film design

Top Gun: Maverick


Client: Jerry Bruckheimer Films  |   Time:  2018   |   Credit: Lead Vehicle Designer

Top Gun: Maverick is a 2022 American action drama film starring Tom Cruise. Daniel returns as Lead Vehicle Designer to his third consecutive collaboration with director Joe Kosinski, after designing for Tron: Legacy and Oblivion in previous years.

Director: Joe Kosinski

Production Designer: Jeremy Hindle

Vehicle Art Director: Ron Mendell

Lead Vehicle Design Darkstar: Daniel Simon

Final Surface Model: Fred Gasson

Design Collaborator: Skunk Works ®

Full Size Model: Lockheed Martin


I have been fascinated with aviation since my early twenties, when I began working as a car designer. As paradox as it sounds, it is thanks to the seemingly ubiquitous passion of car designers for aviation, which I got quickly infected with by colleagues. Over the years, it turned into somewhat an obsession, with studying endless books and video, and visiting events such as the Reno Air Races, Oshkosh, various California Airshows, and many museums. Needless to say, the incredible SR-71 Blackbird holds a special place in my heart, as it does with so many aviation fans.

One can only imagine my reaction to a phone call I received from director Joe Kosinski in 2018. It went something like this: “We will be making a new Top Gun movie. We should design an experimental aircraft to set a speed record. A Blackbird of the future. What do you think?”

So I spent the next 5 weeks designing and modeling what became the X-72 Darkstar, delivering a fully detailed 3D model asset for production. The final surfaces were created by Fred Gasson, whom I met at Bugatti – the perfect wingman to translate my model into clean Nurbs data for machining parts.

During the final stages of design, our efforts were joined by a party that made speechless – Skunk Works themselves. The creators of the SR-71 Blackbird and the SR-72 concepts that we took so much inspiration from. After a meet and greet at their famed Palmdale north of Los Angeles, we establish frequent meetings. I received invaluable feedback on my weekly presentations, which turned this project from ‘Hollywood guesswork’ into a once-in-a-lifetime experience with real-world engineering input from the source itself.




The briefing was clear. To design a believable hypersonic aircraft, theoretically reaching Mach 10. It should accommodate lead actor Tom Cruise, with enough glazing to see him act on camera. The aircraft’s length would be ultimately defined by filming location and model making costs. A detailed full-size model has to be manufactured in short period of time, in sections for transport. A realistic – but non-retractable – undercarriage would be required for smooth taxiing shots on camera. The cockpit hatch shall give enough clearance to allow good camera shots. Final assets shall not only be compatible with manufacturing workshops, but also with the effect houses creating the CG flying shots.

In short – a dream project.

I dedicated the first day sketching shapes that came to mind without any deep research, a warmup to quickly get into the mindset of advanced aircraft and lifting body shapes. I had worked with an aerodynamicist a few years ago on a true aviation project, and had gained a deep appreciation for the complexity of real aircraft design. For a featured jet in a global mega-budget blockbuster, I had to define where the needle will register on the spectrum between spectacular Hollywood fantasy machine and an informed  ‘this looks as it would work’ design. Given the endless possibilities and little time, this is harder than it seems.



The final design of Darkstar — internally called evolution 47 — has an overall length of 21,18 m ( 69.5 feet ) and wingspan of 10,06 ( 33.0 ft ) . Whereas the wingspan is a result of pure esthetics, the length has a precise definition: it is the maximum length of the aircraft to fit into the selected hangar at China Lake Navy Base in California, where the opening sequence of Top Gun: Maverick was scheduled to be filmed. It is always fascinating where the design constraints are coming from on film projects.


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