crimson Tide.” “I was only a gaffer, but I understood the language [Tony Scott] always got by with ‘warm finishes’ and longer lenses,” he said, “and we paid tribute to that in a few scenes.”

He spoke to original Top Gun cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball about the challenges they faced with their production and added a bit of film grain “to give it a little bit of antiquity.”

While filming Maverick’s montage of the opening sequence, which pays homage to the opening of the original, Miranda received an unexpected helping hand.

He had been told repeatedly that he had no control over the aircraft carrier’s directional movement and might not be able to capture just the right backlight. Dejected, he was walking down a hallway when someone asked what was going on.

“I say, ‘It would be great if at 4:00 the sun was 20 degrees to the left of the boat,'” Miranda said. “I didn’t think anything of it.” When we got to the set early, the ship started to spin. “I was able to get the best light ever and I realized I was talking to the captain.”

It was only later that he thought of the legend that Scott, who faced a similar dilemma on the first “Top Gun,” had to write a $25,000 check in order to change course with the airline he was filming on to capture his now iconic Backlight capture opening sequence.

“Because the original ‘Top Gun’ did so well and a lot of the people who were on the ships were there because they saw the original movie, I felt like that gave us a lot more support than I think the one, too first had,” Miranda said. “Tony Scott paved the way for us. I have a hard time believing anyone will ever have that kind of access again.”

The “mistake” they left – on purpose

From the actors’ bodies conveying the strain of sustaining G-forces in the air, to realistically flapping jet wings and beyond, the practical imperfections captured on film give Maverick’s cinematography its unique texture and… Power.

“Sometimes you were trying to keep it in shot and the mess of what it is had more energy, so we often wanted to use a long lens and try to stay in frame but didn’t do a good job. All of that makes it a lot more exciting and real and human,” he said.

Miranda cited the visceral pre-CGI clunkiness of stop-motion animated AT-AT walkers from Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back. “Now everything is gazelle-like and [missing] human imperfection, which I think gives the energy to it [“Top Gun: Maverick”]and I think people react to that.”

As a result, the filmmakers decided not to clean up one aspect of their aerial footage that might catch the eye of an attentive viewer: the barely perceptible reflection from the cameras in some shots.

“It’s been talked about, are we going to get rid of them? But that would have made it even more synthetic,” he said. “We worked so hard to get it on camera that we purposely left it in for a little bit because we’re really capturing that.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-06-05/top-gun-maverick-aerial-cinematography ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ aerial cinematography secrets from set

Sarah Ridley

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