When Top Gun: Maverick viewers can almost feel the G-forces in their own guts as Tom Cruise takes off from his career in an F/A-18 Super Hornet, it’s a moment that makes cinematographer Claudio Miranda smile.
Mounting six true cinema-quality cameras on a fighter jet — a feat that wasn’t technically possible until solutions were developed for the spin-off of the 1986 classic — delivered so many stunning aerial shots that the editors’ work became almost overwhelming.
“I feel like what we gave is that you have IMAX quality cameras – we worked hard to make sure it’s a good quality camera,” says Miranda. “I think there is a difference. I’m pretty proud of it.”
On the Camerimage Intl. At the film festival in Torun, Poland, Miranda admits he’s lost track of how many days of aerial filming Top Gun takes, but there’s no question the investment was worth it, says Miranda. “I feel like it was — I mean, it was a lot of work for the editors. That was 813 hours of footage. They run six cameras at once, two ships at once.”
It’s not surprising that after months of working closely with pilots, technical experts, military officials and actors who go through full Navy aviator training, Miranda has picked up some Navy jargon for fighter jets as he describes each daily fighter jet flight, including from one was shadowed aircraft pursuing.
Right from the opening sequence of “Top Gun,” audiences get up close and personal with real combatants taking off from the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was shot down in August 2018 during a pre-pandemic F-35C Lightning II training exercise. Shooting, which also took place at Naval Air Station Lemoore in central California, was committed to exacting realism in every frame, says Miranda.
Adapting Sony’s cameras to be mounted on a fighter jet was a key part of the plan, he says, to enable production to achieve something that has never been achieved before. “I also helped design the original camera – I went to Japan and there were a lot of things there and they modified it. And then it was still kind of too big for us, so we worked on it and we were able to get this little Rialto thing. Actually, it was originally intended for the Chase Jet and we wanted to include a larger lens for more variety. Then we said, ‘Wow, we can do a lot with that.’”
The story, which follows Cruise’s return from virtual exile by the Navy to a crucial role in planning a dangerous mission over enemy territory, demands a thorough exploration of the limits of what even the Navy’s most highly trained pilots can do in their finest aircraft extend.
Speaking of Sony’s dedicated 6K mini camera, Miranda says, “Originally they gave us one. And we were like, ‘Four more? Maybe six more?’”
“I was told I couldn’t bring them in,” he adds. “But I was constantly there and I was like, ‘What is this?’ I found an old version of an F-18 that didn’t have all the electronics. It was more of a barebones. I was very attracted to this because it had a flat glare shield. The old version was much simpler and we set the cameras for that.”
Working closely with Navy engineers has paid off, says Miranda. “I asked if I could have the old electronics removed, we were there every day carving together. I was just traveling for weeks, what do you need that for? Is that important?”
No weapon systems were removed, but he says, “They took some video camera stuff. When they fire some of the missiles they sometimes have cameras. So there was a whole system. The whole system, I didn’t need that, so it went away.”
One limitation with recording was time, he explains. “I couldn’t connect to the ship’s performance the way I wanted to, so that was one thing. So the cameras were limited to how long they could be in the air – it was like 90 minutes.”
Another challenge was how actors would handle the pressure of being in the back seat of real fighter jets rather than on a green screen soundstage. “I’m sure there were some outtakes of them throwing up,” says Miranda. “But the actors worked for three months on improving their tolerances, Tom Cruise’s pilot training program. They also wore the compression suits, G-suits.”
The high-tech flight suits, which help them prevent blood in their legs so they don’t pass out during high-G maneuvers, helped them pull off the truly punishing turns live on camera.
Flying F-15s required just as much training, he says. “They were all dunked in the tank and had to get themselves out,” adds Miranda. “We didn’t film it, but you can feel it. In order to sit in the back seat of this F-15, you have to complete the training. They couldn’t bring me any joy.”
Safety precautions have always been paramount, notes Miranda. “If a pilot overran Gs, it had to be reported. All camera mounts had to be tested by the Navy to ensure they could handle all Gs. If a bolt falls off, no foreign object can roll around. They check in all their wrenches and gear – when they’re done with the plane, all their wrenches are back. There is a great safety protocol in place.”
Using natural light with real skies and landscapes flying by, Miranda was able to put the audience in the pilot’s seat in a way that raised the bar significantly. And almost always in glorious sun halo light.
“’Top Gun’ is a sunset movie. If you look at it, it’s 5:30 am. So we all carefully plan the day, plan the morning runs, plan the evening runs where the cameras are in the mountains. There’s a lot of planning. I knew where they were on the map, but I needed to know how low they were flying, what direction they were flying, the weather and how we tell the pilots where we want the sun to be.”
The jubilant Camerimage Festival audience welcomed Miranda and director Joseph Kosinski expressed their deep approval at the screenings.