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May 30
2019

ISSUE

Summer 2019

Crossing the Sprawling DC Television Universe

By TREVOR HOGG

Cress Williams portrays Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning, who has an electrical outburst in the Season 2 episode “Gift of the Magi.” (Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment and Encore VFX)

As producer, director and writer, Greg Berlanti has become synonymous with the DC Television Universe by creating Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Black Lightning, Titans, Doom Patrol and Batwoman. Berlanti has been assisted by the expertise of Encore VFX Executive Creative Director and Visual Effects Supervisor Armen V. Kevorkian.

“As far as my role goes, I’m heavily involved with Flash, Supergirl, Titans and Doom Patrol,” explains Kevorkian. “After the first year of personally working on Black Lightning, I handed it off to Kim Rasser, one of our other supervisors here, to maintain that look.”

Significant contributions also come from Zoic Studios, with Co-Founder and Executive Creative Director Chris Jones overseeing Arrow and Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Bardusk looking after Legends of Tomorrow.

The first DC TV show created by Berlanti remains a distinct entity. “Arrow has the vigilante undertone to it and always has strong story arcs over the course of the season,” notes Jones. “Rather than having superpowers, Oliver Queen/Green Arrow [Stephen Amell] is a traditional bad-ass with the ability to shoot people.” The key to the visual effects in Arrow is to always be grounded and organic. “You’ll have story arcs that require big visual effects and others that require them to be in a supporting role.” Stunts are an integral part of storytelling. “Arrow has a crazy, skilled stunt crew and we’re always in awe of what they are able to pull off practically. There is a lot of digital-double work only because some stunts become extreme and are time-prohibitive to pull off.”

Unique digital assets needed to be created. “Supergirl has more creature work compared to any of our other shows,” notes Kevorkian. “We can’t reuse that asset unless that character crosses over.” Legends of Tomorrow is in a similar situation. “The most challenging creature that we’ve done so far has been the 200-foot-tall octopus in [the Season 4 episode] ‘Tagumo Attacks!!!,’” explains Bardusk. “In the middle of the episode, Tagumo gets hit by shrink ray that makes him six feet tall. We needed our asset to be look developed in two different scenarios for the subsurface and the shader response. In addition to that, he has eight tentacles which are difficult to deal with. Something I wasn’t expecting was how difficult it would be to get the suckers to behave correctly. If totally tethered to the tentacle they get stretchy and oblong, which isn’t what happens in nature. The suckers stay circular and protrude. That lone asset had curveball after curveball, but was a lot of fun to figure it out.”

Armen Kevorkian, Executive Creative Director and Visual Effects Supervisor, Encore VFX, talks to Claudia Doumit on set while directing the Supergirl Season 2 episode “Ace Reporter.” (Photo courtesy of Diyah Pera and Warner Bros. Entertainment)

China Anne McClain, who plays Jennifer Pierce in Black Lightning, has the ability to generate electric shocks and bursts from her hands.

Matt Bomer portrays military pilot Larry Trainor in the pilot episode of Doom Patrol.

The bluescreen is transformed into a B-52 aircraft, which is about to release Larry Trainor on his fateful test flight in the pilot episode of Doom Patrol.
Robotman is voiced by Brendan Fraser, while underneath the prosthetic makeup is Riley Shanahan, standing beside Diane Guerrero, who plays the schizophrenic superhero Crazy Jane in the pilot episode of Doom Patrol.

Melissa Benoist lies on set in a pristine Supergirl costume in the Season 4 episode “Man of Steel.”

The Supergirl costume is replaced by badly damaged armor and the face of Melissa Benoist is digitally augmented with Kryptonite dust traveling through the veins.

“A lot of the team have been with me since Flash started five years ago. For the most part they get to work on all of the shows. We definitely have 2D and 3D supervisors who are specific to a show, but our compositors may be working on Flash this week and next week help on Doom Patrol or Supergirl. It’s spread out to the point where no one gets bored working on one show.”

