Top Gun: Maverick was released by Paramount Pictures in May of 2022, and in this year’s Academy Awards, it has received nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects. The crowd-pleasing action sequel again centers on Capt. Pete Mitchell, AKA Maverick played by Tom Cruise. Joseph Kosinski directed the film and the DOP was Claudio Miranda.
Ryan Tudhope was the Visual Effects Supervisor on Top Gun: Maverick. “We set out to create an invisible, supporting seamless body of work,” he explains. “We really took that to heart in trying to leverage everything we could in a practical sense.” Ryan has previously provided creative and VFX supervision to more than fifty feature films and episodic programming. He was recently VFX sup on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Ryan is well known for his crafting of live-action stunts and visual effects. He credits this success in VFX to his strong collaborations with directors, cinematographers, and the various key physical departments. Ryan is also known for his time as CEO of Atomic Fiction, where he oversaw projects such as Ad Astra, Blade Runner 2049, Deadpool, Pirates of the Caribbean, Game of Thrones, and Star Trek Beyond. Atomic Fiction was acquired by Deluxe in 2018. Most recently Ryan joined Framestore as one of its newest creative directors, he is based in Auckland NZ.
VFX in the Air
The film features three sets of aerial challenges –
- the filming of the actors appearing to fly the film’s F/A-18E (single seat) and F/A-18F (dual seat) Super Hornets,
- the opening test sequence with the fictional “Darkstar” aircraft, and
- the recreation of the F-14 Tomcat, a relic from the first film, which is no longer in service.
In addition, the film required various explosions, weapon countermeasures, and invisible effects.
In total Top Gun: Maverick had 2400 VFX shots, with Method Studios completing a majority of the work in conjunction with MPC. Lola VFX and Blind provided the 2D motion graphics, training visualizations, and the jet’s HUDs.
F/A-18E and F/A-18F
For external shots of the jets, actual Navy pilots flew the E version F/A-18. For shots of the actors in flight, the F version was used, with the actual pilot in the front seat and the actors in the rear seat. At least one F/A-18F was rigged with special cameras to film an actor in the back seat, and that camera rig was operated by the actors themselves. The film was shot in IMAX format on Sony Venice 6K Full Frame cameras. The production spent more than a year with the Navy to allow the IMAX cameras inside the cockpit, with four cameras facing back toward the actors and two facing forward. After extensive testing additional cameras were also mounted on the exteriors of the aircraft.
The production shot the aerial footage outside the F/A-18s with gimbal-stabilized cameras on three different platforms: a nose-mounted rig on one of two modified Aero L-39 Albatros that could film at 350 knots (648 km/h) and nose- and tail-mounted cameras on an Embraer Phenom 300, and a nose-mounted rig on an Airbus AS350 helicopter.
The Aero L-39 Albatros is a high-performance jet trainer designed and produced in Czechoslovakia by Aero Vodochody. It is the most used as a jet trainer plane. There have been an estimated 2800 L-39 Albatros produced, and it has served in over 30 air forces around the world. It is seen as the most widely produced and safest jet trainer in the world. The Embraer Phenom 300, by comparison, is a light business jet, with room for nine passengers and a two-pilot crew. This plane was used as a camera platform with rear and front cameras. For example, it was used to film cinematic flybys of the end sequence aircraft carrier and other times when Navy aviation footage was not required.
The CGI jets were often intercut with actual live-action footage. The team tried to use actual footage as much as possible, but there were stunts that were not safe, or occasions when they needed four F/A 18s in formation and they had only one jet to film. “What we tried to do in all of the situations, which is something I’m just a big believer in, is mixing and matching the techniques as much as possible,” Ryan elaborates. “As we looked across the series of boards, in collaboration with our aerial coordinator and our naval advisors and our pilots, we would say them, ‘so what can you guys pull off?'”.
