CBS TV’s reboot of the classic 1980s crime series Magnum P.I. provides plenty of thrills, chills (in the water) and near-spills for its Hawaii-based Guild camera team.
Photos by Karen Neal
Fans of 80’s TV will recall, with some wistfulness, the often sarcastic but always enjoyable back-and-forth between an American reprobate with a heart of gold, Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck rocking the short shorts and full mustache), and a seriously snobbish but subtly devilish Brit by the name of Higgins (the supremely snooty John Hillerman). They also will remember that classic series’ rich, shot-on-film look (crafted by John Flinn III, ASC, and William Gereghty), which showcased the many gorgeous Hawaii locations.
Flash-forward to present day, and CBS Television has brought out its “reboot” (is that the right word for it?) of Magnum P.I., with many of the original tropes still intact, albeit updated for contemporary viewers. Thomas Magnum (Jay Hernandez) is still a feisty and decorated former veteran (this time a Navy SEAL having served in Afghanistan), and Higgins is now a former ex-MI6 agent (English accent still intact) and a woman (Perdita Weeks). Magnum is once again ensconced at “Robin’s Nest,” with regular access to the off-screen billionaire’s bright red Ferrari.
Alternating DP’s Krishna Rao and Rodney Charters, ASC, CSC, established the look for this new Magnum P.I. This is a detective story that, as Rao describes, “stands on the shoulders of L.A. Confidential and Chinatown– both soft-light classics of the genre [shot by Dante Spinotti, ASC and John Alonzo, ASC].”
To achieve this, Rao and Charters use ARRI SkyPanel 360s – large, soft-light LEDs, controlled in color and intensity through dimmers – and two Softsun 50K lights for the intensity of direct sunlight. They also added numerous SkyPanel 60s as well as 8-foot, 4-foot, 2-foot and 1-foot Quasar Science tubes. Gaffer Danny Eccleston, who Rao calls “the most tech-savvy gaffer” he’s worked with, made the choice for the soft lighting units.
Another vital piece is DIT Caleb Lucero, on set all the time for consistency in a land where the weather changes every five minutes. “With three cameras full time, our favorite tools are the Preston Cinema single-channel handset combined with Leader waveform/false color monitors,” Lucero explains. “They work hand in hand to balance the overall level of exposure, which can vary by four to five stops – full sun to dark clouds – during takes.” They also use Pomfort’s Livegrade Pro and Tangent’s element Tk panel to build on Encore Hollywood colorist Laura Jans Fazio’s baseline grade.
To help sell Hawaii’s natural beauty, Rao and Charters use ARRI ALEXA MINIs, supplied by Panavision, with a selection of the company’s top zooms and primes, along with a tool the original series would have enjoyed – DJI Inspire 2 drones equipped with a Super 35-mm chipset camera and Hasselblad Lenses. There are even several iPhoneX smartphones used to shoot vertical Facetime integration sequences. The crack Guild camera team includes Underwater DP Don King (ICG Magazine, May 2011, Tunnel Vision), Operators Keith Jordan, Jay Herron, and Scott Mason and an AC team that is Hawaii- and L.A.-based – Rylan Akama, Brian Matsumura, Zeke Hanohano, Tommy Lewis, Sal Alvarez – all led by 1stAC Tony Nagy (ICG April 2019, Zoom-In, page 22).
The easiest way to explore the many new tech tools used on today’s Magnum is to talk about everyone’s favorite challenge – Episode number 115 – in which Production was allowed to close down the H3 (the major freeway on Oahu) for six hours – on a Sunday.
Charters led the main unit and Rao the other, all of which included seven ALEXAs, a Steadicam and a drone. There was also a Russian arm on a Raptor and a MovieBird mounted on a stake-bed towing a picture truck, four Sony a7S DSLR-type cameras, and a Sony RXO. (Both DP’s say the latter is a better crash-cam than a GoPro.) The episode featured actors fighting in the cab of a truck, with green screen beyond the windows that later allowed for a CGI truck flipping over on the freeway and scattering gold bricks. The action revolved around Magnum’s ex-girlfriend, now a villain, and her stolen truckload of gold. When Magnum tries to stop her, the chase is on.
Another technological change from the original series is the helicopter footage, which is now mainly stock, augmented by a plethora of go-anywhere drone footage. Today’s drones can move easily in 3D space, as evidenced by the opening shot of the episode where the drone converges behind a convoy of military trucks entering a tunnel. The Magnum team had numerous safety and strategic planning meetings before drone camera operator Kevin Sawicki and pilot Eric Sterman went into action – sort of.
As Sawicki recounts: “As the drone began to enter the tunnel, each truck fell into perfect formation below it and, all of a sudden, the drone came to an abrupt stop!” Video village thought the drone hit a sign. But then Sawicki explained the sophistication of today’s drones (Inspire 2, Zenmuse X7 camera and DJI DL/DL-S lens): “It has an obstacle-avoidance sensor that detected the entrance sign from 30-plus feet – and wouldn’t injure itself or others,” he smiles.
