Cruise Control: Kevin LaRosa’s Aerial Acrobatics

Eyes on the skies. Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell makes his return in Top Gun: Maverick.
Eyes on the skies. Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell makes his return in Top Gun: Maverick.

As Top Gun: Maverick enters box-office record books and the Letterboxd Top 250, aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa II takes us into the cockpit for insights into pulling those eight-G stunts.

The need for speed is greater than ever in Top Gun: Maverick, a film that through its sincerity and commitment to practicality has even those not so fond of the 1986 Tony Scott film flying high “right into the Danger Zone”.

The film’s aviation fetishism is off the charts—you can feel it in the clanking and grinding of landing gear on an aircraft carrier in the opening sequence, you can see it in the strain on the faces of the actors who are flying in these jets and taking those Gs for real (and doing their best not to puke for real as well).

Response to the film’s intense aerial set pieces has been strong—“he go fast in airplane” indeed—so we sought out Maverick’s aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa II to give us some behind-the-scenes details on just how the hell the crew pulled together this “exquisite piece of dad-movie filmmaking”.

LaRosa is a second-generation coordinator in Hollywood whose bonafides in the role—as well as that of pilot, camera pilot and ground coordinator—extend across several Marvel movies, The Bourne Ultimatum, Ad Astra, the Jurassic World series and more. As Top Gun: Maverick lands in the Letterboxd Top 250, we asked him how he helped coordinate the sequences that turned the high-flying blockbuster into the dad movie to end all dad movies, and how he trained a cast of actors not to hurl while pulling 8 Gs.

Monica Barbaro (Natasha ‘Phoenix’ Trace) and Tom Cruise on the Top Gun: Maverick set.
Monica Barbaro (Natasha ‘Phoenix’ Trace) and Tom Cruise on the Top Gun: Maverick set.

You’ve been in the industry for some time as a pilot and a coordinator. How did working on Top Gun: Maverick differ from your previous experiences?
Kevin LaRosa II: Oh, it clearly differed because it’s an iconic, just pinnacle movie about aviation. As we’ve said before, it’s a love letter to aviation and it is very much so that, so I think this movie sets the bar very, very high. I can’t see anything outdoing it. The aerials in the movie, we used technology that we didn’t have available to us before, and we shot aerial cinematography in a way which [has] never been done before.

Could you tell me a little bit more about the kit that you used for shooting aerial sequences?
Sure. Well, there’s Claudio Miranda, the DP of our movie, he was the driving force in making sure that there were these IMAX cameras on the inside and outside of the F-18s. I didn’t have as much involvement in that as I did the air-to-air platforms that were set up for this movie.

One of the most notable ones was something that I had dreamt up and created before the movie came to fruition, and that’s called the CineJet. I found an L-39, jet-based platform, which is a little fighter trainer readily available in the US, and we put a Shotover gimbal on the front of that aircraft. The reason I did that is because the existing jet technology that I had been using for the previous decade I knew would not have been the right fit for the movie. We needed to make sure that we were flying the latest and greatest camera technology with the best stabilization and the best camera gimbal available to us, and that wasn’t going to work on the existing platforms.

So, I had to get to work to figure out what we can do for Top Gun: Maverick, and that’s how the CineJet was born. Also, halfway through the movie, another jet-based platform became available that I flew extensively on the movie, and that is a Phenom camera jet. [It’s] a light business jet, which flew two Shotover gimbals, and that jet was beautiful for doing carrier work or anything out over the water or extended missions. Not as maneuverable as the CineJet, but those two platforms were definitely, I think, what made it so special.

Aside from that, I flew the camera helicopter on the movie with the Shotover K1 gimbal, and the camera-helicopter shots are used extensively throughout the movie because it creates this big differential in speed. Every time we watch the movie and there’s an F-18 ripping past the camera, you can rest assured that’s either a ground-camera position or a helicopter shot.

Aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa II strapped into the cockpit.
Aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa II strapped into the cockpit.

Which sequence was the trickiest to figure out, in terms of capturing it?
It takes a village, really. There’s two other individuals I work with to figure out each sequence in the right platform, and those are our aerial directors of photography. On Top Gun: Maverick, we had two of them, we had David B. Nowell and we had Michael FitzMaurice, both of them with extensive aviation photography backgrounds. These are the individuals that do half of the work—the other half of the work, I should say—when I’m up in the air. My job is to put the camera in the right place, whether it’s a jet or helicopter, put it in the right position, and then it’s their job to compose the shot and actually film what we see on the big screen, so we work hand-in-hand inside those aircraft.

To answer your question, both the aerial DPs and myself would work with [director] Joe Kosinski and Claudio to figure out what was the correct tool for any given sequence. Did we need to be ripping through canyons or in dog-fight sequences? That was typically going to be the CineJet, just because it’s very maneuverable and we can really get that camera in places that it’s never been before. Or do we need to go out over the water and film these epic, big sequences with the aircraft carriers? That was going to be the Phenom 300.

