When the audience of “Top Gun: Maverick” almost feels the G-forces in their own guts as Tom Cruise lifts off from his aircraft carrier in an F/A-18 Super Hornet, it’s a moment that makes cameraman Claudio Miranda shine.
Mounting six true cinema-quality cameras in a fighter jet—a feat not technically possible until solutions were developed for the spin-off of the 1986 classic—produced so many stunning aerial images that the editors’ work became almost overwhelming.
“I feel like what we’ve given is you’re using 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 am quite proud of it.”
Speaking at the Camerimage Intl. Film festival in Torun, Poland, Miranda admits he doesn’t remember how many days on air “Top Gun” needed to shoot, but there’s no doubt the investment was worth it, says Miranda. “I feel like it was — I mean, it made it a lot of work for the editors. This was 813 hours of footage to go through. You use six cameras at the same time, two ships at the same time.’
Unsurprisingly, Miranda picked up some naval jargon for fighter jets after spending months working closely with pilots, technical experts, army buyers, and actors who went through full navy pilot training when he describes every day-to-day combat flight, which was also overshadowed by a chase aeroplane.
Right from the opening sequence of “Top Gun,” audiences get up close and personal with real fighters taking off from the USS Abraham Lincoln, shot down pre-pandemic in August 2018 during a training exercise for the F-35C Lightning II. The shoot, which also used Naval Air Station Lemoore in Central California, focused on extreme realism in every frame, says Miranda.
Having Sony cameras modified to fit a fighter jet was central to the plan, he says, allowing production to achieve what had never been done before. “I also helped design the original camera – I went to Japan and there was a lot of stuff and they modified it. And then it was still a little bit too big for us, so we worked on it and we could do this getting a little Rialto thingy. It was actually originally for the pursuit beam and we wanted a bigger lens for more variety. Then we said, ‘Wow, we can do a lot with this.'”
The story, which follows Cruise’s return from virtual exile from the Navy to a vital role in planning a dangerous mission over enemy territory, calls for a profound push to the limits of what even the Navy’s most trained pilots can do. in their best aircraft.
Miranda says of the special 6K Sony mini camera: “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 saying, ‘What is this?’ I found an old version of an F-18 that didn’t have all the electronics in it. It was more of a bare-bones one. I was really drawn to that because it had a glare shield that was flat. The old version was much simpler and that’s where we got the cameras set up.”
Working closely with Navy engineers has paid off, says Miranda. “I asked if I could have the old electronics removed, we were winding down there every day. I was just there for weeks, what do you need that for? Is that needed?”
No weapon systems were removed, but he says, “They took some video camera gear. When they fire some missiles, sometimes they do have cameras. So there was a whole system. I didn’t need that whole system, so it went away.”
One limitation on shoots was time, he explains. “I couldn’t engage the ship’s power the way I wanted, so that was one thing. So cameras were limited in how long they could be up in the air – it was about 90 minutes.
Another challenge was how actors would handle the pressure of being in the back seat of actual fighter jets, not a green screen soundstage. “I’m sure there were some outtakes from the puking,” Miranda says. But the actors worked for three months to increase their tolerance, Tom Cruise’s pilot training program. They also wore the compression suits, G suits.”
The high-tech flight suits that help them keep the blood from settling in their legs so they don’t pass out during high-G maneuvers helped them take on the really tight turns live on camera.
Flying F-15s also required the same amount of training, he says. “They were all dipped into the tank and had to get themselves out,” added Miranda. “We didn’t film that, but you can feel it. To sit in the back seat of that F-15, you must have done the training. They couldn’t give me a joy ride.”
Safety precautions were always paramount, Miranda notes. “If a pilot pulled G’s too hard, it had to be reported. All camera mounts had to be tested by the Navy to make sure they could handle all G’s. If a bolt falls off, you can’t let a foreign object roll around. They check in all their wrenches and equipment – when they’re done with the plane, all their wrenches are back. There is a great safety protocol.”
Using natural light with real skies and landscapes flying by, Miranda was able to put the audience in the pilot’s seat in a way that raised the bar significantly. And almost always in glorious sun-halo lighting.
“’Top Gun’ is a movie at sunset. If you look at it, it’s 5:30 PM. So we all carefully plan the day, plan the morning runs, plan the 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 had to know how deep they went and which direction they were going, the weather and we tell the pilots where we want the sun.”
The honking Camerimage fest crowd greeted Miranda and director Joseph Kosinski expressed their deep approval during screenings.