—Armen V. Kevorkian, Executive Creative Director and Visual Effects Supervisor, Encore VFX

Anthony Konechny plays D.E.O. agent Raymond Jensen in the Supergirl Season 4 episode “Ahisma.”

The alien parasite that inhabits the body of Raymond Jensen is digitally added.

Two CG cities are worked on by Encore VFX during downtime to make them even better. “National City in Supergirl has a Los Angeles feel because our first year was in Los Angeles,” remarks Kevorkian. “Then for Flash, Central City is more like Vancouver.” Gotham will be reimagined for Batwoman. “We have the Chris Nolan, Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher versions. The TV series Gotham did it differently. We did a little bit of it in Titans. Now we’re in the process of rethinking Gotham on our end. You stay true to the comics as far as the Gothic design, but pepper it with more modern buildings as well.” Star City in Arrow is approached differently by Zoic Studios. “Being the original series, Arrow has laid claim to Vancouver as Star City, so there is not a whole lot of digital enhancement necessary,” notes Jones.

“A couple of seasons ago we collapsed a large portion of the city and added the Glades,” adds Jones. “We put in a lot of iconic buildings that are true to the series.”

“A lot of times, I’ll work with our artists on anything that involves R&D, based on what I feel something should look like,” explains Kevorkian. “But then I run it by our executive producers to see if this is going to be good enough, or if it’s what they were thinking. Our EPs are good about approving a first pass and chime in every now and then.” Sometimes the concept art staged is bypassed. “We have a talented modeling department, so I’ll have someone build a quick 3D sculpt of something that can be rendered at 360 degrees.”

For Arrow, R&D focuses on the tools utilized by Oliver Queen. “How do some of the arrows work, whether they’re grappling or bola arrows?” states Jones. “We run physics tests to make sure that the arrows can fly and still be mechanically functional. Then there are large effects that happen, like the explosions towards the end of last season, or water dynamics that occur towards the beginning of this season. There is a lot of R&D in that pipeline to make sure those effects work correctly.”

“A lot of the team have been with me since Flash started five years ago,” states Kevorkian. “For the most part they get to work on all of the shows. We definitely have 2D and 3D supervisors who are specific to a show, but our compositors may be working on Flash this week and next week help on Doom Patrol or Supergirl. It’s spread out to the point where no one gets bored working on one show.” Zoic Studios has digital artists working exclusively for a show. “The Legend and Arrow teams are separate although the supervisors sit right next to each other,” reveals Jones. “There’s a lot of synergy between them, with Andrew Bardusk previously being the digital effects supervisor on Arrow.”

Every situation is handled depending on the needs of the show for that moment. Before Batwoman started shooting in February, Kevorkian was prepping “certain environments I knew we were going to have to do CG for. I knew I was going to need a digital double of [Ruby Rose, playing Batwoman], so we started building that. You work with the director and get some storyboards to figure out what you’ll need. There was a scene with a car that needed CG help for what the vehicle was required to do. This is where I said, ‘My car library has over 50 vehicles including a Toyota Prius and Lincoln Town Car. If the practical car can be one of these then the studio will not have to pay for an asset because we have something built already.’”

“We’re lucky because so much of this is captured practically on set,” notes Jones. “That’s one of the things that has always challenged us, which is to create organic cameras. You want to take your cameras, lay them out as if you were shooting the scene, and use the same lenses, camera speed and camera equipment that they have on set. What we want to try to avoid are cameras whipping around in space for no reason, because they automatically start to feel CG.” Other elements contribute to the believability factor. “In [Legends of Tomorrow] ‘The Virgin Gary’ episode, we have this demonic unicorn being sucked into the Hell vortex, courtesy of Constantine [Matt Ryan],” explains Bardusk. “We had to do a matte painting of all of the hoofmarks the unicorn was leaving, as well as dust being kicked up as it tries to claw its way towards Gary Green [Adam Tsekhman]. You spend as much time on all of these extra little details as the asset itself.”