The plan was to keep the audience on their toes, so the effects were not using the same technique over and over again. More than 800 hours of aerial footage was shot for the film, (which according to Empire Magazine, exceeded the combined footage shot for the films in the Lord of The Rings trilogy). “It was a huge amount of aerial footage, that was a hundred percent leveraged to the extent that the visual effects were required,” Ryan comments. “You can imagine we’ve got a mount jet that has four or five cameras all rolling at once. We’ve also got another jet that’s in the air at the same time doing, with six cameras on the inside, all rolling at once, then you’re on the ground shooting those two jets with another four or five different cameras. And it was like that for months and months and months, – we just had an insane amount of footage.”
With so much footage the role of the VFX editor became critical. Latham Robertson was the VFX editor “On many of my days I would walk in and say to Latham ‘we need to find, say, a jet that is in the desert, with bounce light from below and, shot in an overcast day’ or whatever it was,” Ryan recalls. “And then we’d just start going through shots. It was all organized by the assistant editors in a way that made it manageable, which allowed us to leverage the footage for VFX. It was a huge, tremendous resource.”
In late August 2018, a 15-person film crew from Paramount and Bruckheimer Films was aboard the Norfolk-based (Atlantic Fleet) aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to shoot flight deck operations for the opening sequence. Later a larger crew moved to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Pacific, where most of the film’s drama sequences were shot. The production team including Ryan was at sea for seven nights. “Actually, we were set to get underway (on the USS Theodore Roosevelt) and we learned that the carrier’s drive screw was broken,” he recalls. The Navy had to ship a new one down from Washington State. “That took until the following Monday. We adjusted and shot some of the carrier deck footage while we were in port and then we had to remove San Diego for a bunch of those sequences.”
Being embedded was not only useful for the exceptional cooperation of the Navy in filming, but it allowed Ryan to directly consult with naval personnel when designing digital shots. For example, the VFX team needed to produce a shot with a line of Naval planes parked on the flight deck. “I got to meet the actual guy who parks jets on the aircraft carrier, that’s his job. We asked, ‘okay so how are these things parked?’ And he had these little toy planes and he’d lay ’em out and we’d take photos of them and figure it out,” says Ryan. “Being so close to those folks was so useful and that was just one of a hundred examples of how embedding ourselves allowed us to get the authenticity in terms of how shots were created.”
The fictional hypersonic Darkstar was designed with the assistance of engineers from Lockheed Martin and its ‘Skunk Works’ division. A full-scale mockup of the aircraft was built and filmed at Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake in California.
The low-pass scene of Tom Crusie’s Maverick taking off over the head of Ed Harris was filmed at China Lake. The production flew a Blue Angels plane at less than 50 ft (15 m) around 450 knots (830 km/h), which on the 20th pass resulted in roofing from the guard shack flying off. Surprisingly, actor Ed Harris was actually standing in the shot for real. “He actually stood there,” Ryan exclaims “Really – honest to God, <laugh> and he did not flinch.” For this iconic shot, Ryan was about 35 feet away, “huddled and hiding behind a truck!” To get the reverse POV from the Darkstar looking back to the airfield, the production mounted a camera in the backseat of a two-seater F/A 18 but with only the pilot in the front seat. ‘That gave us a more unobstructed view of the world, sort of receding away, and it is an example of how the visual effects team was always looking for what we had available for us to shoot to try to get something as the basis for an effects shot.”
While the F-14 Tomcat was central to the original 1986 film, there are no F-14s available to film this time around. The USA and Iran were the only countries to ever fly the large jets. The F-14 was completely decommissioned in the USA and all the engines were removed. Iran does still have active F-14A (F-14AM) Tomcats, bought in the late 1970s. But due to political sanctions, the U.S. fully disabled its vast fleet of F-14s once they were retired in 2006 to prevent the illicit export of spare parts, according to Military Watch Magazine.In the film’s third act, the flying F-14 Tomcat was digital. The production painted several L-39 jets 18% grey and with tracking markers and then used them as a stand-in for the stolen F-14 to allow for accurate plate photography and object tracking. “They acted as sort of an aerial motion capture for us,” Ryan comments. “And just like real motion capture, sometimes you get it right off the bat, and a lot of times you have a team of skilled animators who come in and augment and build the animation from there.”
