Cinematographer Claudio Miranda had a hunch that Top Gun: Maverick could do well in its opening weekend at the box office after he and director Joseph Kosinski boarded a plane and half the passengers saw the film on their seatback screens. “It was a really surreal moment,” says the Life of Pi Oscar-winner, who has worked with Kosinski on all of his films to date, including the 2013 sci-fi thriller Oblivion, which also stars Tom Cruise played along.
But before the popcorn churned and moviegoers felt the rush of sitting in F-18 fighter jets, the stumbling block for the creative team was the determination to practically photograph the sequel’s aerial footage. “Our main theme was being on camera and doing something that hasn’t been done again and maybe won’t be done again,” says Miranda.
That meant the actors had to go through an extensive training program to sit in a cockpit and pull over 7 G’s of force. To capture the high-flying affair, each jet was configured with six Imax-quality Sony Venice cameras, four of which look at the actor from different angles and two look straight ahead. Additional ground-to-air, helicopter-to-jet and jet-to-jet cameras intensified the action. Extensive briefings were held before each flight to determine the best route, angle, and lighting that Miranda backlit as best as possible.
The footage was then reviewed to make adjustments before being booted back up. Editor Eddie Hamilton made two valuable suggestions early on.
“Top Gun pilots are taught to fly fast and level because it’s fuel efficient, but it doesn’t make for an interesting visual because you only see a flat horizon. I said we should always move the horizon smoothly because it adds more visual energy to these shots,” says Hamilton.
His other idea came to him after filming an intense scene in which one of the pilots (Payback, played by Jay Ellis) passes out during a training session. “He was very expressive with his eyes and slightly overdone in a dramatic way that draws you into the character’s emotions. Tom [Cruise, who also served as producer] We put all the actors in a room and showed them that they have to exaggerate their head movements and their eyes a bit. Because they are covered with a mask, they play with their eyes a lot,” he says.
To take the cinematic envelope to new heights (and depths), Miranda found inspiration in the animated short Paths of Hate. “It all has really great energy [aerial] Dogfights with interesting angles that you can create in the animation world. I showed it to Tom and said how about we go into stuff that’s almost impossible to shoot and try to do that,” says Miranda.
The mantra paid off, especially for the climate mission, “which requires no less than two consecutive miracles to succeed,” the first being a low soar through a canyon before transitioning into a steep dive and a small target with rockets switched off. The second is a steep climb up a mountain while pilots draw large amounts of G-forces while attempting to dodge enemy fire. The death-defying sequence is the result of careful planning and careful consideration of every detail in the editing room. “Everything had to be perfect,” Hamilton suggests.
The aerial footage wasn’t the only footage Miranda and Hamilton collaborated on to get just the right thing. The entire story is told from Maverick’s perspective, with the Top Gun pilot appearing in almost every scene. To connect the emotional beats of his journey with the audience, camera shots were designed to show Maverick in the foreground or background. An early bar scene introducing his relationship with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), followed by the new recruits, is a shining example.
As the pilots came in, lower camera angles were used to showcase positions of power within the group, with Rooster (Miles Teller) at the top of the pyramid. The introductory scene revolves around Maverick with subtle pans linking him to the growing party which eventually leads to Rooster singing “Great Balls of Fire”. “We didn’t necessarily get it right the first time,” says Hamilton. “When we felt we didn’t capture the right reporting or angles to really root the audience in Maverick as a character, we went back and tried again.”
Other scenes where they were able to further explore the emotional tone through additional reporting were the beach football scene where the pilots bond; when Maverick tells Penny in the same bed why he stopped Rooster from pilot training and the touching conversation between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer).
“One of the reasons big-budget films can work is that you have the resources to go back and shoot to make sure everything lands perfectly,” says Hamilton. “We realize what a luxury that is, but the response it can generate with audiences is tremendous.”