While there was much speculation surrounding Val Kilmer’s role in last year’s Top Gun: Maverick, the exact details of how he would appear in the film were shrouded in secrecy. Despite Kilmer’s battle with throat cancer, which he publicly confirmed in 2017, Tom Cruise and Maverick director Joseph Kosinski ingeniously integrated the actor into the movie. Kilmer’s character, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, mirrored the star’s real-life challenges in a poignant and emotional manner. Notably, the creative team found a way to include Kilmer’s voice, which he lost during treatment, in the film.
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Kilmer’s journey included rounds of chemotherapy and two tracheotomies, a procedure enabling him to breathe without using his nose or mouth. This medical journey unfortunately affected his ability to speak clearly. In 2021, through the power of AI technology, his voice was recreated using archival audio. This breakthrough allowed Kilmer’s voice to grace the film, where he delivers a heartfelt speech to his friend and former Top Gun classmate, Maverick (Cruise), following a challenging training session for a group of Top Gun graduates. In both the film and real life, Kilmer utilizes a computer to communicate.
Sonantic, the AI company collaborating with Kilmer, developed over forty speech models for the film. John Flynn, CTO and co-founder of Sonantic, confirmed that the “best, highest-quality, most expressive one [dialogue recording]” was chosen for the movie in an interview with Forbes. This pioneering work not only enhanced Maverick but also laid the groundwork for future applications of these techniques and processes. Audiences who experienced Maverick will undoubtedly remember how this technology contributed to one of the film’s most touching moments.
Kilmer Was Thankful to Have Another Chance to Speak Again On-Screen
Val Kilmer’s insights on AI in voice recreation certainly apply to this remarkable scenario:
“I’m profoundly thankful to the entire team at Sonantic who skillfully restored my voice in a way I never thought possible. Communication is at the core of our existence as human beings, and the side effects from throat cancer made it challenging for others to understand me. The opportunity to share my story with a voice that feels genuine and familiar is an incredibly special gift.”
Regarding the implementation of his voice, Joseph Kosinski shared during a conversation with Rian Johnson for Variety’s Directors on Directors that Val Kilmer deserves credit for inspiring the team to draw from his own life experiences for Iceman’s illness. Kosinski said, “I thought it was a very courageous idea on Val’s part, but it clearly opened up a compelling storyline for Iceman and Maverick, which we then integrated into the script.” Initially, the plan was for Kilmer to speak throughout the entire scene, but Kosinski found it more impactful for the AI voice to be revealed midway through the scene.
It’s truly heartening that Val Kilmer and the creative team behind Maverick found a way to incorporate his presence in the film that was both emotionally resonant and authentic. The groundbreaking work by Sonantic holds significant potential and can hopefully assist individuals beyond Hollywood who face similar challenges.
Top Gun: Maverick is now available for streaming on Paramount+.