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March 07
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

TOP GUN: MAVERICK SOARS TO THE NEXT LEVEL TO MATCH LIVE-ACTION AND CG

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Along with replacing the environments, the actual jets had to digitally reskinned to represent the proper aircraft.

Along with replacing the environments, the actual jets had to digitally reskinned to represent the proper aircraft.

Along with replacing the environments, the actual jets had to digitally reskinned to represent the proper aircraft.

Getting declassified in time for the Oscars are the 2,400 visual effects shots found in Top Gun: Maverick, which were the responsibility of Ryan Tudhope and the artists at Method Studios, MPC, Lola VFX and Blind. The goal was to adhere to the imperfections that go along with shooting live-action aerial photography and to produce photorealistic CG that enhanced the storytelling and believability, rather than drew attention to itself. Before any of the scanning information was released of the F-18s to the vendors, the U.S. Navy had to give its approval.

“The L-39 is a much smaller and less capable aircraft than the Su-57, which is a fifth-generation fighter that has thrust vectoring, so it can do these maneuvers that we feature in the film where it literally goes up on its nose and turns around in midair and comes back down. Those things were not possible with anything that we had at our disposal. In those particular situations our animators under the leadership of Marc Chu [Animation Supervisor at Method Studios] pushed to get all of the flaps to do what they were supposed to do and take the shot to the next level, so it was interesting from an audience standpoint.”

—Ryan Tudhope, Visual Effects Supervisor

“That extended to the choices we were making as filmmakers in terms how the jets moved,” Tudhope explains. “The U.S. Navy was there every step of the way. The authenticity, time and effort our team put into getting all of those things perfect were driven by both [director] Joseph Kosinski’s and Tom Cruise’s desire to get all of those details right, and that was accomplished through our friends in the U.S. Navy.”

Armaments like missiles were digitally added so not to hinder the actual performances of the jets.

Armaments like missiles were digitally added so not to hinder the actual performances of the jets.

An area that does not get enough credit is the graphic work produced by Blind. “They were responsible for all of the heads-up displays that you see from the F-18 or Tomcat point of view and a lot of the story-driven graphics that are done throughout the film in the aircraft carrier.”

“There are many sequences that feature four jets, two teams of two, that are flying into the final mission or various training missions. Typically, we shot those with one or two F-18s and added the other F-18s in those formations. It gave us the ability to get more material practically, and since we always had a real jet in there as reference it was a huge help in matching the look and lighting. … [W]e would have a real jet doing a maneuver and add a CG jet doing a similar maneuver following behind, or in the shot where they all come through the valley and the vapor trails are going off and rush under the camera. That was one jet, and we added multiple jets doing the same thing. What is fun about that is you have this perfect thing that you’re trying to match.”

—Ryan Tudhope, Visual Effects Supervisor

Some old-fashioned techniques assisted in choreographing aerial sequences for key story beats. “Through all of that we had these F-18s on sticks,” Tudhope states. “That process was more at the front end where we were trying to translate what the Naval pilots were trying to explain to us about how things would work, as we filmed those in the hallways to try to capture their notes as to what would essentially happen, and go from there. Once we had a sense of Joe’s vision for these sequences, taking in account all of this information we were getting from the pilots, then it became a process of how to execute it.” The imperfections of the aerial photography were retained. “The difficulty of capturing that material is a fingerprint that carries all the way through to the end of the work,” Tudhope adds.

The cockpit of the full-scale Darkstar came off and went onto a gimbal that was put onstage in order to get the desired plasma effect of being in the stratosphere.

The cockpit of the full-scale Darkstar came off and went onto a gimbal that was put onstage in order to get the desired plasma effect of being in the stratosphere.

A one-to-one replacement was not possible for the aircraft. “The L-39 is a much smaller and less capable aircraft than the Su-57, which is a fifth-generation fighter that has thrust vectoring, so it can do these maneuvers that we feature in the film where it literally goes up on its nose and turns around in midair and comes back down,” Tudhope remarks. “Those things were not possible with anything that we had at our disposal. In those particular situations, our animators under the leadership of Marc Chu [Animation Supervisor at Method Studios] pushed to get all of the flaps to do what they were supposed to do and take the shot to the next level, so it was interesting from an audience standpoint.”

The blue environment of the stratosphere was influenced by aerial photography taken by weather balloons and SR-71 flights.

The blue environment of the stratosphere was influenced by aerial photography taken by weather balloons and SR-71 flights.

The imperfections of the canopy glass had to be matched in the CG versions. “There might be a situation where we had an explosion in the distance that wasn’t there and the way that those bright highlights are used through the canopy glass,  which has almost like scratches on it, but in a swirling motion; it was important for us to get all of that swirling,” Tudhope explains. “We also added in a ton of armaments across the film. But once you add training munitions or bombs to the wings, it lowers the performance characteristics of the jet, and you want the jets to be doing the full-on performance. We were able to add a lot of those armaments and deal with the continuity across all of the different sequences and take that off of the requirements of the Navy to find all of that stuff for us. But these wings are alive. The wings are constantly fluctuating from the air pressure, and the flaps are moving, and there is complicated lighting moving across.”

“There are also moments where we shot real F-18s doing those taxing maneuvers and takeoffs. We had all of our camera mounts inside the F-18, so in one or two sequences where Maverick is literally taking off and you see the world receding behind him, we shot those back plates on the F-18’s internal cameras without someone sitting in the seat. The cockpit component of our full-scale jet came off and went onto one of [Special Effects Coordinator] Scott Fisher and his team’s gimbals, which we were able to put onstage.”