Or did we need to post up deep into a snowy canyon somewhere where we couldn’t get ground crew? That was going to be the A-Star helicopter, because I could just hover in between trees or rocks deep in terrain [into which] we could never get people, and then have those F-18s come ripping past camera. So, that’s the methodology that we would use together, collectively as a team, to choose the right platform.

No barf bags required for seasoned aerial professional Tom Cruise.
No barf bags required for seasoned aerial professional Tom Cruise.

So, that was the process of figuring it out, but what was your favorite element of working on it?
The final sequence of the movie. Joe Kosinski, he also does a great job telling an aerial story. I feel like every sequence has this natural progression and build-up, and I can tell you that it felt that way filming it, as well. So, my favorite, most dynamic, most energetic, and some of the wildest stuff we did is in the final sequence of the movie.

It was very, very wild and dynamic flying at that final sequence, we were really out in some amazing terrain. We spent a lot of effort and a lot of time looking for the best terrain—those huge vertical developments, those mountains that we see on-screen, those are really there, and those F-18s are really flying in and amongst them, with the camera platforms that are flying. So, that was some truly epic flying that I’ll never forget.

Speaking of progression, I read that you and Tom Cruise helped put together a flight program for the actors, because the actors were, of course, all in cockpits for a lot of the action sequences. Could you talk me through the stages of that?
He was the major driving force, obviously, with Paramount behind him backing it, but he came to me and asked if we could put together a training curriculum, so that we can take our cast through this natural progression of entry-level aviation all the way to high-performance aviation, and I think we accomplished that.

I was lucky enough to work with my father. We were their first flight instructors, the cast. Not Tom. Tom’s an epic aviator. Tom was helping us administer this and overseeing it. But my dad and I started training our cast members in Cessna 172s. We see those airplanes all over the world, that’s an entry-level aircraft. We taught them how to talk on the radio and where to move their eyes, what to look at, how to land and take off. That was to get their spatial orientation and what aviation was all about.

If you’re going to make a love letter to aviation, you’ve got to do it right, and they did it right.

—⁠Kevin LaRosa II

Once we felt like their stomachs and inner ears had progressed and people weren’t getting sick, we graduated them onto the next course. Our good friend, Chuck Coleman, runs an amazing program as a flight instructor in high-performance aircraft. They flew an Extra 300, which is a very maneuverable, nimble little piston-powered propeller aircraft, and that’s really where they got their G-tolerance. When I say G-tolerance, I’m talking about the cast pulling up to eight Gs on a daily basis, sometimes two sorties a day in this Extra 300.

G-tolerance is like a muscle memory, it’s a lot of weight. We know it as a general public when we’re on a roller coaster and we’re in a tight turn, it pushes us in our seat. When you’re in an aircraft and we pull up to eight Gs, that is huge, that’s almost 2,000 pounds of force shoving down on your entire body. You have to learn the physiological effects of how to breathe, what to do with your muscles to keep the blood in your upper body so you don’t pass out.

That’s what the cast did every day, they built up their G-tolerance and their G-fatigue levels to the point where Chuck was able to graduate them, and they went over to my friend, Randy Howell with the L-39 program. The L-39 is a very maneuverable airplane where they pulled, again, up to eight Gs, but now they’re doing it in a jet, and that was their final training.

Once Randy graduated them, they got into those F-18s and they were seasoned pros. That’s why I think their performances looked so good on-screen. Because Paramount and Tom Cruise were really the driving forces for this pilot training program. They were aviators [in] the truest sense, other than having their licenses, and by the way, a couple of them did get their pilot’s licenses. To me, they effectively became pilots, because when we look at them on the big screen, they are moving their bodies in such a way, they’re talking, they’re manipulating switches and flight controls, they look the part perfectly.

Even for somebody that does what I do, I’m an aerial specialist, an aerial coordinator, when I watch the movie, they look perfect in there. That’s a testament to the training program that they went through.

Out of curiosity, who went ahead and got their aviation license afterward?
Well, that would be my good friend, Mr. Glen Powell. He’s a fully FAA-certified pilot.

LaRosa’s “good friend” Glen Powell, who shines as Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin in Top Gun: Maverick.
LaRosa’s “good friend” Glen Powell, who shines as Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin in Top Gun: Maverick.

Aside from having the actors in the cockpit, what was the key that kept the flying feeling real, rather than fanciful?
We used the United States Navy and a lot of the folks there that were helping us and our advisors. One of them in particular, call sign ‘Ferg’, is Brian Ferguson, he was instrumental in working with us to make sure that the dog-fighting sequences were authentic and looked realistic, telling us what these aircrafts could do so that we could shoot them properly on screen.

This is a very fun little tidbit. I’ve been talking to a lot of Naval aviators about the film, and what they love are some of the little details inside this movie, and the movie’s full of them, that are just very authentic and real. I’ll give you a very cool one. The F-18 structural limit is seven and a half Gs. We’ve talked about that, that’s what the airplane is limited to, and in the movie, they talk about pulling more than that.