Regarding the true star of the series, that vintage red Ferrari, Charters says the vehicle has issues.
“The top is always down,” the ASC TV Lifetime Achievement Award winner describes. “You can’t put it on a flatbed dolly – it’s too high. So, we have a 15-foot Technocrane off the back of an insert car – towed on a baby wheel dolly. We have to noodle around for angles. And it’s time-consuming to cover three times and match. Two Aladdin A-Lites are hidden in the dash – and that’s it. We just hope for beautiful sun in the right place.”
“I’ve been in a lot of cars with a camera over the years, but the Ferrari quickly presented a problem,” agrees operator Keith Jordan. “Rigging it in the way we would others isn’t possible. For one thing, we can’t disable the airbags, and we can’t put an operator in the front seat without disabling them, as it can be deadly. So, we have to be creative. The passenger seat is removed, and a mini Libra remote stabilized head is installed in the car in order to get the shots that would normally be achieved with a handheld. Operator safety is paramount.”
AC Sal Alvarez calls the mini Libra an interesting addition to the arsenal. “It’s a great way of getting Magnum’s P.O.V.” he explains, “looking over to his right out the window following a car as he goes into the driveway. We saw what it could do – and it began to do so much more.”
Of course Magnum’s prime visual lure are the stunning Pacific waters around Oahu – while big, blue and beautiful, they can turn treacherous at any time. “This is my third series in Hawaii, and there’s nothing easy about shooting here,” Rao says. “I initially wondered what could be so hard about shooting in paradise. Plenty.”
AC Brian Matsumura, who grew in the Islands, adds that a big part of the job is knowing how to deal with Hawaii’s different environments. “From sandy beaches to dense rain forests, we have to be prepared to work in constantly changing conditions. Hawaii can be a very inhospitable place to sensitive digital cameras. Knowing how to navigate around rain, mud, sand, and waves is part of the territory that comes with working here.”
Of course paradise does inspire creativity. Take a shot that cinematographer/director Eagle Egilsson, ASC, envisioned, for instance. “The script called for the boat Magnum was on to explode out in open water at night, which is, as we all know, quite an undertaking in real time, not to mention the cost,” Egilsson recalls. “Doing it CGI would also be a challenge and expensive.”
The solution was to play the audience’s imagination of what the above water visuals would be if they showed Magnum diving under the boat in close-up, while viewers see the boat explode above. The art department took a small eight-foot vessel and mocked it up to resemble the big boat with a fake miniature outboard set of engines on it.
“As Jay leaps off that small boat into the water [a pool] towards Don King’s underwater camera, the special FX team, led by John Hartigan, set off in sequence three gas-loaded cylinder bombs suspended 20-feet above,” adds Egilsson. “Those are hidden from camera behind the small boat as Jay entered the water and swims into his close up, with the fireball behind him.”
The longtime water veteran King calls it his favorite shot in the series so far.
“Eagle’s idea was great. We were under the water with an Alexa Mini in a water housing, with a 12-millimeter lens. As soon as he hit the water – the boat explodes. Lighting? Right! At 200 frames per second – and the flash bombs take care of the rest.”
King has also had to prep a 22-page sequence that was going to be shot mainly from a barge, with a drone, and various cameras in light weight custom surf housings by Aquatech and White Water Hawaii. As King continues: “The center of our operation was a flat decked boat with a Technocrane, and A-camera operator Keith Jordan and A-camera 1st AC Tony Nagy coordinating all of the camera equipment. We also had operators Jay Herron and Scott Mason on the picture boats shooting handheld – dialog and action for the scenes that took place on boats. In the scene, Magnum and Higgins end up in the water and have to swim across the Molokai channel to the nearest land. They are both good athletes and great sports which made a huge difference. Of course we shot them in calmer waters closer to shore, but it was still plenty rough and very challenging to keep us all together.”
King says the actors were near the boat so Jordan could get a good shot from the crane. “Larry Haynes is an experienced surf shooter, who joined me in the water for coverage,” he adds. “I like shooting at eye level in the water, and by swimming with a camera I am able to keep the position that I want relative to the actors. Keith’s camera on the crane got the rock solid masters and wider coverage but it doesnt have the same emotional impact as the hand held camera in the water. The challenge is in keeping a great composition, while avoiding water spots and other technical issues. With these lightweight surf housings we pull our own focus, which can get tricky – 65mm Ultra Prime was my go to lens for closeups. Karen Gaviota was directing and had lots of patience for the elements and all the challenges of shooting in the water. In addition to the dialog scenes there was plenty of action with second unit, with director Gary Hymes and the water stunt/safey team led by Brian Kealulana.”
