Issue 20.3: June/July 2017

The Detonator

Electronics wiz Charlie Holdaway’s technology is literally blowing up
Story by Hunter Haskins. Photos by Olivier Koning.

If you’ve seen a TV or movie shootout recently, you’ve probably seen my stuff in action,” says Charlie Holdaway, a founding partner of Holatron Systems, which makes wireless detonation devices for the film industry. He shows me a list of movie credits, with Die Hard 4 and The Hurt Locker popping out at me. The list runs out around Fast Five, the fifth installment in The Fast and the Furious franchise. “I stopped updating it,” he admits. “It’s hard to keep track these days.”

Holatron has been contributing to movie magic since Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake came out in 2005. Charlie and his partners founded the company with a simple mission in mind: to make safe and fast wireless detonation systems for use in pyrotechnic displays and theatrical special effects. And by simple I mean fiendishly clever.

I’ve come to Holatron’s headquarters, nestled between auto body shops in the Kaka‘ako business district of Honolulu, to pick Charlie’s brain and find out why his special effects systems are so highly prized in the movie industry. And, of course, I want to see cinema-quality explosions.

I look over the shoulder of a young Holatron technician named Erin Day as she assembles a new transmitter Charlie has designed. It’s nice to see “Honolulu” printed on a circuit board, but I’m thinking this is some low-tech stuff, probably something you would find in a “smart” washing machine. The device’s processor is about half as powerful as the one in my very outdated smartphone. Erin connects the appropriate wires, snaps on the protective case and hands it to Charlie. It’s a sleek black rectangle the size of a pack of cards, like something James Bond would carry.

“This has a range of four hundred meters,” Charlie says, powering it up. A tiny LED light glows green. I desperately want to press the FIRE button, but Charlie knows this and he keeps it out of my reach. “It’s a hundred-milliwatt transmitter on the ISM band,” he explains. That stops me quickly. The power of the signal going to the detonator receiver is about a tenth of what a smartphone might put out. That means it can go for months on a pair of AA batteries. And the ISM band is heavily regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. “We have a special permit for that. We don’t want to work on a frequency that a lot of people use,” Charlie says. This helps prevent, say, someone opening a garage door from accidentally blowing up something on Hawaii Five-0.

The redundant safety features built into Holatron’s devices have made them popular among all sorts of people who create fun or useful explosions for a living, from pyrotechnicians synchronizing fireworks displays with Bon Jovi recordings to demolition engineers collapsing condemned skyscrapers upon themselves rather than upon the neighbor’s house.

Timed detonation systems were nothing new when Charlie started Holatron in 1998. But he and his partners wanted to make the timing more exact and to cut the response time from button to boom down to almost nothing. Their goal was one-tenth of a second. And Charlie was the guy to do it. He was a computer whiz long before there was such a thing as a desktop computer. After graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1967 with a degree in electrical engineering, he became a minor player in the advent of the computer-filled world of today.

Holatron’s devices have set off explosions in scores of films and television shows, including Hawaii Five-0. Actor Daniel Dae Kim (above), who plays Chin Ho Kelly, flees from a fiery Holatron-triggered explosion in an episode from the show’s second season.

Some might think that computer technology has long surpassed anything taught at MIT in the ’60s, but fortunately for Charlie, the rapid evolution of computers didn’t leave him behind. “Everything I was working on in the ’70s just got smaller and cheaper,” he says. Because he started in the lean old days when computer memory was recorded on giant tape spools, he learned to build programs that were as economical as possible. He tells me about a microcomputer he programmed to control a precision thermostat using just 256 bytes. By comparison, the word processor I’m writing this article with weighs in at about 19,000 bytes. Charlie uses those lean programming skills for his detonators. In order to reach Holatron’s goal of one-hundred-millisecond latency, that button-to-boom delay, he had to make lightning-fast programs for the small, cheap processors available in the ’90s.

As you’d expect, Charlie and his partners were concerned about bad people using his devices for the wrong purposes. Using the ISM band, which is reserved for medical, scientific and industrial purposes rather than communications, helps. But Charlie also codes his transmitters with his receivers so they can communicate with each other only. The coded signals travel at the speed of light, for sure, but the receiver must decode the signals before initiating the pulse of electricity to fire the charge. Decoding even a simple signal takes precious milliseconds, which is why Charlie and his team had to program lean. “Most microcomputers have an operating system like Windows XP but simpler, with no extra features,” he says. “Still, commercial operating systems take more processing power and time than we could afford.” So Charlie made his own, almost literally from ones and zeros.

Charlie comes to work most days in boardshorts and a tank top, and he writes custom operating software for his devices like a techie from Silicon Valley. He is fluent in Assembly, which is a computer language one step above the ones and zeros of the basic binary every computer essentially works on. If programming languages can be compared to human language, modern ones such as Java and HTML are like French or Spanish. Assembly would be grunts and clicks of proto-humans. Not many people can program in Assembly anymore, but Charlie has been doing it since the Nixon administration.

Tall and thin, Charlie is far from the coding hermit you might expect. He’s droll and energetic, like that cool uncle who helped you with your science project. And he’s not just into nerd stuff. He plays bass guitar and keyboard for several non-notable local bands. Like his music career, Holatron was once just a side gig, but business has steadily grown along with Holatron’s sterling reputation among special effects and pyrotechnics professionals around the world. Now it’s his full-time job.

