VFX: <I>Hawaii Five-O</I>
Issue: May 1, 2017

VFX: Hawaii Five-O

The CBS hit drama, Hawaii Five-0, recently wrapped its 7th season with an adrenaline-filled, Speed-esque chase down Hawaii’s Interstate H-3 highway on the island of O'ahu. The season finale featured lead character Steve McGarrett (actor Alex O’Loughlin) atop a speeding 18-wheeler, filled with human trafficking victims. Coming up the rear, in a speeding SWAT truck, were fellow Five-0 detectives Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua (series stars Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, respectively), as well as partner Danny “Dano” Williams (Scott Caan) driving, in a race to free the victims from the truck. This was all while it was moving, before its driver decided to end the chase by going over a cliff, as he had previously threatened. 

The finale featured more than 200 VFX shots, some of which required production shutting down Interstate H-3 for two days of practical shooting and two days filming (on Arri Alexas) in front of one of the largest greenscreens (70 feet x 150 feet) used for episodic television. It also required a number of CG elements as well. All the effects for the episode were completed by Burbank, CA’s Picture Shop (http://pictureshop.com), under the guidance of senior VFX supervisor Adam Avitabile.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Avitabile (who was onset for two weeks while production shot the episode) spoke from his Burbank studio a few weeks before the finale aired about the riveting chase sequence and what it took to pull it off.

Were there a higher number of visual effects in the season finale of Hawaii Five-0 than the rest of the season?

“Yes. They’ve been doing a lot of visual effects this season. I got involved with the show in Season 5, but this particular season, they’ve been having fun with visual effects. Networks always want to go a little bigger with the finales, but this particular episode was unique. It’s an episode about human trafficking and the [villain] takes all these ladies he’s been holding captive and puts them in the back of an 18-wheel, semi-truck. He barrels through a roadblock the police had set up and warns that if they continue to chase him, he’ll drive the truck off a cliff, killing everyone inside. 

“The rest of the episode, after that point, becomes a high-speed chase where they’re trying to figure out how to get these ladies off the truck without letting the driver know that it’s happening. The main character, McGarrett, decides to jump on top of the truck in mid-motion from the top of a tunnel, carves a hole on top and goes inside. So, basically, it’s all of this really dangerous stuff that’s happening in and outside of this truck, while it’s in motion.

“When we read the script, we knew right away that we couldn’t really do this (laughs). These are our main actors, and the girls are inside, this is dangerous! I was highlighting every page of the script where it would be visual effects. So, the conversations began after that, how we were going to pull it off, and the time frame we were going to be dealing with. Not only the shooting schedule, but the post schedule as well. Episodic television shows don’t give you much time to do this stuff. So, it’s always a concern. 

“There were a few meetings at the director’s house where we had our matchbox cars so we could plan out the scene (laughs). There was a lot of talking and thinking about this episode. Ultimately, we decided to shoot it in multiples ways to be able to facilitate in one way or the other, anything we wanted to do. 

“We had two full days on the biggest greenscreen stage I’d ever been on – shot outside – we had six, full-on gigantic shipping containers like you see in Long Beach in the harbors, and they were three across and three high. We added a wood surface that we painted green and that was our main green screen. Then we had four other 20x30 greenscreens to cover up other angles.”

You obviously didn’t put your actors into dangerous situations, so how did you make it look like McGarrett was on top of a moving truck and that the other stars were following? 

“Right, well, McGarrett jumps onto the top of the truck, burns a hole on the top to get inside, fights the bad guy inside and then ends up tossing him outside of the truck. Then the rest of the heroes get in a stake bed truck, come up from behind and start offloading the girls while they’re going about 40 miles an hour down the highway. We knew there was all this great stuff, but we had to figure out how we were going to shoot it on a green screen. Logistically, we’re not moving anywhere, and if I parked two trucks next to each other, it’s going to look like I have two trucks parked next to each other. 

“We worked with John Hartigan, who was the practical effects supervisor, and we came up with a solution. He built a wooden platform and had the wheels of the stake bed truck that came up behind the main truck, on air bladders, almost like a mini hovercraft. What it allowed us to do was let us have two guys at the back of the truck, and they could push it, rather easily because it was supported by this cushion of air, and make this thing move as if it were trying to match speed with the big semi. That was really affective as it added life to the scene. There were many shots of that.

“We also had another scene where McGarrett climbs back out of the hole he created in the first place, and climbs in between where the truck cab is connected to the actual trailer part where the girls are, and he severs the connection to release the trailer from the cab. At that point, we decide, there’s no point in shooting this. In reality, if you were to take the trailer down the street and release the cab, it would slide for maybe 10 or 50 feet, and that’s it. But with this show, you want to have some fun, cool action moments. So at that point, we decide that the trailer will be full CG. I shot a bunch of plates with a crane, basically tried to cover as much of what we thought we could use. So, we had those two days on the green screen shooting, but in tandem, we also shot everything we did on green screen with stunt doubles so we would have both greenscreen options and practical options.

