Fall TV: Post workflow for <I>Magnum PI</I>
Karen Moltenbrey
Issue: October 1, 2018

Fall TV: Post workflow for Magnum PI

In the 1980s, viewers were transported weekly to the Hawaiian oceanfront estate of the never-seen novelist Robin Masters. There, the fun-loving Thomas Magnum serves as head of security in exchange for free lodging in the guest house, while (barely) making a living as a private investigator tracking down baddies, often with assistance from his quirky friends who served with him in ’Nam. 

Thirty years after the show’s final season, a new audience is saying “Aloha” to this endearing character and his friends in a reboot that began airing this fall on CBS. Past audiences will recognize many iconic elements in the 2.0 version: the red Ferrari that Magnum drives (and tends to damage), the two Dobermans that guard the estate and find sport in terrorizing Magnum, the sometimes-exasperated caretaker of the estate who is fed up with Magnum’s antics, friend Rick who is “connected” and friend TC who operates a helicopter tour business (with Magnum as his most popular, albeit non-paying, customer). Indeed, much remains the same, but much has been updated. The cast, of course, is new. Jay Hernandez now plays the title character, originated by Tom Selleck. The new Magnum and his buddies met while serving in Afghanistan, not Vietnam. By-the-book estate caretaker Higgins is still British, but is now a beautiful female ex-MI6 agent, rather than an older ex-army gent. Even Magnum’s signature Ferrari 308 GTB has been traded in (at least temporarily) for a 488 Spider.

Those are not the only changes for this reboot. The original Magnum PI was created in television’s pre-digital age, when the effects were practical. The same holds true for the production-to-post production workflow. For the present-day series, the latest digital tools and processes were employed, providing many production efficiencies, a vibrant, crisp, dynamic look and plenty of action enhanced by CGI.

The series is now shot mainly with Arri Alexa Mini cameras, capturing at ProRes 4444 HD 12-bit and recorded to CFast 2.0 cards. 

CBS Studios uses Deluxe’s Encore mobilabs, a proprietary compact system for on-site dailies and color management, set up in Honolulu and serving both Magnum PI and CBS’s Hawaii Five-O, another ’80s reboot. As co-producer Ted Babcock points out, a digital imaging technician (DIT) works alongside the directors of photography to manage the on-set color process, downloading the camera files onto backup and transportation drives, which are then shuttled at lunch break and at the end of the shoot day to the dailies processing location in Honolulu. “We have the sound and picture files dropped twice a day, and process the dailies with CDLs (color decision lists) from the camera and the LUTs that we have created here in Los Angeles with our DP and final colorist, to put a color grade on the dailies,” he explains. “Then they sync up the sound and push the DNx36 file to us in post-production editorial at Paramount in Los Angeles and post a viewing file to [Prime Focus Technologies’] Dax [Production Cloud] for wider distribution.” 

The file is sent overnight to a catch station. “So, when we walk in the following morning, it’s already there, and all we have to do is move it over to our drive that’s particular to that show,” he adds. 

The group backs up the camera files to LTO-7 archive drives, which are shipped back to Los Angeles as they are filled. They also keep all the files backed up to drives on-set until the episode is onlined. 

“We also don’t delete the camera cards until the dailies have gone through the process in Hawaii, have been received by our editors, and our editors have checked off everything on our camera and sound report, since that report ensures that we aren’t missing any files,” Babcock says. Only then can the camera department clear those cards and put them back into service. 

Once the episode is locked, the EDLs are sent to Encore, where they restore all of the original camera files from the LTO archive drives back into the SAN to build their online, drop in VFX shots, color-correct, title and finish the picture.

Meanwhile, Zoic Studios created the visual effects for the pilot, while Picture Shop is handling shots for the subsequent episodes. Once CBS Studios is ready to turn over the shots for the effects work, a pull list is sent to Encore, which gathers all the original camera masters and uploads them to the server at Picture Shop. After the VFX are completed, the files are sent back to editorial to cut in offline. Once approved, Encore cuts the master files into the online stream and color corrects it.

Magnum PI contains a range of visual effects, including a good deal of digital sets. “We do a lot of bluescreen shooting,” Babcock points out. Robin’s house, known as “Robin’s Nest” is a practical set, whose bluescreens are replaced with CG backgrounds. As Babcock notes, “It’s all created digitally now instead of shooting backplates, like we used to do a few years back. We can now create virtual worlds, which can be 360, or 180, or whatever they need to be so you can adjust the background to whichever window you’re looking at or whatever angle you’re looking from. You can also adjust the time of day and make it nighttime or daytime.”

Initially, though, the work can seem daunting. “With a pilot or new series, you’re starting at the beginning. So every time we want to cut in an aerial shot of our hero location (Robin’s Nest), we have to go out and shoot that footage with a drone or helicopter, pick the shots we want to use and then add our world with VFX,” explains Babcock. “You have to create this virtual world — all of the aerial shots of Robin’s Nest estate are virtual. We have to send the structural drawings and designs that are created by the production designer to the visual effects team, which then creates 3D models.”

A Paramount team of three editors, three assistants and a VFX artist and editor edit the show on Avid systems. However, in order to work on the Avid, the group has to first convert the files in the dailies process to a DNx36 file. “It’s still an HD file, but it’s much more compressed, and smaller and easier to work with,” Babcock adds. 

Because Magnum PI is in the early days of production, Babcock and the producers still work side-by-side with the DP and colorist from Encore, carefully creating the look for the series. 

Magnum PI, like Hawaii Five-0, is a Peter Lenkov show (who is the pair’s co-creator/executive producer). Both are set and filmed in Hawaii, though Five-0 has a crisper, more neutral look, while for Magnum PI, they are going for a warmer aesthetic. "We’re going for the greens and blues of Hawaii, that beauty and paradise, and adding some warmth with natural golds," says Babcock. "We’re not trying to be overly warm, but just adding some of the natural gold element to give it a really rich flavor.”

Magnum PI is an iconic show with so much history, though the producers are careful to add a modern makeover without straying too far from the original. “We tried to make some changes that gave it a lot of fun and nice new twists, but held onto some of the great things about the series that really worked,” says Babcock. "Aloha" once again.