Top Gun: Maverick is on pace to become one of the biggest hits and crowd pleasers of the year.
In addition to the all-star cast, increasingly impressive box office numbers and the first A+ CinemaScore of 2022, the sequel is wowing audiences (and aviation experts) with its jaw-dropping flight sequences, most of which were performed and filmed with almost no CGI or VFX.
How the heck did they pull it off? Were the actors really trained to fly fighter jets? What kind of camera is used to capture objects flying at Mach speed?
PEOPLE reached out to the film’s aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa II to find out the answers and what it takes to become a stunt pilot and aerial coordinator in charge of creating fictional but realistic aerial sequences.
Read on for detailed, expert explanations from LaRosa II, a third generation pilot and second generation stunt pilot of planes and helicopters, who is also a proud girl dad and hair-braiding ace.
Talk to us about the actual flying everyone did in the film. What kind of work are the actors doing in the planes?
LaRosa II: At this point we all know the cast is always in the backseat of these F/A-18s and that’s sort of a Top Gun rule. We always had these Top Gun: Maverick rules: We could never shoot blank sky, which is done in a lot of movies, where they shoot what’s called a plate. That wasn’t allowed. We always had to shoot another airplane so that when you and I watched the movie, it looks real. It looks real because there’s an airplane really behind the lens. If there was an aircraft that’s maybe not readily available or not flying in the world, still, not allowed to shoot blank sky. There has to be another airplane there and then VFX would do some amazing things and just re-skin it so you’re using the same textures and the same light.
And then when guys like me watch it, I can’t even tell that it’s not that airplane. And that’s because there’s a subject aircraft really flying behind the lens that may be re-skinned or re-textured, but it’s really there, so it makes a difference. And again, back to the cast in the aircraft, that’s a Top Gun: Maverick rule, an aerial rule. There always had to be performing in an aircraft. When you see them flying low over terrain, in between valleys, dog fighting, that’s really our cast. They’re really in there experiencing all that while delivering an amazing performance.
Tom Cruise has talked about the flight training everyone went through. How long does it take for an average person to adjust to G-force and not feel sick? Is it something you can acclimate to?
LaRosa II: I like to attribute it to something similar to muscle memory. So it’s a tolerance that you build up. And that’s what Paramount and Tom Cruise made with this pilot training program, to acclimate them and build up the G-tolerance and build up their fatigue levels, so that once the cast were in the F/A-18s, they can experience it better. Had we not done that, I don’t think it would’ve been possible. Even me, if I don’t fly all the time, if I’m not pulling Gs or maneuvering, and I get in aircraft and just go rip around, I’ll make myself sick. But you build up to it, you become proficient, and your inner ear knows what’s going on, your brain understands it more, your body understands the physiological effects, and you can withstand it better. And that’s why the training was important. So by the time they got in that F/A-18, they were ready.
Also, It’s inevitable. What they’re doing out there was heavy duty. Somebody’s going to get sick. And people got sick. But when you’re that experienced and trained as they were, you kind of learn to power through it in a way. So I would say the average person, if you got air sick, you’re kind of done. You might be done for two days. You’re just out for the count. You feel horrible. You need to lay down, you’re washed out, you’re done. Our cast got to a level of proficiency where if they did start feeling sick, they would process it, handle it, whatever you want to say, but then they would get back into it. There’s no pulling over on the side of the road when you’re in a 50,000 pound F/A-18 doing 500 knots in a canyon. You’re in it. So I guess one of the things I’m most proud about isn’t the fact that they built up their tolerance, it’s the fact that they would muscle through and get themselves back on point. That’s no easy task for anybody and they did it when they needed to do it.
What is a typical shooting day like?
LaRosa II: A normal shooting day always starts before the sun comes up. You’re never going to sleep in in this trade, because we want that pretty light, right? [Director of photography] Claudio Miranda, you watch Top Gun: Maverick and the movie’s just very cinematic, golden, beautiful. Well, we have to wake up early to go get that. So we get up early, we go to the airport, we get our aircraft ready, all of our aircraft: the Navy aircraft, the civilian aircraft. We give everything a lot of TLC. All of our equipment is meticulously cleaned and maintained every single day. We get ourselves ready.
