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Director Joseph Kosinski and DP Claudio Miranda employed high-flying live-action cinematography to create the sense of realism in Top Gun: Maverick, but extensive visual effects work was still required to bring the acrobatic stunts to the screen — everything from adding digitally augmented environments and backgrounds to fully CG aircrafts — reveals production VFX supervisor Ryan Tudhope, who is the guest in a new episode of THR’s Behind the Screen . With 2,400 VFX shots in total, that work was vital to the movie, which is nominated for six Oscars including best picture and visual effects.
“Hopefully, most of those visual effects shots, if not all of them, are completely hidden,” Tudhope says, emphasizing that Kosinski aimed to shoot as much practically as possible, including filming the actors in the cockpits while in flight. “We really wanted the shot design of these sequences to be based on real aerial photography, because that gave us this organic plate photography, something that you can’t create digitally very easily. [That gave us] a really amazing foundation for the shots that just feels real and visceral.”
There were numerous aerial scenes in which it was impossible to capture the actors in the correct aircraft; the jets in these filmed shots were digitally augmented or fully replaced with CG jets in post. This includes shots involving the fictional prototype Darkstar aircraft in the opening sequence, as well as ones featuring the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, a model that was retired by the Navy in 2006.
Instead, actors were filmed in the air in McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets, the jets that the Top Gun pilots fly in the story, as well as an Aero L-39 Albatros jet trainer, which was used as a stand-in for other aircrafts when filming in areas where military aircraft were not permitted. “We would remove the jet digitally, but we would use it as motion capture, so to speak, and also lighting reference for what the real aircraft was doing, then put our digital aircraft in that place and animated it to do the same thing,” explains Tudhope of lead VFX studio Method, which is now part of Framestore. He credits the collaboration with the Navy, whose pilots reviewed footage to confirm that it was convincing.
If it wasn’t possible to capture an actor in flight, they were filmed on a stage in a rotating cockpit. That included shots in which VFX had to put two actors in the same jet (as there was one Navy pilot flying each jet during filming) and shots featuring the prototype Darkstar aircraft, says Tudhope.
Approaches varied according to the needs of each shot, such as the scene in which Tom Cruise’s Maverick first takes to the air with the pilots that he is assigned to teach: Two jets fly side by side, then peel apart as Maverick’s shoots up from below and between them. The stunt was too dangerous to perform practically; the pair of jets was filmed, while Maverick’s jet is fully CG and was added later.
Environments and backgrounds behind the actors in the cockpits were also augmented to prioritize a take of an actor’s performance or for continuity. This was also the case in the climactic mission when the Top Gun pilots have to destroy an enemy nuclear facility before it becomes operational. “This was conceived as a huge valley with mountains on all sides, this bowl-shaped [terrain where] the jets had to go up over the edge and fly down,” says Tudhope. “We couldn’t find any location that matched what was required by the story. We found half of that [for principal photography, and then] scanned that, and we wrapped it around and closed it off [with digital effects].” The enemy facilities also were created with VFX, as were missiles, plumes of smoke, explosions and other elements to complete the action scenes.
“It was all about trying to capture and be true to the reality of what we had caught up in the air,” says Tudhope. “We wanted audiences to enjoy the story and to be immersed in all the footage.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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