There’s a little paddle on the stick that you have to press, kind of with your pinky, that lets that aircraft pull more Gs. It effectively almost bends the airplane. Not that it happened in real life, but it is a detail within the movie, and there were so many of them that are shown, and it’s accurate, and people love that type of thing. So, I think that’s why people keep watching this movie over and over again, is you keep catching onto these little details and go, “Oh man, I didn’t even realize that, that’s amazing, that’s awesome.” I love that, and there’s a huge emphasis in the entire movie. If you’re going to make a love letter to aviation, you’ve got to do it right, and they did it right.

My biggest drive is creating the most stunning and dynamic aerial cinematography that’s ever been done.

—⁠Kevin LaRosa II

I love the moment very early on in the film when a jet flies overhead where Ed Harris’s character is arriving at the airfield and there’s just that huge gust of wind.
I can’t stress enough to the audience and everybody that’s going to hear this and listen to this and see this, is that there’s always an aircraft in lens. That wind you see in that sequence, that’s real aircraft jet wash right there. I was standing right there, we were coordinating that, and it was incredible. So, one of our Top Gun: Maverick rules is we could never shoot blank sky and have fake aircraft, there always had to be an aircraft behind the lens, and we stuck to our rule.

It almost challenges belief, some of the stuff that you get in the very early parts of the film, like the Mach-10 sequence. Could you tell me a little more about that?
That is an F-18 behind the lens. When we use CGI, which is very limited on Top Gun: Maverick, it is simply to reskin an aircraft or modify something slightly. But all the Darkstar stuff, the afterburners and the vapor and the takeoff and everything, that’s a real aircraft behind the lens, that’s an F-18.

LaRosa praises Craig Hosking’s “stunning aerial photography” in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017).
LaRosa praises Craig Hosking’s “stunning aerial photography” in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017).

Were there any other flight scenes from other films or television that you look to for inspiration?
I study as much aerial cinematography as I can. My passion is filmmaking and aviation, and I’m a very lucky man in that I get to mix those two passions into my career and my daily job. It doesn’t feel like a job. But I think my goal in life as an aerial coordinator, one, obviously, is safety and making sure we’re taking care of our people and that I’m representing the customers that hire me to make their movies. But my biggest drive is creating the most stunning and dynamic aerial cinematography that’s ever been done.

But I do have a lot of favorite films. Really, it’s interesting to watch how technology has progressed. The last Pearl Harbor movie that was made was groundbreaking in aerial cinematography and how they mounted cameras. My father worked on that movie. Dunkirk, which was shot recently, and my good friend, Craig Hosking, a colleague of mine, did some stunning aerial photography in that.

I love aerial photography, and there’s something to be learned with every movie, and even the past movies where the technology wasn’t what we see today, there’s always something to be learned about movement and camera movement and how to make other aircraft look good. I love doing that, that’s what I study and what I love looking at.

Circling back, were you a fan of the original Top Gun when—
Are you kidding me?! I was born in the year that movie came out, and I think I wore that movie out as a kid and growing up. I’ve seen it thousands of times. I like to tell people I was born as a second-generation aerial coordinator and stunt pilot, and it is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. Since I’ve been a little boy, I wanted to do what I do today, but there was only one thing that almost got in the way and that was Top Gun. It almost pulled me into the Navy. I wanted to be an F-14 fighter pilot, I wanted to be just like Tom Cruise. But I stayed on course, and I’m sure glad I did, because in some beautiful, full-circle way, I ended up working on Top Gun: Maverick.

There was definitely a year period where I sure felt like I was in the Navy. By the way, might I just add, working with the United States Navy over that time period gave me a new-found appreciation for the real heroes that fly those aircraft and the men and women who support them on a day-in, day-out basis. So, a huge tip of the hat to them and much respect.

Like many young Americans, Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) very nearly had LaRosa joining the Navy.
Like many young Americans, Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) very nearly had LaRosa joining the Navy.

Any good memories from the set?
There’s another funny story, early on, right before principal photography. The CineJet was new, we were working with Claudio Miranda and his team to make sure that all the cameras were going to be right and we had the best technology, and everything was functioning properly. I remember landing in the CineJet on a test mission, and I was rolling into the hangar and I shut the motor off and I popped open the canopy, and one of the crew members had the Top Gun theme song playing.

Again, it was that moment right there again, I was just like, “Oh my goodness, what are we doing? We are literally making Top Gun right now.” I think we all felt that. That movie is so iconic, it’s historic. There’s multiple times throughout the movie where we would just stop and have to pinch ourselves like, “I can’t believe we’re doing this and I can’t believe how good it’s progressing and turning out.” So, pretty special.

Last question. Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick are films about competition and friendly rivalry, as much as they’re love letters to aviation. So, in that spirit, I wanted to ask you, who is the better pilot, you or Tom Cruise?
Oh man, you set me up there. It was a nice moment, let’s not ruin this.

Top Gun: Maverick’ is in theaters now.

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