Interview with Visual Effects for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

Ryan Tudhope tells IndieWire how the VFX team used an unconventional methodology to achieve in-camera realism and cinematic visuals.

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Ryan Tudhope is ready to talk.

Now that the visual effects of “Top Gun: Maverick” have received an Oscar nomination and the team responsible for them is no longer embargoed from promoting their impressive work, Tudhope, head of VFX production, can finally reveal how his team achieved the essence of invisible effects. with a very substantial 2400 CG shot.

As revealed during last month’s VFX “bake” at the Academy Museum, artists from Method (now part of Framestore), MPC and Lola multi-tasked to support the film’s hands-on spirit. VFX plates were integrated into the amazing aerial photography and stunt work in which Tom Cruise flies in the cockpit of Navy fighter jets. The nozzles were re-skinned to match the real ones used in the aerial shot. Navy pilots were pushed out of the cockpits where the actors operated six Sony Venices connected to the Rialto Camera Extension System. VFX also provided matte paintings, environments, sky replacements, and lots of gunfire and explosions for the film’s final bombing mission.

Although it contains nearly as much CG footage as the average action film, it’s more than the typical supporting role in expanding such a hands-on filmmaking methodology. “We always wanted to do very seamless, invisible work that people didn’t even talk about or think about,” Tudhope told IndieWire. The goal was to achieve in-camera realism, military authenticity and a cinematic look. “Visual effects have always played a supporting role in this picture,” Tudhope said.

“Our methodology was so focused on the practical aspects of trying to film real aircraft,” he continued, “and then our resources at the Navy and our access as filmmakers to tell the story. According to Tudhope, it was these resources and this support that allowed “Maverick” to “create visual effects that you wouldn’t really be able to do in other films.”

TOP GUN: MAVERICK (aka TOP GUN 2), Tom Cruise, 2022. © Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

At least not in the 2020s: This collaboration resulted in a return to VFX between VFX, ASC Award-nominated cinematographer Claudio Miranda (shockingly snubbed by the Academy), naval pilots, aerial coordinators and others. “You’re trying to be subtle in a way that you make compelling shots,” Tudhope said. “It’s not that you don’t want to do that in a big visual effects movie, but your cuffs are off on these movies, and I think you can get it back.”

As an example of how the collaboration benefited in the visual effects process, Tudhope cited the opening sequence in which Maverick (Tom Cruise) pushes the experimental Darkstar aircraft to its limits. The Darkstar doesn’t exist in real life – it was designed and built specifically for the film, and the footage of Cruise in the cockpit was filmed on stage. “We knew that Maverick was essentially shot in this gimbal,” Tudhope said, “but we still needed that world to get away from us” — just like behind the actors shooting aboard the flying F-18.

Monica Barbaro and Tom Cruise on the set of Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Scott Garfield

The solution? “Sometimes we flew this jet without a pilot in the back seat to create a cleaner backplane that we could put behind the cockpit of the Darkstar,” Tudhope said. “The truest analogy for what he went through in the story was an F-18, right? This is the jet we have, which performs the same maneuver at the same speed and acceleration. So here we chose to film the specific back cover.

“I think a lot of it was putting the pieces of the puzzle together early on and trying to figure out the sources and how we were going to get the materials,” he continued. “The visual effects of the film were as much about what we did outside the computer as inside the computer.”

This marriage of the practical and the digital was more complicated for the VFX team than shooting all the shots digitally in post. As a result, they achieved authenticity because it was based on the reality of hardware and flight. It was a top-down process in production, with the help of air coordinators and pilots. And one of the side benefits of aerial photography was that it also took advantage of limitations and imperfections. For example, when the pilots had trouble lining up a shot for a pirouette, they found it during a second take and the VFX team was able to finish the shot without redoing it all in the computer. And there have been some wonderful happy accidents. One such moment occurred when the guardhouse fell apart early as the Darkstar flew over Ed Harris. The first instinct was to rebuild the guardhouse and fire again. But they resisted because he played much better.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK (aka TOP GUN 2), Tom Cruise, 2022. © Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The film’s heaviest use of CG came from the sneaky bombing mission and the drive into a bowl-shaped valley, which required digital planes, environments, and explosions. But it was shot on location in a real-life location—North America’s Cascade Range—and choreographed and executed using unseen effects that make the danger viscerally thrilling.

“They’ve done all kinds of excavation there,” Tudhope said. “But it’s basically based on this real location, where we were able to film and work around the same constraints as everywhere else in the film.”

Was there a lot of room for happy accidents? “Oh, yes,” said Tudhope. “That’s kind of the essence of what we did.” If you look at it the other way, probably with a team of really talented visual effects designers doing all the shots in the computer, it ends up lacking a little bit of a happy accident because it’s over-engineered.

“These shots are too perfect, too good to be true, and the weightlessness of things,” he added. “There are all kinds of pitfalls in downsizing this methodology. Whereas by the very nature of shooting a real pilot in a real airplane with another real pilot, a real camera operator, and another real jet, and just trying to capture a pirouette, you end up with these beautiful imperfections.”

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