An example of the reference plate and the final shot
The 3D model of the F-14 consisted of 30 x 4K UDIMs with 11 channels to control the shaders and provide AOVs for compositing. There was a decommissioned F-14 without any engines, that the team borrowed from a naval museum in southern California. “Scott Fisher (Special Effects Supervisor) created an amazing tow rig that could drag the jet around on the tarmac. We utilized that rig for some of the earlier sequences as they are taking off,” Ryan points out “Then we took that same Tomcat and craned it onto the deck of the aircraft carrier and placed it in the position sort of the end craft crash position.” This then served as both VFX reference and as the prop for the actors to climb out of and meet the crowd celebrating their victory. The actual crash was filmed as just a plate without a crash net or a Tomcat, but Ryan did point out how useful it was to be able to turn the aircraft carrier around to get the right lighting for the dramatic end crash landing.
The interior cockpit footage was based on clips shot in a real F/A18, this approach provided all the benefits of cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s distinctive in-cockpit photography, such as small aperture, reflections, and g-forces. The VFX comp team hand-animated motion blur, colour-corrected, and matched reflections. Special shaders were created to render the tiny scratches in the canopy of the cockpit, to catch the light and match real canopies when digital cockpits were added.
In addition to the US planes, the unidentified enemy country in the film flew ‘fifth generation SU57’ jets. These were created much like the F-14, with reference and tracking of other jets as they did not exist.
Three special programmable Gimbols were used to mimic the cockpits of each jet and these were filmed primarily in direct sunlight. “We had a number of Gimbal days scheduled. Obviously, we needed these for the ‘imaginary’ Darkstar’s cockpit, but also the F/A 18 and Tomcat cockpits.” The Gimbols were particularly important when the story required the filming of actors in both the front and back seats of the F/A-18 simultaneously. “Scott Fisher and his team built bucks that were just amazingly detailed. They found actual cockpits where possible and made sure they were completely picture ready.” Naturally, given the active nature of the sophisticated F/A 18 military jets, there were screens and parts of the F/A-18s HUD and instruments that were off-limits to filming and classified. “There were configurations that the Navy always made sure were not on when we were filming, different computer modes and stuff like that and there was a whole process to make sure that our footage was always clean of anything confidential.”
The plot critically revolves around the complexity of the environment surrounding the nuclear enrichment target that the team needs to bomb. While the exact location did not exist, about half of it did, and the digital team build out from footage of just a ridge to a full 360 bowl shape. “We knew the story called for this bowl, essentially with a mountain range on all sides, that the pilots would have to fly up the outside of, invert, fly down the inside, bomb the thing in the middle, and then go back out the other side, which was this crazy pullout,” Ryan explains. “It was a very specific kind of geographical formation that was required. We didn’t find that obviously, but we found half of it. We found this location in the Cascade Mountain range that was good. It took some scouting but we found it We augmented the right half of the bowl essentially we designed a terrain to be a closure of the real environment. When you’re seeing those shots you’re looking at real footage shot on the right-hand side and then augmented to make it feel more dangerous or to add the other side of the bowl.”
The enemy base where the F-14 was stolen was a digital set extension from a private airfield outside Lake Tahoe. The production had full access to the airfield but the team needed to build digital hangers and fuel dumps, as well as add atmospherics, smoke, explosions, and fire.
Explosions and crashes, missiles, flares, vapor cones, and many digital environment augmentations were also created based on footage of Naval tests. as Ryan joked at the Bake-off for the Oscars, “while the Navy was really helpful they didn’t let us shoot off a bunch of real missiles!”