“It was a nice way of doing it, because either way, we knew we were covered. If the practical shots didn’t work, we knew we had the greenscreen shots. If some of the green screen angles didn’t work, we had the practical ones. I think it gave the editors — and the director — a lot of freedom to really get the shots they wanted.

“It’s rare to be able to do this on episodic television. The budgets and the time frames are usually so extreme, you usually try to find the most efficient path. You get there, but it’s usually like a fingers-crossed type of situation. Thankfully, here, we had a little more time for this and we spent so much time talking about it, planning it and figuring out the best possible approach.”

What else did you need to create in CG for this episode?

“We went back later and shot some plates that would be put into those greens screens. We were trying to match those really extreme camera moves that the director wanted to do on the greenscreen stage, but even some of those, we weren’t able to get the same angles. So, we took the footage, used it as a reference, and actually created CG backgrounds to approximate the moves.

“There’s still a few weeks of work to do before the finale airs — we built all the assets we needed. We knew we needed digital versions of the truck and the trailer, so we’re finalizing all of that right now. And then there are also little things like, when McGarrett burns a hole in the top of the truck, he has this kind of light saber looking object in his hand that he points at the top of the truck. We needed to make an intense flame that comes out of that object and the sparks from the molten metal that drips down.

“Also, there’s the guy McGarrett throws out of the truck. We had a stunt guy get thrown out when we were on the greenscreen stage onto some pads. Then, when we were on the freeway, we tossed out a dummy. The problem with dummies is that they always look like dummies. Their arms and legs bend in a way that is instantly recognizable as not real. It still needs to be determined, but we will most likely be making a CG version of that guy and have him land a little more realistically.”

What format were you working in?

“When it comes to us, it’s been converted to 10-bit DPX.”

I speak with a lot of VFX supers on TV shows, such as Once Upon a Time or Grimm, where you would expect visual effects. And then on other shows like Chicago Fire and Chicago PD, there might be more visual effects than audiences would think there are. Do you think there more visual effects in this series than what most viewers would think there are?

“Yes. This is a specific case, though. I’ve worked on a lot of cop shows in my career, and for the most part, those kinds of shows are formulaic. The funny thing about Five-0 is that, since I jumped on board, at least four, five, six times a season, there’s something whacky they try to do. It’s outside the mold of your typical procedural cop show. Beyond that, it’s what I call the invisible effects. You don’t know we were there. If we do our job right, viewers are going to watch the episode and go, ‘I can’t believe they got the main actor to jump on top of this truck from the tunnel overhang and rescue these poor ladies.’ If you don’t know we were there, we did our job right.”

“But, we have done digital elephants running down the middle of Waikiki and people jumping over rooftops. It’s not the obvious, ‘okay, there’s going to be a dragon in the show.’ That’s what I’ve always liked about this show. It’s the genre, you have to have those moments in these cop shows, but then they take it to the next level for Five-0. 

“It’s both a pleasure and a pain when you read the script. It’s really cool, it’s going to be so much fun to work on, but then, how much time do I have to work on this?”

What tools do you use?

“We want to be platform agnostic to a certain degree; it’s more about the artists than the program. The main programs are 3DS Studio Max and Maya. That being said, for this particular episode, we probably focused a little more on Max because some artists are a little more verse in it. Max is our workhorse. We did a lot of particle simulation stuff in this episode, with the sparks and molten metal and cutting the hole to get inside the truck, as well as other debris, dust, etc. All of our effects work is done in Houdini, all compositing in Nuke and Flame and we render using V-Ray.”

What do you consider your biggest VFX challenge for this episode?

“I think it was more the scope of things and realizing this whole episode took place in a moving vehicle in very dangerous circumstances. The biggest challenge was, honestly, we’re still working on it, so I might call you back and let you know (laughs).

What do you think was the biggest factor in being able to pull off the effects for the episode?

“The collaboration and communication we had with production, producers and directors. We were all really trying to figure this out together. We had this had big Kumbaya moment and clapped hands and really figured out what the best way of doing this was — and I think it was done very successfully. We knew we had tons of visual effects options and tons of options editorially speaking. A lot of times on these shows you don’t get that kind of in-depth time, that was hugely helpful. I think without that, with these two, three week turnarounds, it would have been much more challenging and I think maybe the product, the end result wouldn’t have been as successful.”

What’s the best part of working on this show for you?

“From a visual effects standpoint, I think this show is not your typical procedural cop show. They write some very interesting things that we are challenged to make a reality. It’s unique for these kinds of shows — and it’s really fun to work on.

“That will be my big takeaway when the show comes to its final days, whenever that might be. For me, personally, as a visual effects artist, this show kind of broke the mold in a lot of ways and made for a really fun, enjoyable process.”