The key to the “Top Gun: Maverick” sound design — and why it’s the favorite to win the Best Sound Oscar — is its effective creation of the “synaptic” experience, which carried over from Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” films. It’s a hyper-real soundscape that guides the audience’s attention to important elements with dynamics rather than pummeling them with a wall of sound.
In the “Top Gun” sequel, the synaptic sound of being inside the jet fighter cockpits with Cruise’s Maverick emphasized breathing and the manipulation of the joystick, while strategically layering in the jet noises. These included the sound of air whooshing over the wings and the sonic reflection of the aerobatics. This was definitely a contributing factor to the film’s global success in bringing audiences back to theaters.
“We use the word [‘synaptic’] a lot when we get the opportunity,” said supervising sound editor James Mather (who worked on “M:I —Fallout” and this year’s “Dead Reckoning — Part One”). “It’s about the response where people have said they’ve held their breath through sequences watching it at the cinema, and so synaptic means it’s physically affecting the audience. So it’s interesting.
“Tom is all about feeling it, and whatever it is that makes that happen, he’ll go along with it,” he continued. “It’s part of his DNA. He doesn’t need it to be explained…it’s not about the words…it’s about the physicality. It’s about the synaptic response that he gets.”
Mather was part of an Oscar-nominated team that was split into two groups and spanned two continents. The sound work started at Skywalker Sound in Northern California, led by supervising sound editor Al Nelson. But when they couldn’t follow the mix to London because of COVID-19, Mather took over and worked alongside production sound mixer Mark Weingarten and re-recording mixers Chris Burdon and Mark Taylor. That’s when the sound continued to evolve, not just in terms of process but exploration. For example, the positioning of dialogue during flight scenes, which was made easier by the actors wearing flight masks.
However, the first important lesson they learned from original “Top Gun” editor Chris Lebanz was that the signature hard-punching sound on the cuts was the secret to its sonic success. This was a mandate from director Joseph Kosinski to Oscar-nominated editor Eddie Hamilton and the sound team. “We adopted that philosophy [of hard cutting] to our film…authentic jet sounds wherever you could, layering them up,” Kosinski told IndieWire. “Right before we started shooting for a week of just capturing all the sounds of these jets, we had sound teams out in the canyons when we were doing flybys and getting all those amazing sounds. So you start with the reality of it. Then you start to bring in some of the artistry in the mix.”
Although Cruise routinely visits the mixing stages of his films to provide notes, he was a much more frequent presence on “Maverick,” explaining the visceral experience that he had while shooting the amazing in-camera aerial footage. “On this one, in particular, it was such a personal project for him,” said Mather. “The responsibility and the pressure, I guess, for the success of it was pretty heavy on his shoulders. And I think he came to see us every other day. He’d be training in the day doing jumps and motorbike stunts for ‘Mission: Impossible,’ and then he’d come and sit with us. He can use his memory of what it was like in there, and so there are probably certain nuances, sounds that for him were important that maybe he wants to focus on. When he hears or feels the sound, depending on the volume of it, he has to trigger the same response that reminds him of that experience at the time.”
The opening arrival of Ed Harris as the Commander intent on shutting down the Dark Star test flight program re-introduces Maverick’s rebelliousness when he flies over Harris and blows the roof off the guard hut. Yet what makes the moment work is the balance between the thrust and scale, followed by the beauty and grace of the Dark Star flying in a long shot. “There’ a lovely phrase that we use called ‘The Silence of the Jet Roar,'” Mather said. “And those really impactful sounds are only viable because of the silence that precedes them or follows them. And this, pretty much more than any film I’ve worked on, explored that notion and that dynamic.”
The sound design was built around Maverick’s legendary love of flight and then pushing the envelope when it becomes dangerous. This was conveyed through use of Shepard tone. “There’s a lot of tools that we can use to heighten that, which is the ascending or descending tone that just continues to ascend, even though it doesn’t go anywhere,” said Nelson. “It just feels like it’s constantly building, whining, all those elements, if you pull them out, you’d go, ‘What is making that sound?’ There’s nothing actually on screen making that sound, but it becomes part of the device to increase tension and then the breathlessness of it. Early on, you hold off on jet noise at times to then emphasize it later.”
Depending on the training mission, though, the sound team had to contend with dialogue: First, the exposition that sets up the tension between Maverick and Rooster (Miles Teller) during the first training session, and later gaining the trust of the team to get them prepared for what turns out to be a dangerous bombing mission. “It was making sure that the sound and the environment reflects the story about him still being Maverick,” added Nelson. “It’s cool music that we know should be played loud. And then we’re in the air with these amazing F-18s interacting with each other. And Tom was intent that it had to have that same dynamic as the first ‘Top Gun,’ which is it’s gotta cut, it’s gotta punch you in the gut.”
It culminates with the final canyon run to blow up the uranium enrichment site, which upped the visceral spectacle of the cool Maverick leading the strike with a group of anxious pilots. And for a large portion of the sequence, you only hear their breathing. “It’s all about the intensity of [Maverick] pulling those Gs,” said Mather. “And that’s him saying, you need to pay attention to the fact that this is brutal. And the sound of the sticks was important. It’s the articulate knowledge of this machine again. And we’re showing that he knows exactly what to do to accomplish this impossible task. It’s the goal of storytelling through sound.”