By Darren Franich
December 17, 2011 at 09:01 AM EST
Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures

Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures

As 2011 comes to a close, wanted to honor some of the hardworking names and faces from behind the scenes for their outstanding achievements. Stunt Coordinator Jack Gill is a veteran of the stunt trade. (One of his earliest gigs was stunt driving on The Dukes of Hazzard.) His skills were pushed to the limit for the climactic sequence in Fast Five, in which our heroes attach a pair of Dodge Chargers to a massive bank vault and drive said bank vault all around Rio De Janeiro while being chased by every police car on the continent. Learn all about the intricacies of managing a devastatingly destructive bank vault!

As told by: Jack Gill

When we first started on Fast Five, our director, Justin Lin, came in and said, “Look, I’ve done a couple of other Fast & Furiouses. The kids have all gotten very savvy to what is digital and what is real. I lose my audience the second they see something that they know in their mind is not real. What I want you guys to strive to do is to give me as much real as you can give me. If I have to change the script so that you can do it real, let’s do that.”

We started contacting different companies, asking, “How big would the bank vault really be?” We got anywhere from 8 to 10 feet wide, 10 to 14 feet long, probably 8 feet high. They weigh 80 to 100 thousand pounds. There’s absolutely no way you’re gonna carry an 80-100 thousand vault around. But we wanted one that at least looked heavy.

We started out with PVC tubing. We built the structure of a vault, and covered it in paper, and had it all painted like a real vault. Once we got the size down – which probably took us about three weeks — we said, “Okay, let’s start building it.” Once you start building it, we had to figure out how heavy this thing was going to be. It had to be really heavy, heavy steel, because it was going to be crashing into inanimate objects. By the time we finished working on it, this thing weighed 10,000 pounds. I attached two cars to it, and we couldn’t even pull it. Couldn’t even get it moving.

I jacked it up and I added Delrin — which is this really slick high-density plastic – to the bottom of it. We put it back down on the road. We were able to pull it around, but we couldn’t pull it around fast. So we went back to Dodge and told them to give our Chargers bigger tires and bigger engines with 400 horsepower.

Just from a safety aspect, we found out that if the cables were to snap at any time, it would rip the top off any car it hits. Much less what you think it’d do to a human! A big aspect of my testing phase was to get cables big enough that there was no way to snap them.

We had to build seven or eight different versions of the vault. I built a drivable vault that we put a stunt guy inside of. I built a vault strictly for crashing. I built a vault that had a guy inside of it that was really heavily built — there was a Peterbilt tractor semi-truck inside of it. He could run over almost anything in that thing.

If they hadn’t given me that big testing phase to find out what the vault could do, we probably would’ve just gone to digital. But I started getting time to show Justin all the decimation, and what the vault was doing to anything that was in its way. I said, “This is all real material. We’re not cutting to any digital. The cars are really pulling it.” That’s when he started putting more and more scenes in the end sequence.

NEXT: “If you take your helmet off, you’re gonna die.”

Most of the ones where you see the total decimation of cars and palm trees, that’s the real vault. The Peterbilt tractor vault was for the really big huge crashes where I had people on the sidewalk, in really delicate areas that I couldn’t afford to have a vault out of control.

One of the things that happened with the vault that was drivable was that it was a coffin. Once you were in it, you couldn’t get out of it. It got hot really fast, because of the engine heat. The driver was suffocating in it. There was no place for the air to go. Even though we vented the exhaust out the back, you still had all that engine compression and engine heat. We put a meat thermometer in there, and it was running like 185.

Henry Kingi was the stunt guy that I stuck in there. I put him in a cool suit, which is a vest that has lines built into it — you can pump in cold water that circulates through the vest and keeps your body cooler. He couldn’t breathe, so I got a helmet built that completely encapsulated his whole head and pumped air from the outside. Then we figured out it was still way too hot for him. So I put in 50 dry ice bags all around the engine. If you know anything about dry ice, it sucks all the oxygen out of whatever it surrounds. There was no oxygen in that vault at all. If you take your helmet off, you’re gonna die.

One of the first things we shot, and first thing the studio was gonna see, was when they first stole the vault. They came out of the bank building, and the Chargers went sideways, and we had to swing the vault out for the first time.  I created a curb that the vault would hit, and I created all these cement balusters that it could hit. I said, “I don’t know that it will, but I’m gonna try and create a way that it will stumble.”

After I said that, everybody started to say, “That’ll be great! If this thing will tumble, it’ll be fantastic!” I thought, “Oh, my god, if this thing doesn’t tumble, I’m in the doghouse.” Luckily, that very first shot we did – what you see in the movie — It came flying out, pitched it, caught an edge, and tumbled right in front of the camera.

I think the audience member, if they can see that it’s digital, it takes them out of the moment. If you think it’s all real, you think these guys could die at any minute. The minute you know it’s all digital, you’re just not as involved. That’s one of the things Justin Lin kept hammering into us. That’s not to say there’s not digital effects in it. Because we were in Puerto Rico, they put in the favelas behind the cars as background, they put in the dust effects coming off the bottom, they did a fantastic job of making it look like Rio. But as far as the action goes, it’s probably 95 percent real.

I was really proud of what we ended up with, and the fact that nobody got hurt. With something as radical as this, all it takes is one missed cue and somebody gets killed. It’s tough for a show like this. You’re always hoping that everything goes right. You try and do the right thing, and have enough safety meetings, and know where your outs are.

I’ve been doing this 33 years, and I’ve never been as proud of a sequence. I think that’s the best thing I’ve probably ever done in my career. I may not ever top it.

For more on the Best and Worst of 2011, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s new issue, on stands now.