The medium of animation knows no bounds — which is exactly the kind of limitless possibility cinematographer Claudio Miranda needed to pull off Top Gun: Maverick. But what to do when your lead actor is a human man and not Shrek? The answer was a bit of reverse engineering.
At a recent dinner for the 2023 New York Film Critics Circle Awards, where Miranda picked up a Best Cinematography award for his work on Maverick, the director of photography revealed that his unlikely inspiration for the long-awaited Top Gun sequel was not modern aerial footage but gravity-defying action animation. Looking back at old stunts, including the revolutionary stunt work in Tony Scott’s original 1983 movie, meant potentially emulating what those movies already did. That’s not the Tom Cruise way, nor was it the goal of Maverick director Joseph Kosinski. But when Miranda discovered Damian Nenow’s 2010 short film Paths of Hate, his bar was set.
Nenow is not as known an entity as anyone involved in Top Gun: Maverick, but he is an innovator: Most recently, the Polish animator helmed Another Day of Life, an animated documentary/narrative hybrid about the Angolan Civil War that earned a release from GKIDS in 2018. Paths of Hate uses a similar bold-lined style to turn a vicious warplane dogfight into a reflection of anger’s poisonous effect on the human psyche. While introspective, it’s easy to see why Miranda sparked to Nenow’s work. The animated camera swings in and out of the cockpit, with the planes moving low to the ground in ways the Top Gun academy teachers would deem incredibly irresponsible. Perfect for Maverick.
As Miranda told Indiewire, if he could get the planes in Maverick to look like the dogfight in Nenow’s eviscerating portrait of war, then he’d be putting a live-action movie in front of audiences they’d never seen before. So he did. The cutting-edge, built-into-the-fighter-jets camera work he used to pull off Maverick’s photography is highly technical and well-detailed, but to me, even more fascinating than the micro is the macro: Animation allowed a longtime live-action filmmaker to dream big. Miranda’s storied career is littered with an embrace of digital technology — his work on David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button made him the first DP nominated for a fully digital production, and he went on to shoot the highly animated Tron: Legacy. But in a field that’s constantly at war between digital/animated work and practical or on-film techniques, here’s a guy just looking for pure inspiration. And he found it in an animated short film you can watch right now.
The cherry on top of Miranda’s award-winning moment at the NYFCC dinner: Top Gun: Maverick star Danny Ramirez was on hand to present the award, and revealed that while making the movie, he bunked with the DP, who would spend his nights with headphones on, tablet up, watching YouTube videos that would “make him giggle.” This is how the real masters work, ladies and gentlemen.