Behind the Scenes: How We Made The Top Gun Video
Early this year I was contacted by my good friend Blair Bunting regarding a second jet shoot. Second? Yes, two years ago I directed and edited two videos for the United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds. One video documentary focused on the job of the official Thunderbirds photographer, and the other was a hype reel of Blair getting his guts tossed around and sustaining 9 G’s (which is super, ridiculously impressive I might add).
So when Blair asked about my availability to do another jet-related shoot, I jumped at it. What then ensued was six months of logistical planning for what would become three days of shooting. The idea was to try and recreate one of the more classic scenes from Top Gun, where Goose and Maverick go inverted over a Russian Mig, and proceed to snap a Polaroid, canopy to canopy.
This is the scene, in case you need a refresher:
Blair was curious if that photo would have looked good, or even turned out at all. The only way he could see to find out, was to actually test it. To do so, he got in contact with the Patriots Jet Team and pilot Robert “Scratch” Mitchell, and together they hatched the plan for this shoot.
Preparation for this shoot took nearly two days. There was a lot at stake, we wouldn’t get multiple chances at several of the shots, and fuel for the jets was expensive. There was a lot to plan, including flying the route in a Bonanza plane the night before as a pre-vis.
Seeing as this shoot would involve me actually going up in a jet with a camera, I knew that I was going to need help on the ground, which is why I brought on Toby Harriman and together we made it a Planet Unicorn production. Toby would be handling the B Camera as well as managing the Jet ground team responsible for the mounting of the GoPros to the jets. He would also be the lone drone pilot, getting shots of the jets as they taxied and took off (a job we had to get special permission for because of our location: an airport).
As mentioned, this time our partners were the Byron, CA-based Patriots Jet Team, a private air demonstration team made up of six L-39 Albatross jets. The L-39 was originally built as a fighter, but was never deployed as one due to challenges with the air intake design. Instead, the L-39 became the “trainer” series of jet for those who would eventually fly the F-series jets, like the F-16.
In order to get the shots we needed for this one, I would have to go up with the team and shoot jet-to-jet. In order to get the highest quality, the Jet team custom cut a hole in the canopy where I would be able to aim my camera. The benefit of course is that I wouldn’t be fighting reflections and imperfections from that canopy, but the downside was that the noise in the cockpit from the air rushing in would be incredibly loud. This would limit my communication ability with my pilot, Randy, and made it so that we had to really know the flight plan before going up (even more so than usual).
The Patriots ground crew had also built a sort of piston-mount to the side of the canopy that I could mount my camera on. This thing was awesome, and would prevent me from having to hand hold while up there. All we needed to do was retrofit it with the right kind of plate mount, and it was ready to go.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the angles that I would be forced to work within. I chose to shoot with the Canon 1DX Mark II here, because of the high quality 4K video and the 60 frames per second. I wanted to be able to utilize slow motion in the edit, and this was the only camera that fit the bill in terms of size and capability. There wasn’t nearly enough room in the cockpit for a larger camera, and the slim profile of the 1DX II made it the clear choice. Unfortunately, the 1DX II doesn’t have an articulating screen and it also doesn’t have focus peaking. To make it so I could 1) see what I was shooting and 2) make sure it was in focus, Toby and I had to build a custom mount for an external SmallHD Monitor.
It’s a bit of a Frankenstein monster, but by combining a GoPro base, tripod mount and a cold-shoe adapter, we were able to get the monitor to stay securely in front of me while flying. The monitor not only gave me an unimpeded view of what I was shooting, but it also enables focus peaking for whatever HDMI feed it pulls. Two birds with one stone!
With this setup, I had nearly full range of motion with the camera that was relatively stable, and a monitor that I could see no matter what angle the camera pointed.
While I was working with the flight crew on what to expect while in the air, Toby was focused on two major tasks: working closely with the Patriots’ ground crew to assure that the GoPros were ready, and preparing for his drone work. Toby worked with the Patriots’ Steve “Rings” Diethelm, who had rigged the Patriots’ jets with GoPros in the past. Each of the cameras was individually labled and prepared for specific tasks and placement. Some of the cameras would be used to record video, while some of the older GoPros on hand were there simply to record the audio from the cockpit. It was a really smart setup, and worked perfectly.
Toby’s situation was special, as he would be flying above an active runway at an airport, two normally major no-no’s in drone flying. But thanks to special permission, he was allowed to fly within certain boundaries. The one-time nature of the shots Toby would be trying to get mixed with the howling wind that courses through that area combined for an unusual challenge for any drone pilot. To prepare, Toby took several test flights the day before at about the time of day we would be going up.