“Some of our first customers were movie studios,” he says. Movie and TV viewers were demanding more realism, which meant the studios wanted to more precisely synchronize the illusion of gunfire and bullet strikes. To simulate bullet strikes, special effects crews use electrically ignited squibs, which are tiny firecrackers designed to blast little holes in walls or spray bursts of fake blood from actors’ bodies. Blanks plus squibs have been used for decades in film and TV, but special effects technicians had to stand just off-screen to fire the squibs via wires that had to be snaked through the clothing of the doomed actors. Wiring actors takes precious time and limits their mobility. Warner Brothers was the first studio to use Holatron’s devices to help actors meet their cinematic demise on the run. But it’s not necessarily all blood and gore. Today, Charlie is building a prop for a live-action show at the Universal Orlando theme park in Florida. He is secretive about the details, but a wizard will be able to trigger various pyrotechnics via a tiny transmitter hidden in the wizard’s staff.

By this time I want to grip Charlie by the tank top and shout, “Let me blow something up already!” Instead, I ask politely if he’s ready to go test out some of his products. “Of course,” he says. “Let’s go out to Archie Ahuna’s place.”

As Charlie drives I furiously research Archie Ahuna on my outdated smartphone. Then the signal cuts out. We have entered a deep valley past the newish suburb of Waikele. “This used to be a nuclear weapon storage facility,” Charlie says. That’s not the news you want to hear when you are riding in a car full of sophisticated detonators. After the Cold War, Charlie says, the facility was sold and turned into a secure storage site for people wanting really, really secure storage. Sure enough, several concrete bunkers with heavy metal doors begin to appear along the road.

Far back in the valley, we come to what looks like a used car lot. This is Ahuna’s Special Effects Services, a theatrical special effects shop. Mclaine Ahuna, Archie’s son, greets us. “We’re prepping a few cars for a shootout for Hawaii Five-0,” he says, grinning. “We are busy so gotta make this quick.” We take a fast tour of the complex, where a half-dozen workers are sanding, painting and buffing newish and used cars. Peeking inside a 1990s Ford Explorer, I see a stream of brown detonator wires snaking through the dashboard to the hood. The wires will be connected to a Holatron receiver just before the director yells,“Action!” “This one will be shot up good,” says Mclaine.

“Are you using a thirty-six-shot receiver?” asks Charlie. “No, two twelves,” Mclaine says, meaning they will be using two twelve-shot receivers and two remote detonators to fire twenty-four sparking squibs that will make the front end of the Explorer look like it is having a very bad day. Bits of blue tape on the windshield mark where squibs will soon be installed to blast holes in the windshield. “Back in the day,” Mclaine says, referring to the time before they started using Holatron devices, “one of us would be in the backseat or trunk, covered in a blanket, guessing when to fire the squibs.” With Charlie’s remote detonators, the squibs can be fired while standing beside the director, watching as the car speeds by.

Mclaine and Charlie chat about the particulars while I wander. Most of the buildings are open air, nothing more than corrugated roofing on wooden frames. This is what a special effects shop looks like in Hawai‘i—it’s simple but it works. I gaze into the Ahuna Services’ cavernous former weapons bunker, where the row of ceiling lights disappears into optical infinity. Fran Ahuna, Archie’s wife, comes up behind me. “That’s where we keep the explosives,” she says. She would certainly know. She is probably the only “powder woman” in the special effects industry—an explosives maker, specially trained to make movie explosions both safe and spectacular. I ask to see her workshop, but it is absolutely off-limits.

Archie and a handful of workers set up a test explosive consisting of a soda-can-size bomb of Fran’s making and a bag full of wood shavings. The Ahunas supervise as layers of shavings and clay dust are added to a metal cone that looks like a flowerpot. This rig, secured with sandbags, will simulate an exploding grenade. Archie strips wires, crimps squibs and connects the Holatron receiver to the bomb. He goes about this in a casual but aware manner that showcases his thirty-some years of experience in the movie-quality explosion trade. At this point the only thing I know about Archie from my hasty internet search is that he has an Emmy for his work on the TV series Lost.

As Charlie and Mclaine pose in front of the device for a photo, I ask Archie, “How often do you blow up your son?” “Anytime he asks me to,” Archie says. And after a quick countdown, Archie presses the big red button on the remote. Less than a hundred milliseconds later, the background explodes in a G.I. Joe—quality blast behind Charlie and Mclaine (Holatrons were used in the 2009 film G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). Charlie and Mclaine don’t even flinch. No one bothers to sweep up afterward, and it seems that these mini-explosions are quite normal in this valley of bunkers. The Ahunas have a collection of permits for their movie-making mischief. The only restriction, Mclaine says, is “I got to make sure we don’t block my neighbor’s driveway.”

As we’re leaving, Mclaine calls after us. “Charlie, call me later about that blaster, OK?” he says. As Charlie and I drive away, I immediately ask about this blaster. “It’s another new thing I’m working on,” he says. “It’ll set off something really big—like, Marvel-movies big—a couple of hundred shots simultaneously. It’s actually designed for blasting rock for mining, but Mclaine wants to try it out.”

I try to imagine a movie scene with several thousand blasts going off all at once. Charlie looks like he’s imagining the same thing. “Yeah, Mclaine likes to think big,” he says. And obviously, I think to myself, so does Charlie. HH