When the ocean is too inhospitable, or too unsafe, moving the water inside becomes the next best thing. Take the shot were the “gold” is discovered in Episode 115. The discovery of the gold is under the water – from a sunken tanker. King says they decided on using a small tank and a shipping container to show bulkheads inside the shipwreck. “It’s a metal room with a little light streaking in from the top,” he describes. “Space was a challenge. Three people, no communication under the water, one Sony a7S in a Nauticam housing – shoved into a corner – to get the exciting fight action, and it all worked!”
Even the lagoons in Hawaii can change in a moment.
“From rain- and mud-soaked jungles with mosquitoes to hot and humid areas on the West Side to long commutes and hours on the North Shore, we face it all,” describes operator Herron. “But, one of my most memorable moments was shooting a handheld scene in what is normally a calm, placid lagoon in Ko Olina during a large west swell from a hurricane, which was passing by the state. It ended up being a very challenging day trying to keep our three handheld Minis from being completely submerged. Thanks to my Dolly Grip [Don Chong] grabbing the camera off of me when waves would crash over my shoulders, we avoided disaster. It was nerve-wracking! But we got some incredible shots!”
Clearly this new Magnum P.I. isn’t for faint-hearted crews. One day they’re flying a drone through a gap in the rain forest to track the “red beast” along the highway, and the next, they’re underwater chasing gold. And while high-risk/high-reward scenes are common, sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference.
AC Tommy Lewis knows all too well the pressure of chasing focus on such shots. He says the single most important aspect of his job is to know where the focus needs to be at all times and execute the process quickly.
“In the past, it would be a tape measure, math and a lot of time,” Lewis shares. “But with high-definition video cameras, what you see is what you get – especially with focus. Enter the single greatest technological advancement – the Preston Light Ranger 2. The video interface coupled with an infrared LED rangefinder that works in real time – provides a graphic representation on my focus monitor that helps me determine where the focus is across the frame – and it’s fast. It gives us the option for dynamic shots – and sells Magnum in a way you couldn’t before.”
Another “little thing” vital to Magnum’s fast-paced workflow is an iPhone app called Notes. As AC Rylan Akama describes: “On this show, Tony Nagy and I try to use new technology in every way. [Notes is] basic and immediate – we create a schedule for crew and equipment, and we can update it and share it instantly. We can cut and paste as changes are happening and keep up with production. It’s a game changer when dealing with the complexity of new technology – and a star like Hawaii that often has a mind of her own.” [Scriptation is used for all script management during prep, and the notes that flow from different versions of the script are another huge time saver.]
Magnum’s Unit Stills, Karen Neal, has also benefited from the new digital tools to combat Hawaii’s unpredictable natural elements. “Sun and humidity can be very intense – anywhere outside, especially when on the water,” Neal explains. “High wind and rain can whip through with no warning, which in jungle areas brings lots of mud and flash flooding.”
These days Neal is using a mirrorless camera (Sony A9 with 24-70 G-Master and 70-200 lenses). “No need for a blimp, which can be a problem in Hawaii,” she smiles. “Pre-mirrorless, I had it to protect the lens from the elements. Now, a splash of blood, Hawaii’s unpredictable mud and rain, and who knows what else can go splat.
“Sure, my camera bag holds that nine-dollar rain bag to protect the lens, if I remember to pack it when I downsize for the inevitable jockeying for position on barge shots in the water,” she laughs, remembering the day she had to borrow a garbage bag to keep the water away. “It was either that or take my rain gear off and get myself soaked. It’s all about extremes: we go from shooting at beautiful homes on the beach to high-rise penthouses with amazing views, to poop processing plants and gritty Chinatown alleys.”
Charters says one of the great things about shooting on a distant location is meeting local teams who contribute to the success of the show “and teach you a little about the community in which they live,” he shares. “The start of day on a Hawaiian set is full of greetings and gestures of good will, and it sets the tone for a more human side of what we do together as we create our art. Amid the chaos of TV production, I admire this grace note at the start of each day.”
Rao, who began his career as an AC on John Carpenter horror classics like Halloween, The Fog and, more recently, has directed (and shot) episodes of Hawaii Five-0, and directed an episode of Magnum P.I., has a similar feeling, saying that even with all the new available tech tools, his favorite moment hasn’t changed.
“At the very beginning of a setup, after the director has blocked the scene and the actors have been sent away,” Rao concludes, “there’s a brief moment before questions are asked and instructions given; there’s a stillness before the lights and cameras crowd in. In that fleeting time, you imagine how the light will look on the actors and the set, you see how your lens choices will set up the scene and tell the story, you get to conjure all this out of thin air. It’s a solitary and precious moment, like the slow inhale before singing. And then the work begins.”
By Pauline Rogers
Magnum P.I. Local 600 Crew
Directors of Photography: Krishna Rao, Rodney Charters, ASC, CSC