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Setting VFX on Cruise Control for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

Production VFX Supervisor Ryan Tudhope helped marshal 2,400 shots that seamlessly blended live-action plate photography with practical and digital effects, including full CG jet replacements and the addition of various armaments, for Joseph Kosinski’s hit ‘Top Gun’ sequel starring Tom Cruise.

Soaring way beyond expectations – especially for a sequel to Tom Cruise’s venerable 1986 actioner, Top Gun - was Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick. But none of the scope and spectacle of the film’s astounding aerial footage and battles could have been achieved without the digital augmentation of 2,400 shots that seamlessly blended live-action photography with practical and visual effects. Overseeing that mission’s covert operations was Visual Effects Supervisor Ryan Tudhope, supported by the expertise of Method Studios, MPC, Lola VFX, and Blind LTD, as well as a nod from the U.S. Navy, which endorsed the production.  “We had to respect that there was sensitive information we were around, in particular, the equipment that we were filming,” says Tudhope. “The U.S. Navy went through an extensive process of vetting the footage we were shooting and making sure from a visual effects standpoint as we were scanning particular aspects of the F-18s that no sensitive information was captured.” 

The U.S. Navy, as you might imagine, played a considerable role in the film. “We have a sequence with our Tomcat taking off down this taxiway that has been bombed out,” remarks Tudhope.  “The view out of the front used plates we shot at Lake Tahoe on a clean taxiway.  As per Jeremy Hindle’s production design and the requirements of the film, we added all these hangers that had been bombed out all the way down the left side of the taxiway, and fuel tanks at the end of it.  The entire cockpit of the Tomcat was digital, and we shot that on a camera rig arm on a tracking vehicle. I had a great relationship with a Tomcat pilot attached to the production to help us with all things Tomcat related, like how the flaps worked.  We had to figure out what warning lights would be on in the cockpit at any given moment.  He sent me PDFs of the jet’s manuals from the 1980s that showed what everything did.”   

Early on, Kosinski had conversations with Top Gun pilots about story beats.  “They knew how to bring real life aerial and combat maneuvering into the conversation and from there Joe worked with a storyboard artist and they boarded all these different sequences,” states Tudhope.  “We started prevising those to visualize them unfolding in a moving format.”  Then it became a discussion on how to execute the desired aerial sequence.  He continues, “We had to determine what camera platform and Naval assets would be required for any given shot and how we were going to shoot it.  A spreadsheet was created of 500 different things that we had to go film.”  

That attention to the details of actual jet maneuvers was critical to the film’s believability. According to Tudhope, “The reason why these sequences are convincing is because even though we might change the environment or the jets from an L-39 [which is like a small trainer jet] to a Tomcat or a Su-57 in post-production, the foundation includes all of the imperfections of a real pilot, camera, and camera operator trying to do tricky maneuvers and create a shot.” 

Not everything could be achieved in camera because of the limitations of the proxy aircrafts.  “Those were situations where we had to shoot a clean plate and do whatever we needed to do in CG animation, or still try to get whatever we could and from there, think of it as aerial motion capture,” Tudhope shares. “Just like you are motion capturing a creature or character, there are going to be times when an animator has to jump into the data and take on creative notes that might be needed to bring that character to life.” 

Special attention was paid to cockpit canopies. “We filmed our actors in an F-18 and then converted that jet to a Tomcat,” Tudhope says. “There were moments where there might be reflections that we had to remove so we did a CG replacement of the canopy glass, which has all of these amazing swirls.” 

Aircraft armaments were digitally inserted and removed for narrative and continuity purposes. “The computer systems will dampen the capabilities of the jets as soon as you start putting heavy things on the wings, which is obviously a bad thing when you’re making a Top Gun movie,” Tudhope notes. “In the case of adding armaments, we were adding these CG objects right underneath a real thing; the light and shadows had to be tracked and matched perfectly so they were moving and vibrating.” 

The matte grey of the U.S. Navy jets acted like a practical grey ball for lighting.  “In the cases where we didn’t have access to a Navy jet because we were flying in civilian airspace, we painted a few L-39s the same 18 percent gray and placed tracking markers on them,” reveals Tudhope. “Those stood in as our proxy jets for reskinning, giving us the lighting reference.  Then we used the GPS data that came off our camera aircraft. There was a bunch of burned in information that we were able to get in terms of where the camera was orientated and in what location. We were able to bake that onto some USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] data that we got to refer to where we were in the sky at that moment and try to tie that across a series of shots so our teams could pipeline the lighting tools to get through all of that work.” 

