‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Cinematographer Pushed Camera Technology Limits to Put Audiences in Pilot’s Seat

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When “Top Gun: Maverick” audiences almost feel the G forces in their own guts as Tom Cruise takes off from his carrier in an F/A-18 Super Hornet, it’s a moment that makes cinematographer Claudio Miranda beam.

Mounting six true cinema-quality cameras in a fighter plane – a feat that wasn’t technically possible until solutions were developed for the spin-off of the 1986 classic – rendered so much stunning aerial footage that it made editors’ jobs almost overwhelming.

“I feel like what we gave is, you’re on IMAX-quality cameras – we worked hard to be sure it’s a good-quality camera,” Miranda says. “I think there’s a difference. I’m pretty proud of it.”

Speaking at the Camerimage Intl. Film Festival in Torun, Poland, Miranda admits he’s lost track of how many shoot days in the air “Top Gun” required, but there’s no question of whether the investment was worth it, Miranda says. “I feel like it was – I mean it made it a lot of work for the editors. This was 813 hours of footage to go through. You’re running six cameras at a time, two ships at a time.”

It’s not surprising Miranda has picked up some Navy jargon for fighter planes after the months spent working closely with pilots, technical experts, military brass and actors going through full Navy aviator training, when he describes each daily fighter flight, which was also shadowed by a chase plane.

Right from the “Top Gun” opening sequence, audiences get up close and personal with real fighters taking off from the USS Abraham Lincoln, shot pre-pandemic in August 2018 during a training exercise for the F-35C Lightning II. The shoot, which also made use of the Naval Air Station Lemoore in Central California, was committed to exacting realism in every frame, says Miranda.

Getting Sony cameras adapted to fit into a fighter was central to the plan, he says – allowing the production to achieve what’s never been done before. “I helped design the original camera too – I went to Japan and there were a bunch of things 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. It was actually originally for the chase jet and we wanted to get a bigger lens in for more variety. Then we said, ‘Wow, we can do a lot with this.’”

The story, following Cruise’s return from virtual banishment by the Navy to a crucial role in planning a dangerous mission over enemy territory, calls for thoroughly pushing the limits of what even the Navy’s best-trained pilots in their best planes can do.

Of the special 6K Sony mini camera, Miranda says, “Originally, they gave us one. And we were like…‘Four more? Maybe six more?’”

“I was told I could not get them in,” he adds. “But I was there constantly, saying, ‘What’s this?’ I found an old version of an F-18 that didn’t have all the electronics in it. It was more of a bare-bones one. I was very attracted to that because it had a glare shield that was flat. The old version was much more simple and that’s what we got the cameras on.”

Working closely with the Navy engineers paid off, Miranda says. “I asked if I could have the old electronics removed, we were there whittling down every day. I was there for weeks just going, what do you need that for? Is that necessary?”

No weapons systems were removed but, he says: “They took out some video camera stuff. When they fire some of the missiles sometimes they do have cameras. So there was a whole system. That whole system, I didn’t need that so that went away.”

One limitation on shoots was time, he explains. “I couldn’t tie into the ship’s power like I wanted to so that was a thing. So cameras were limited on how long they could be in the air – it was like 90 minutes.”

Another challenge was how actors would handle the pressures of being in the back seat of real fighter planes, not on a green screen soundstage. “I’m sure there were some outtakes of them puking,” Miranda says. “But the actors worked for three months, getting their tolerances up, Tom Cruise’s pilot training program. They also wore the suits with compression, G suits.”

The high-tech flight suits that help them keep blood from settling in the legs so they won’t pass out during high G-force maneuvers helped them take on the truly punishing turns live on camera.

Flying F-15s as well, called for just as much training, he says. “They all got dunked in the tank and had to get themselves out,” Miranda adds. “We didn’t film that but you feel it. To be in the back seat of that F-15 you have to have done the training. They couldn’t give me a joy ride.”

Safety precautions were always paramount, Miranda notes. “If a pilot over-pulled Gs that had to be reported. All the camera mounts had to be tested by the Navy to be sure they can handle all the Gs. If a bolt falls off, you can’t have any foreign object rolling around. They check in all their wrenches and gear – when they’re done with the plane, all their wrenches are back. There’s a great safety protocol.”

Using natural light with real skies and landscapes flying by, Miranda was able to put audiences in the pilot’s seat in ways that have significantly raised the bar. And almost always in glorious sun-halo lighting.

“’Top Gun’ is a sunset movie. If you look at it, it’s 5:30. So we’re all carefully planning the day, planning the morning runs, planning the evening runs, where the cameras are in the mountains. There’s a ton of planning. I knew where they were on the map but I had to know how deep they were going and the direction they were going, the weather and we’re telling the pilots where we want the sun.”

Hooting Camerimage fest audiences greeting Miranda and director Joseph Kosinski expressed their profound agreement at screenings.