June 1, 2022

Michael FitzMaurice, aerial cinematographer for Top Gun Maverick, shooting second unit on The Dark Knight, and more

Cinematographer Michael FitzMaurice is known for his aerial and second unit cinematography on huge films such as The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and now Top Gun Maverick. In the film business, second unit and aerial cinematography are involved in all of the action shots, and as a more technically-oriented DP, Michael has been able to combine his two loves- flying and shooting movies.

Michael started out learning about photography in seventh grade, and then got a job out of high school working as a PA for a production company, eventually working his way up shooting music videos and commercials. It was hard to get into aerial cinematography, but with a love of flying and a pilot’s license, he was able to prove he could shoot while flying, and pilots would recommend him for aerial cinematography jobs. Aerial cinematography is a very small and select group of people, requiring a very special skill set. When shooting film in a helicopter or plane, it’s tough for most DPs to focus on composing a shot in a small space that is also moving quickly and unpredictably, and not get airsick.

Top Gun Maverick was hugely dependent on its aerial unit, with most of the action done as a real, practical effect. The aerial unit used two jets, a helicopter and also shot from mountaintops to capture the action as the fighter jets flew past. As a trained pilot himself, Tom Cruise actually flew the jets and did many of his own stunts. Each training jet was outfitted with six cameras to capture the action of the actors in the cockpit. Michael and the aerial crew worked on the movie for over a year, developing new, special gimbal camera systems mounted on the jets. The crew had hours and hours of pre-production meetings, to get a clear idea of the shots needed and how to accomplish them with aircraft and cameras. Michael took a lot of notes and used models to act out aerobatic maneuvers for the planes before shooting them. For Michael, one of the highlights of working on Top Gun Maverick was being allowed to fly very low over a Navy aircraft carrier, although they were not allowed to land on it.

Working on Top Gun Maverick was great, but Michael’s craziest movie experience was working on second unit of The Dark Knight with director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister. The movie was shot in IMAX, which is a notoriously difficult format to shoot- IMAX cameras at the time had a very faulty video tap for the monitors. For the scene, Heath Ledger as the Joker blows up a hospital and walks away, all in one take. The explosion was done on a real building, rigged up with real explosives, so there were no second takes. They began the take, but as soon as they went outside, the video tap went white and they couldn’t really tell if they were actually getting anything on film at all, but they kept rolling, the building exploded, and hoped the whole thing was actually caught on film- which took about two days to get the film developed and the dailies back. Luckily, it all turned out perfectly.

Top Gun Maverick is currently playing in theaters.

Michael FitzMaurice: Instagram @michaelfitzmaurice

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com//ep170/

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