Ryan Tudhope is ready to talk.
Now that the visual effects in “Top Gun: Maverick” have received an Oscar nomination and the team responsible for them is no longer embargoed from promoting their impressive work, VFX production supervisor Tudhope can finally reveal how his team achieved the essence of invisible effects but with a very substantial 2,400 CG shots.
As revealed during the VFX “bake-off” last month at the Academy Museum, artists from Method (now part of Framestore), MPC, and Lola performed several tasks in support of the film’s practical ethos. They integrated VFX plates into the amazing aerial photography and stunt work featuring Tom Cruise flying in the cockpits of Navy fighter jets. Jets were re-skinned to match the real ones in the aerial photography. Navy pilots were comped out of the cockpits, where actors operated the six Sony Venices connected to Rialto Camera Extension System. The VFX also provided matte paintings, environments, sky replacement, and lots of gunfire and explosions for the final bombing mission.
While it contains nearly as many CG shots as the typical Hollywood action tentpole, that’s more than usually called for in augmenting such a practical filmmaking methodology. “We always set out to do very seamless, invisible work that people wouldn’t even talk about or think about,” Tudhope told IndieWire. The goal was to achieve a sense of in-camera realism, military authenticity, and cinematic spectacle. “Visual effects was always in a supporting role in this picture,” Tudhope said.
“Our methodology was so focused on the practical aspects and trying to film real jets,” he continued, “and then leverage our resources with the Navy and our access to those things as filmmakers to tell the story.” According to Tudhope, it’s those resources and that support that allowed “Maverick” to “do visual effects in a way that you wouldn’t really be able to in any other film.”
Not in the 2020s, at least: This collaboration between VFX, ASC Award-nominated cinematographer Claudio Miranda (shockingly snubbed by the Academy), naval aviators, aerial coordinators, and others resulted in a throwback to the way VFX used to be done. “You’re trying to be subtle in a way, you’re trying to create shots that are convincing,” Tudhope said. “Not that you don’t want to do that in a big visual effects movie, but your handcuffs are off on those films in a way that I think can come back to bite you.”
As an example of where the collaboration benefited 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 especially for the film, and the footage of Cruise in its cockpit was filmed onstage. “We knew that Maverick was gonna be shot in, essentially, this gimbal,” Tudhope said, “but we still needed that world to recede away from us” — as it does behind the actors filmed aboard a flying F-18.
The solution? “Sometimes we flew that jet with no pilot in the backseat to create a cleaner back plate that we could use to put behind the cockpit of Darkstar,” Tudhope said. “The truest analogy to what he was going through at that point in the story was an F-18, right? That’s the jet we had at our disposal that was going to do the same maneuver at the same speed and the same acceleration. So that’s where we chose to film that particular back plate.
“It was really, I think, a lot of putting puzzle pieces together early on and trying to figure out resources and how we were going to get all of this material that we needed,” he continued. “The visual effects on this film were as much about what we did outside the computer as what we did inside the computer.”
This marriage between practical and digital for the VFX team was more complicated than just deciding to do all the shots digitally in post. As a result, they attained an authenticity because it was grounded in the reality of the hardware and the flying, This was a top down process all the way through production with the help of aerial coordinators and pilots. And one of the side benefits of shooting the aerial footage was that it also took advantage of limitations and imperfections. For example, when the pilots had difficulty lining up the shot they needed for a pirouette move, they found it in a second take, and the VFX team was able to complete the shot without redoing the whole thing in the computer. And there were some marvelous happy accidents as well. One such moment occurred when the guard shack fell apart early on when the Dark Star flew over Ed Harris. The first instinct was to rebuild the guard shack and reshoot it. But they resisted because it played so much better.
The film’s heaviest use of CG came with the treacherous bombing mission and its inverted pathway into a bowl-shaped valley, which required digital planes, environments, and explosions. But it was shot in a real location — the Cascade Range in Washington State — and choreographed and executed in such a way with the help of the invisible effects that made the danger viscerally exciting.
“There were all kinds of explorations done there,” Tudhope said. “But fundamentally based on this real location that we were able to film in and work around with all the same limitations that we had everywhere else in the film.”
Was there much room for happy accidents here as well? “Oh, yeah,” said Tudhope. “That’s kind of the entire point of what we did. If you look at the other pathway, with probably a group of really talented visual effects designers, who are creating all of the shots in the computer, it ends up lacking a little bit of the happy accidents because it’s overly designed.
“You get these shots that are too perfect, too good to be true, and weightlessness of things,”he added. “There’s all kinds of pitfalls to going down that methodology. Whereas by the very nature of having a real pilot in a real jet being filmed by another real pilot and a real camera operator and another real jet, just trying to get that shot of a pirouette move, you end up with these beautiful imperfections.”