Being ready to fly isn’t just about being prepped with the mission. It’s about being physically prepped. Are we rested? Have we had our food for the day? Do we feel mentally ready? Do we have external stressors that are going to keep us from being the best we can be? So you’ve got to be physically and mentally sharp, and then we do these incredible briefings. And in Top Gun: Maverick we would brief our cast, and Tom [Cruise] and [director] Joe Kosinski were just amazing at helping the cast be an extension of themselves in the cockpit where they couldn’t be with them. So we’d go through these awesome creative briefs, and then we would get into the logistics of the briefs. How are we going to go get those shots? And we would finally end with the safety and operational risk management and mitigation, and then we’d walk and they’d go to their parachute, or the PR shop it’s called, and they’d get their helmets and their wardrobe and all their flight gear. And then they’d finally walk to the aircraft and they’d go do a mission. We call them sortings, so that’s the first bit of the day.
Then we come back from those flights and we debrief. Debriefs are equally as important because we watch the footage and Joe would watch every second of cockpit footage and every second of aerial content that myself and the aerial DP would shoot, and we would critique it, and we’d make it better, and we would learn, and we’d find stuff that was the little 1% gold that would make the movie. So that’s the first half of the day. And then you would do that all over again in the second half of the day when the light gets low again, so you essentially fly twice a day. It makes for a long day. It’s exhausting and extremely rewarding, but that would be a typical day on set of flying on Top Gun: Maverick.
You helped create a new kind of jet and camera combo for this film, the CineJet. What exactly is it?
LaRosa II: Years before this movie came to fruition, I knew we would need better technology to help tell the story and give the audience that thrill ride. So I went to the drawing boards and was trying to figure out what jet platform I could use and what camera gimbals were available to fly in a jet. There wasn’t really much out there. So where I landed was on a jet called a L-39 Albatros. It’s Czechoslovakian-built and imported into the U.S. as a sport airplane, if you will. So it’s readily available and maneuverable and it gave me a lot of attributes that I needed in an aircraft to be able to film with. And then we partnered with a company called Shotover and Helinet Aviation, and they have this amazing gimbal called an F1 that was built for helicopters, but we wanted to put it on jets. So they had to modify it and wind tunnel test it and make the thing capable of doing what we wanted it to do. And we went through this big certification and test phase on this airplane. A year and a half later, after drawing my own concept art using MS Paint, that thing was sitting on a ramp, nice and shiny, tested and ready to go.
My role on the movie evolved very early on. Originally I was just the camera jet pilot. And then as the producers and Tom and everybody saw my abilities and my relationship with the Navy, my helicopter flying abilities and everything, I evolved into being the aerial coordinator of the whole movie. So it was an absolute dream come true.
So you created the CineJet for this movie, now what? Are you using it for other projects?
LaRosa II: I actually just did another job with the CineJet last week. It was purposely built for Maverick and then after that, Glen Powell, who’s a dear friend of mine, we signed on for another aviation Navy movie called Devotion. The trailer just dropped the other day, and the CineJet did all the air-to-air flying on that as well. I never knew it would have that career after Maverick. But recently it’s been doing other work. We’ve been putting it to use in private jet shoots and some other really neat things, so it served its purpose for what it was to be built for and it’s still enjoying a nice little life of aerial cinematography.
What’s been the most fun Maverick feedback you’ve received from other pilots?
LaRosa II: It’s been very fun for me. After a lot of the early screenings, I was getting blown up by a lot of pilots and a lot of Naval aviators who are thanking me. And really when they thank me, inside, internally, I thank the crew and Paramount and Joe and Tom. It’s a testament to everything we wanted to make and realistically so. And they say, “Kevin the flying sequences in this movie are everything I hoped they would be.” And a lot of them, my favorites are the ones that say, “I joined the armed forces because of the first movie. And this movie would make me do it all over again,” or that it sets the bar even higher. So that means a lot. That’s pretty resounding to me to hear things like that from those folks.
What’s your first memory of flight and flying?
LaRosa II: My first memory of flying is sitting on my mom’s lap in a helicopter. I must have been just a kid, a baby almost. And I remember going on a night flight with my dad [who is also a pilot and aerial coordinator] in downtown Los Angeles on a perfectly clear night and just the smell of the helicopter and the jet fuel. It probably wasn’t my first ride because I’d been flying with them since I was a baby, but it’s definitely the first one I visually remember, falling in love with the look and feel and the smells and the sights.
How many years, hours does it take to get where you are?
LaRosa II: There are a lot of variables. To do what I do, you have to mesh two different loves. I have a love for cinema, making movies, and I have a love for aviation. And I think to be the perfect aerial coordinator… Well, nobody’s perfect. To be a really good aerial coordinator, you have to understand both. And you have to have a really good foundation in both. I was lucky enough to grow up with a dad who worked on movie sets all the time as a stunt pilot. And, of course, I grew up flying so my whole life has culminated with a lot of really unique experiences to put me in this position to do what I do today.
