The ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ cinematographer pushed the boundaries of camera technology to put audiences in the pilot’s seat

When “Top Gun: Maverick” audiences almost feel the G-powers in their gut as Tom Cruise blasts off his company in his F/A-18 Super Hornet, it’s a moment that makes cinematographer Claudio Miranda beam.

Mounting six truly cinematic-quality cameras in a fighter aircraft—a feat not technically possible until solutions were developed to screen the 1986 classic—produced so much stunning aerial footage that it made editors’ jobs almost overwhelming.

“I feel like what we’ve done is you’re using IMAX-quality cameras — we’ve worked really hard to make sure it’s a high-quality camera,” says Miranda. “I think there is a difference. I’m proud of that.”

He speaks at Camerimage Intl. A film festival in Toruń, Poland, Miranda admits he lost track of the number of filming days required in the air, but there’s no doubting whether the investment was worth it or not, says Miranda. “I feel like it was — I mean, it made it work a lot for the editors. That was 813 hours of footage to go through. You’re running six cameras at a time, two ships at a time.”

Not surprisingly, Miranda picked up some naval terminology for fighter planes after months spent working closely with pilots, technical experts, military leaders, and actors who underwent full Navy pilot training, when he described each day’s fighter flight, which was also obscured by the plane chase.

Right from Top Gun’s opening sequence, audiences got up close and personal with real fighters who took off from the USS Abraham Lincoln, who shot pre-pandemic in August 2018 during an F-35C Lightning II training exercise. Miranda says the filming, which also made use of Naval Air Station Lemoore in central California, was committed to rigorous realism in every frame.

Central to the plan, he says, was adapting Sony’s cameras to suit the fighter – allowing the production to achieve what had not been done before. “I helped design the original camera too – I went to Japan and there was a bunch of stuff and they tweaked it. And then it was still too big for us so we worked on it and were able to get this little Rialto thing. It was originally for the chase jet and we wanted to have on a larger lens for more versatility.Then we said, “Wow, we can do a lot with this.”

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

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

Miranda says working closely with Navy engineers is paying off. “I asked if I could remove the old electronics, we were there shrinking every day. I was there for weeks, so what do you need that for? Is that necessary?”

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

He explained that one of the limitations of the shoots was time. “I couldn’t relate to the power of the ship like I wanted to, so that was something. So the cameras were limited in terms of how long they could stay in the air — it was like 90 minutes.”

Another challenge was how the actors would deal with the pressures of being in the back seat of real fighter planes, rather than on a green screen sound rig. “I’m sure there are some excerpts from them that they vomit,” says Miranda. “But the actors worked out for three months, lifting their stamina, Tom Cruise pilot training program. They also wore compression suits, G-suits.”

Their high-tech flight suits that help keep blood from settling in their legs so they don’t pass out during high-G-Force maneuvers helped them take on the really painful turns on camera.

The F-15 also required just as much training, he says. “They all drowned in the tank and had to dig themselves out,” Miranda adds. “We didn’t film it but you feel it. To be in the back seat of an F-15 you have to have completed the training. They couldn’t give me a fun flight.”

Miranda notes that safety precautions have always been of the utmost importance. “If the pilot over-retracts the Gs, it should be reported. All cam mounts had to be tested by the Navy to make sure they can handle all Gs. If a bolt falls off, you don’t have a foreign object rolling in. They check all wrenches. And their equipment—when they’re done with the plane, all their wrenches come back in. There’s a great safety protocol.”

Using natural light along with real skies and landscapes flying close by, Miranda was able to put audiences in the pilot’s seat in ways that raised the bar dramatically. and almost always in illumination of the glorious sun’s corona.

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

Hooting Camerimage audiences who welcomed Miranda and director Joseph Kosinski deeply applauded the performances.

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