Stock footage is used as the basis for establishing shots featured in Legends of Tomorrow. “We’ll paint over the stock footage to make it period, cool and exciting,” states Bardusk. “Then we’ll project that onto 3D geometry so we can still give it an interesting camera move.”

A dragon has an aerial encounter with Supergirl in the Season 4 episode “Call to Action.”

Supergirl meets an alien adversary, which is an entirely CG creation, in Supergirl Season 4 episode “Suspicious Minds.”

“We’re lucky because so much of this was captured practically on set. That’s one of the things that has always challenged us, which is to create organic cameras. You want to take your cameras, lay them out as if you were shooting the scene, and use the same lenses, camera speed and camera equipment that they have on set. What we want to try to avoid are cameras whipping around in space for no reason, because they automatically start to feel CG.”

—Chris Jones, Co-Founder/Executive Creative Director, Zoic Studios

Grant Gustin rushes off as The Flash in the Season 5 episode “Oh Come, All Ye Thankful.”

Bolts of electricity are augmented into the shot to emphasize the superhuman speed of The Flash.

A plate taken from The Flash Season 5 episode “The Icicle Cometh”

Metahuman abilities of turning arms into knives is digitally integrated into the live-action performance.

The face of Rag Doll, portrayed by Troy James, gets digitally inserted into the plate shot taken for The Flash Season 5 episode “All Doll’d Up.”
Anna Diop portrays Koriand’r/Starfire in the pilot episode of Titans.
A lasso of energy was created by Encore VFX for the Season 1 finale of Titans.

Greenscreens come up regularly for Legends of Tomorrow. “The art department will build the first story of a building, which will cover all of the actors, and the walk and talks,” notes Bardusk. “A lot of times we have to add a roof to a building, which involves roto. Greenscreen comes up for the time portals when they come in from one location to the other. They’re flexible about popping up a greenscreen on a C-stand on the fly and getting it lit when we need to.” A major asset is having collaborative executive producers. “Before Titans started up in March, I met with the showrunner, Greg Walker. I asked him, ‘What are you thinking about for Season 2?’ He gave me broad strokes of what was coming. That gave me the ability early on to put my team on certain things.” There is also room for discussion. “I’m able to express my opinion and sometimes they’ll take it into consideration. You don’t have to win every single time. Everyone is trying to make the best show possible.”

The hardest aspect of crossover episodes is coordinating the schedules of the cast members. “There are certain looks that we set up, like the Reality Wave which was more prominent in Supergirl,” explains Kevorkian. “We had to send the Reality Wave to the producers on the other shows to make sure that everybody was onboard. It adds another layer to the approval process which takes more time.” Stepping behind the camera is not uncommon for Kevorkian, who has served as both second unit director and director on The Flash and Supergirl. “Season 2 of Flash was the first time that I directed an episode, which happens to be a favorite of mine. It was a great script and had some cool visuals that you could show off. Then I started doing Supergirl and Flash regularly.”

The transition from comic book to television sometimes requires a significant adjustment. “We went back and forth on the tiger in Titans because in the comic books it’s really green,” reveals Kevorkian. “But when you do that in real life it doesn’t feel real. It took time to dial that in and have everybody agree.”

A DC Universe series about a group of superhero misfits is a career highlight. “Doom Patrol is probably the most fun that I’ve had on any show because it’s so out there and some of the things that they write you’re like, ‘I don’t think this has ever been created before.’ That makes it interesting for me.”

Adds Kevorkian, “Between reading all of these [Doom Patrol] scripts, sometimes I’m like, ‘Where did I read that? Was that in Titans or Supergirl?’ We get scripts every week. It’s a mental challenge to keep up with it, but I’ll get bored if I don’t have that problem!”


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