Every aviation trade has its own set of parameters and skill sets. There are many aviation trades that I’m not good at or experienced or proficient in. But, what it takes to do what we do is an understanding of camera and also [the ability] to take on giant responsibility. If you take Top Gun: Maverick, for example, Paramount entrusted me as their aerial coordinator to make sure that everybody landed every day safely, and that all these aircraft could go back into service after every flight, and to make sure that we didn’t break any FAA rules. We don’t really think about that, but my job on the backside, I’m working with the FAA every day to make sure I’m obtaining permissions and waivers. And obviously, working with the Navy. And my counterpart on the Navy side was Captain Brian Ferguson, call sign Ferg. I worked with him every day to make sure that we had the right assets and we were doing things safely and mitigating risks.
So to do what I do isn’t just cranking and banking around in the sky. That’s the glamorous, fun stuff, but it is a lot of paperwork. It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a lot of meetings. It’s a lot of briefing and debriefing. And luckily, I love all of it. Because all that hard work we do on the ground pays off when we go fly.
What’s your schedule like and how are you booked? Because you fly planes and helicopters, can you do two jobs at once?
LaRosa II: One of the most fun things for me is when I go on a movie as an aerial coordinator and I’m in charge of any given aerial sequence and the producers and directors say, “Kev, you just choose the platform that’s going to make this correct. Make it right, make it safe, and make it awesome.” And that’s fun for me because then I go to work. There’s times where I will fly a jet in the morning, hop out of the jet, run across the ramp, get in the helicopter, and go fly the helicopter for the same sequence. And what I love about that is there’s continuity. If I’m shooting something for a certain director and there’s a style that I’m shooting in, that style is going to come right out of the jet and hop right into the helicopter — the same aerial DP, same pilot getting in that other platform. And that’s really fun for me.
I love that I can fly both. People ask me all the time, “What’s your favorite?” My answer is simple. I would not want to give up any one of them. It’s too cool to be able to fly both platforms. They do something completely different. My typical way that I get booked is, sometimes it’s as simple as, “Hey, I just need a shot of downtown,” and I’ll go fly a camera helicopter and I’ll be a camera pilot. And sometimes I get hired to be the aerial coordinator and I’m put on retainer for an entire movie. And that’s my favorite thing to do, because there’s a whole creative side and I get to help them turn storyboards into reality. I’m an independent contractor. I go from job to job, studio to studio, movie to movie and we fill in the gaps with a lot of really fun TV show flying as well.
What to you is the most impressive aerial cinematic sequence that you have not been involved in?
LaRosa II: Oh man. There are a few of them for sure. I’ve got to tip my hat to some of my competition, Craig Hosking was the aerial coordinator on Dunkirk and there was really amazing aerial cinematography in that movie. I love watching that. My dad, of course, and maybe there’s bias there, but he did this one stunt sequence in a movie called The Last Castle with Robert Redford. It doesn’t print as well on camera as it would if you were standing there in person, but he flew this military UH-1H Huey in the courtyard of that castle, around the flagpole while getting shot with multiple water hoses, and a stunt guy hanging underneath. The tolerances for how close he was to those buildings with the rotor blades were mere feet. And he did it over and over and over again with this excellence in repetition that I’ve just never seen before. This is probably some of the wildest, coolest flying I’ve ever seen. So a tip of the hat to my dad there, that was pretty intense.
Outside of what seems like a dream job, what is the most normal thing you do daily?
LaRosa II: I am actually really good at braiding my daughters’ hair. When I’m not doing these wild Hollywood stunts, I’m a proud, happy dad of three little girls: Ella, 3, Emma, 8, and Ava, 10. Braiding is a requirement if you’re going to be a girl dad, by the way. It’s less about aesthetics and more of a cheat. They look super cute with braided hair, but it’s a cheat because I don’t want to brush out knotty hair in the morning. It’s miserable. The most stressful thing I have ever done is brush out my little girls’ hair because it hurts. That kills me. But if you braid their hair at nighttime, you have smooth hair in the morning. It just saves you. I’m also really good at cooking breakfast. I love making omelets and hash browns.
Have your daughters flown with you yet?
LaRosa II: Absolutely. We are an aviation family, so I own a little sport aerobatic airplane and my little girls fly in that thing. I mean the little one is a little small, she’s been in helicopters. But the bigger girls, Emma and Ava, they can fly that thing. They can just barely land it. If they should want to learn and be Hollywood’s next major stunt pilot, I will be their biggest supporter and advocate.
Top Gun: Maverick is now in theaters.