Considering the jets are such key characters, the CG versions were critical. “We spent a lot of time scanning and photographing and getting up close and personal with the jets,” Tudhope reveals.  “I was able to get the Navy to turntable a real jet in front of our reference cameras. They literally rotated it 20 degrees right on the mark so we could snap photos with our lighting rig.”  For safety and cinematic reasons, CG jets were added to increase the number of aircraft in shots. “One of the things that became clear as we were filming, particularly when our pilots were in the F-18s, was that there was already so much going on in terms of coordinating their performances with the jet and getting lined up with the right light,” he continues. “We had to prioritize our talent and their performances in the jets.  In a supporting way visual effects was able to come in and add jets that were in formation because we could place them exactly where we wanted them.”

For the futuristic stealth aircraft Darkstar, a practical version that could be towed was constructed by Lockheed Martin.  Necessary background aerial plate photography was captured by the internal cameras of the F-18s. “It gave us that world receding from us that I could then put behind the gimbal work we were doing of the Darkstar cockpit and composite it back there,” states Tudhope. “We had this effect later on, when it gets up to 60,000 feet of altitude and beyond, where plasma starts to form on the nose of the jet because of the heat and pressure. That was an interesting interactive lighting thing we had to reproduce when Maverick was in the cockpit onstage.  We developed the look of that plasma and projected that onto screens around the aircraft so that the light fluctuation and movement was tied to a look that was already approved.”

Reference footage was found of the Earth’s stratosphere that depicted a beautiful blue world. “Joe had a strong vision for that look, which was evident all the way back to our previs,” Tudhope says. “He wanted to feel like we had never been here before with this experimental aircraft. A story point is these scramjet engines kick in at a certain altitude to propel the jet to Mach 9 and beyond; that technology is still in testing today so there wasn’t ample reference for it.  However, Lockheed Martin did have a ton of spreadsheets and data on what it would actually do.  Some of my favorite shots are these fixed mount cameras on Darkstar as it’s arcing around, and you see the contrails receding into the distance and Maverick through the windshield. Darkstar is this dark silhouette with this blue saturated horizon behind it. A lot of that is trying to make a pretty image and finding a way to make it look as cool as you can.”

Cinematographer Claudio Miranda worked closely with the U.S. Navy throughout the production. “The design of shots, from storyboards to previs to final result, was organized around these camera mounts that Claudio and the U.S. Navy had already engineered, and those were the ones we used throughout the process,” explains Tudhope. “There were times where we would use a mount position for a shot that it wasn’t intended for. For example, in the final battle, we have a shot where an F-18 is flying through a valley with a low wing mount and in the original plate the F-18 is coming through the top corner because it was below the nose. But there was an amazing shot in the original Top Gun where the camera was mounted on the top of the wing which was not possible for us to do with our F-18, so we removed the F-18 and put in a digital Tomcat which came under that camera.”  

For the third act battle, footage was shot in the Cascade Range in Washington reached from nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. “In the story it’s conceived as this huge mountain range with a crater where the jets have to fly up one side [of a mountain] on the outside, do an inverted turn, go down [the other side] into the bottom of the bowl [to the enemy base], drop their munitions, and do a high G pull to get out of there where they lose their speed and become sitting ducks,” Tudhope describes. “We scouted all across the Cascades in helicopters to try and find that as well as the different trench runs and various places they would be putting the F-18s and filming some of that stuff.  We found half of what we wanted; that became a digital augmentation where we extended the entire other side of that environment and added our digital bunker at the bottom. Then there were other locations that we found for different aspects of that entire mission.  It was all mapped out.”

Tudhope forged a close, collaborative relationship with editor Eddie Hamilton during the production. “Our previs team converted into a postvis team,” he remarks. “As the sequences were coming together, new ideas were forming because things were evolving in terms of what occurred. You get into more specifics that are art direction-related, like where does an explosion occur and how does that carry across to another shot where it’s then receding into the distance. Then you cut to another shot, and we want to see missile trails from previous launches that they’re flying through.  All of that had to be designed and worked on.  The fastest way to do that was to employ postvis and try to do it as quickly as possible and give Eddie Hamilton material to cut with.”

This of course meant maintaining continuity was critical, made more challenging because shot production was moving quickly. “We had to keep track of what the jets used, when and where,” Tudhope says. “Another whole layer of authenticity [and continuity] we had to achieve was ensuring that every single look of a HUD, on any given shot, was showing you the correct altitude and air speed.  Its custom work to support where the jet should be in that point of the story. Then you take what is a real thing and convert it into what audiences are going to be able to digest. But those are all creative choices that get made to produce a movie.” 

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.