—Ryan Tudhope, Visual Effects Supervisor

Reskinning of the jets was reliant upon the original proxy version captured during principal photography. “We had a lighting reference in the case of the Navy jets. They are matte grey which is perfect for us, so we were able to see what the lighting characteristics were,” notes Tudhope, who used a combination of tracking markers, GPS from the camera aircraft and corresponding USGS data to get the lighting correct. Another major process was constructing the digital versions of the jets. “We get up close especially to the F-18s where they have all kinds of little dents, imperfections, bolts and rivets, been painted over a couple of times – there is a lot of detail that you want to try to capture. We were able to have a real turntable of a F-18, and we put our CG turntables right next to that. We were able to make sure that they were matching.”

The VFX team made simulations from lighting and atmospheric standpoints and match-moving the real jet relative to the terrain so the digital jets were moving at the same rate of speed.

The VFX team made simulations from lighting and atmospheric standpoints and match-moving the real jet relative to the terrain so the digital jets were moving at the same rate of speed.

One way to alter aerial missions was by adding digital aircrafts into shots. “There are many sequences that feature four jets, two teams of two, that are flying into the final mission or various training missions,” Tudhope states. “Typically, we shot those with one or two F-18s and added the other F-18s in those formations. It gave us the ability to get more material practically, and since we always had a real jet in there as reference it was a huge help in matching the look and lighting. It was really fun and nerdy because we would have a real jet doing a maneuver and add a CG jet doing a similar maneuver following behind, or in the shot where they all come through the valley and the vapor trails are going off and rush under the camera. That was one jet, and we added multiple jets doing the same thing. What is fun about that is you have this perfect thing that you’re trying to match.”

Appearing in the opening is a fictional stealth aircraft inspired by the hypersonic strategic reconnaissance UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) Lockheed Martin SR-72. “For most of the scenes on the ground we filmed the practical Darkstar and removed the towing vehicle digitally, and added all of the heat, haze and exhaust as if it was moving under its own power,” Tudhope remarks. “There are also moments where we shot real F-18s doing those taxing maneuvers and takeoffs. We had all of our camera mounts inside the F-18, so in one or two sequences where Maverick is literally taking off and you see the world receding behind him, we shot those back plates on the F-18’s internal cameras without someone sitting in the seat. The cockpit component of our full-scale jet came off and went onto one of [Special Effects Coordinator] Scott Fisher and his team’s gimbals, which we were able to put onstage.”

One of the trickiest elements to recreate was the canopy glass with all of its imperfections.

One of the trickiest elements to recreate was the canopy glass with all of its imperfections.

The stratosphere had to be recreated, explains Tudhope. “We were able to find amazing reference of weather balloons and SR-71 flights where cameras had been taken to those altitudes. All of this had to be created as a digital environment.” An emerging technology is a pivotal part of the Darkstar narrative. “As you’re seeing our sequence unfold,” he continues, “the altitude that we’re conveying and the things that occur, the look of all that from a physical standpoint is based on the data that Lockheed Martin [gave us on the scramjet engine].” A certain amount of disbelief was required when it came to the camera mounts. “When you get to the training missions and the exterior camera mounts that [Cinematographer] Claudio Miranda engineered with the Navy to place real cameras on F-18s, that process of placing of real cameras on real aircraft was extended early on in the film to Darkstar, even though it was digital, and also later into the final battle – that was the DNA to what we were doing.”

Digital jets were added for safety reasons and to get the desired formation and shot composition.

Digital jets were added for safety reasons and to get the desired formation and shot composition.

Leading the way were the cameras and lenses. “Rather than design shots that we would have to modify the mounts or change lenses,” Tudhope reveals, “we determined where the mounts were going to be and what lenses would be on those particular frames and create a composition that Joe was after. We took creative liberty where we were putting that camera on the digital jet versus a real jet. We were given a large toolbox of mounts and camera platforms to try to create shots with, and the process was, ‘What is the best way to film a plate to do this shot?’ Sometimes it was a one-to-one match and other times we would modify what we filmed in order to accomplish the shot.”

“When you get to the training missions and the exterior camera mounts that [Cinematographer] Claudio Miranda engineered with the Navy to place real cameras on F-18s, that process of placing of real cameras on real aircraft was extended early on in the film to Darkstar, even though it was digital, and also later into the final battle – that was the DNA to what we were doing.”

—Ryan Tudhope, Visual Effects Supervisor

Locations had to be digitally augmented, especially for the third act battle. Comments Tudhope, “We spent a lot of time scouting up in the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington State for this snowy environment and worked out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. In the film, there is an enemy base situated at the bottom of a bowl. We found half of what we wanted and augmented real footage to get what we needed. We had an amazing locations team and pilots from the Naval Air Station who would go out with GoPros in jets and fly some of these runs for us and show us what it might look like.”

Actress Monica Barbaro and Tom Cruise on set with a special camera rig developed by Cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the U.S. Navy.

Actress Monica Barbaro and Tom Cruise on set with a special camera rig developed by Cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the U.S. Navy.

One of the essential collaborators was editor Eddie Hamilton and his team. “The editing and going through all of this footage to try to put these shots together was a huge component. We would come across shots that we had nothing for, and it might be just a storyboard. In those situations, I would work with our Visual Effects Editor Latham Robertson and pour through the material that we had captured and find different options for shots and background plates, get Joe to sign off on that or get him to choose what he wanted and go from there. We went through an extensive postvis process, so we worked very loose and fast. What missiles they have remaining was a big thing, especially on the Tomcat because there are two Sidewinders. That stuff was all tracked. Once the cut started to settle down and we felt that we’ve got this sequence coming together, then we would turn over the shots to Method Studios or MPC, and they would execute all of the beautiful work that they did.”


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