Leading up to the actual takeoff, we were all briefed heavily on the flight path, the planned aerial maneuvers, the timing of everything, and of course the safety of the pilots and two photographers. Once the time of day was right, we took to the air. The day of the shoot it was nearly 100 degrees out, and the jet canopy is kind of like a greenhouse. Packed in there with gear, microphones and fully decked out in flight suits made for a pretty uncomfortable environment.
While I was up in the air, Toby was juggling two locked off cameras (one at the end of the runway) while also flying his Inspire One. Coordinating that many angles, that far apart in a very tight timeline was no easy task, but it’s easy to see how good of a job he did here.
The plan was to do a few fun, camera-friendly tricks in the air first, follow that with the recreation attempt on the Top Gun photo, and finish with a few other tricks that the Aerial Coordinator, Scratch, thought might look good on camera. Looking back on this, I’m really glad for the order that Scratch selected here, as the more physically taxing aerial maneuvers were saved for after the Top Gun recreation portion. Had we done them before the recreation bit, my body would have been too physically taxed to focus on the shoot.
That physical taxing I am referring to had quite a bit to do with the G’s we sustained while up there. They were nothing super serious, as we never took more than 4 or 5, but it was the first time I had ever had to take that many. Even Blair, who I mentioned has sustained 9 G’s in the past, felt pretty drained after the flight. Was it painful? Yes. Would I do it again? Absolutely.
As much as I like to de-emphasize gear, there are certain situations where having the right equipment makes all the difference in producing something like this. Below is a list of equipment we used out there, and what it was used for:
- 1 – Canon 1DX Mark II: A-camera in Jet, shot at 4Kp60.
- 1 – Sigma 24-105mm f/4 OS Zoom Lens: Mounted on the Canon 1DX II in the jet. This lens was chosen for it’s mix of wide and long field of view options, as swapping lenses mid-flight was deemed to be a bad idea. Mixed with it’s great performance (sharpness, etc), it was the best lens for the job.
- 1 – Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8: Used for A Camera interview shots
- 1 – Canon 70-200mm f/4: Used for B Camera interview shots
- 2 – Metabones Speedboosters: Used on the GH4s to allow us to mount Canon lenses
- 1 – SmallHD 502 monitor: Used in the cockpit in tandem with the 1DX II via HDMI, and allowed me to use focus peaking and see the video feed regardless of camera angle.
- 1 – Syrp Variable ND Filter: This is an absolute must for shooting video in changing lighting environments. In the jet, I was able to adjust exposure on the Sigma lens without touching aperture or shutter speed. This way, all the video footage would look very similar despite rapidly changing lighting environments. It also allowed me to adjust exposure mid shot without worrying about the clicking of the aperture.
- 1 -Canon XC-10: Use primarily as a behind-the-scenes, run-and-gun camera. It was also C-camera in interviews.
- 5 – Lexar 128 GB CFast 3600x Memory Cards: We used these in both the XC-10 and the 1DX Mark II, which both require CFast for shooting in 4K. These cards were lifesavers, as the large capacity gave us the ability to shoot for long periods without worrying about needing to change a card. In the air, one CFast card would last for a little more than 30 solid minutes of shooting on the 1DX. I kept three spares in zippered pockets in my flight suit in case I needed to change cards mid-flight.
- 2 – Panasonic GH4: A and B cameras for interviews, shot at 4Kp24. Also used for a few shots on the ground during taxi, takeoff and landing.
- 1 – DJI Inspire Pro w/ Xenmuse X5 Camera: For aerial perspective during taxi, takeoff and landing.
- 6 – Induro/Benro Tripods: For stabilizing cameras on the ground.
- 10 – Mix of GoPro Hero, Hero 3 and Hero 4 Cameras: For video, a mix of Hero 3 and Hero 4 cameras were used in cockpits and mounted outside the jets. The Hero cameras were plugged into the coms system of the jets to record audio, and we used these specifically thanks to their mic jack (which was removed in later models).
- Video edited in Adobe Premiere Pro
The crew on this shoot was indispensable, and we couldn’t have pulled it off without them:
Lead Pilot: Rob “Scratch” Mitchell
Safety Pilot: John “Bordz” Posson
Blair’s Pilot: Scott “Banker” Ind
Photo Pilot: Randy “Howler” Howell
Producers: Blair Bunting & Rob “Scratch” Mitchell (Speedbird Productions)
Directed by: Planet Unicorn
Camera Operators: Jaron Schneider, Toby Harriman
Drone Operator: Toby Harriman
Special thanks to the entire Patriots Jet Team ground crew
For a look at what Blair Bunting had to go through as the photographer, check out the blog over at his website. For more information on the Patriots and when you can see them in action, check them out at PatroitsJetTeam.com.