‘Top Gun: Maverick’ cinematographer pushed the limits of camera technology to put the audience in the pilot’s seat

When “Top Gun: Maverick” audiences almost feel the G-forces in their 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 beam.

Mounting six cinematic-quality cameras on a fighter plane, a feat that wasn’t technically possible until solutions were developed for the spin-off of the 1986 classic, rendered so many stunning aerial shots that it has made the work of the editors almost overwhelming.

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

Speaking at the Camerimage Intl. Film Festival in Torun, Poland, Miranda admits she’s lost count of how many days of airtime filming ‘Top Gun’ took, but there’s no question whether the investment was worth it Miranda says. “I feel like it’s—I mean, she’s done a lot of work for publishers. 813 hours of filming were needed. Manage six cameras at a time, two ships at a time.

Unsurprisingly, Miranda picked up some Navy lingo for fighter aircraft after months of working closely with pilots, technical experts, military leaders, and actors during the Navy’s comprehensive aviator training as she describes each daily fighter flight, which was also overshadowed by a chase aircraft.

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

Having Sony cameras adapted to fit a fighter was central to the plan, he says, allowing the production to achieve what has never been done before. “I also helped design the original camera – I went to Japan and there was a bunch of stuff and they modified it. And then it was still a little too big for us, so we worked on it and managed to get this little Rialto thing. It was actually originally for the pursuit jet and we wanted to put in a bigger lens for more variety. Then we said, ‘Wow, we can do a lot with this.'”

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

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

“I was told I couldn’t let them in,” she adds. “But I was there constantly, saying, ‘What is this?’ I found an old version of an F-18 that didn’t contain all the electronics. He was more of a skinny. I was very attracted to it because it had a flat anti-glare screen. The old version was much simpler and that’s where we put the cameras on.”

Working closely with Navy engineers has paid off, Miranda says. “I asked if I could have the old electronics removed, we were there stripping down every day. I’ve been there for weeks just going, what do you need it for? It is necessary?”

No weapon systems have been removed but, he says: “They took some things off the camera. When they fire some of the missiles they sometimes have cameras. So there was a whole system. The whole system, I didn’t need it, so it just went away.

One limitation on filming was time, he explains. “I couldn’t connect to the ship’s power like I wanted to, so that was one thing. So the cameras were limited on how long they could stay in the air — it was about 90 minutes.

Another challenge was how the actors would handle the pressure of being in the backseat of real fighter planes, not on a green screen stage. “I’m sure there were a few outtakes of them throwing up,” Miranda says. “But the actors worked for three months, increasing their tolerances, Tom Cruise’s pilot training program. They also wore compression suits, G suits.

High-tech flight suits that help keep blood from pooling in their legs so they don’t pass out during high-G-force maneuvers have helped them through the truly punishing shifts live on camera.

Flying F-15s also required just as much training, he says. “They all got crushed in the tub and had to come out on their own,” Miranda adds. “We didn’t film it but you feel it. To be in the backseat of that F-15 you have to have done the training. They couldn’t give me a joy ride.

Safety precautions have always been key, notes Miranda. “If a rider pulled too much G, he had to be flagged. All camera mounts had to be tested by the Navy to be sure they could handle all G’s. If a bolt falls out, you can’t roll any foreign objects. They check all their wrenches and tools: when they’re done with the plane, all their wrenches are back. There is an excellent security protocol.”

By using natural light with real skies and landscapes flying by, Miranda was able to put audiences in the pilot’s seat in ways that significantly raised the bar. And almost always in glorious sunlight.

“’Top Gun’ is a sunset movie. If you look at it, it’s 5:30. So we’re all planning our day carefully, planning our morning runs, planning our 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 deep they were going and the direction they were going, the weather and we’re telling the pilots where we want the sun.

The resounding Camerimage fest audience greeted Miranda and director Joseph Kosinski expressed his deep agreement during the screenings.

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