7:00am PT by Sydney Bucksbaum
'The Flash' VFX Boss Reveals Secrets of Creating Superheroes for TV
Real superheroes don't wear capes — they just help create them.
The visual effects team for The CW's The Flash does the impossible on a weekly basis: deliver near movie-quality special effects on a TV budget and schedule. And yet, despite the obstacles that may seem overwhelming at times to them, visual effects supervisor Armen Kevorkian and his team of artists and designers have never missed a deadline or had to cut something from an episode. That's the accomplishment Kevorkian is most proud of, and something his team never thought could be possible.
"It was definitely a challenge in the beginning," Kevorkian tells THR with a laugh. "I knew it could be done, but it was just convincing everyone around me that it could be done too. A lot of these artists came from a TV background where they haven't done this type of work, so the mind frame was, 'If it hasn't been done, it can't be done.' I feel the opposite where, if it can't be done, we should find a way to do it."
It's a mind-set that has served Kevorkian well, and his work ethic and attitude inspire faith from The Flash producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg, so much so that they've given Kevorkian free rein when it comes to the VFX for the show.
"We'll throw out ideas and I'll give them visuals of what I think something should look like," he says. "There's a lot of back and forth, working with them, as well as they have given me quite a bit of freedom to just play in the sandbox a little bit before I show them anything."
But time and time again, the biggest obstacle Kevorkian and his team face in delivering groundbreaking VFX for The Flash is just that: time itself.
"We do 23 episodes a year. There are some lighter episodes than others, but even our lightest episode is pretty heavy compared to other TV shows," he says. "Cable and premium channels get a lot more time than we do. Time is our biggest enemy but we've fallen into a groove of making it work. We can get a head start on certain things by getting information from our producers early on. It evens out the playing field that way."
Getting an early tip from the producers about certain characters coming on to the show has been Kevorkian's biggest saving grace, especially when it comes to all CG characters like Gorilla Grodd or King Shark.
"A lot of times we have about three weeks to finish an episode, sometimes a little less," Kevorkian says, noting his team had extra time to plan for eight-foot-tall telepathic gorilla Grodd. "Last year we had a little sneak peek of Grodd in the pilot setting up one of the midseason episodes. As soon as we finished the pilot of The Flash, we had a conversation about how we were going to have this character so that allowed me time to do a little bit of research and development and work with my artists to develop a look for Grodd and get that approved and going before even the script came out. It was [about] the same with King Shark."
When it comes to researching the characters, Kevorkian goes straight to the source material: the comic books. While he was versed in the DC Comics universe before joining The Flash, there are many times he relies on the comics to truly get a feel for who the characters are and what they look like. But that doesn't mean he uses the comic books as a paint-by-numbers guide for creating the characters on the show. In fact, the opposite is true.
"I tend to go to the comic books first to see what's been established so you maintain a sense of loyalty to what's been represented in the past and see where it all started," Kevorkian says. "And sometimes we'll abandon the comics completely but just keep a little aspect of it as a nod to what's been established."
When it comes to bigger episodes like Gorilla Grodd or King Shark, Kevokian reveals that while it might take longer to create the CG characters, the process is still the same as it is for every other episode.
"It's just a step-by-step map that you have to follow to the end," Kevorkian says. "Really, it's just a time factor compared to what movies can accomplish. You do feel pressure knowing that people are going to see blockbuster movies and then coming home to watch TV shows, so it's a nice challenge to be faced with producing what we do on a TV budget and schedule. But it's not often that you get all CG characters acting against actors on television so that was really fun to do."
Last season, Kevorkian and his team had to figure out a way to differentiate two speedsters when the big bad turned out to be the Reverse-Flash (Tom Cavanagh). In season two, he faced the same problem again when the fastest speedster alive, Zoom (Teddy Sears), arrived from Earth-2 to steal Barry's (Grant Gustin) speed.
"The first step in Zoom was creating his look, and that was a collaboration with the costume department and our producers to create a different kind of speedster look physically," Kevorkian says. "We had two versions: the live action Zoom that you see and then we have an all-CG version for certain shots. One thing we decided straight away was that his eyes would be more effective if they were just black to represent the soulless aspect of him. And instead of vibrating him like we did with Reverse-Flash, we decided because he is in our storyline the fastest speedster around, the crackle of energy is constant on him. And the blue lightning aspect, that was to differentiate him from Flash so when you have them both in the same scene, you wouldn't get mixed up with the colors of the lightning."
And now that Zoom has successfully stolen Barry's powers, will that change how his visual effects look? "No, his effects are pretty much the same," Kevorkian reveals. "Sometimes in certain shots now we'll represent him to be a little bit faster than he was, or the next episode which I directed, there is a moment that we did something to change his energy right before he does…something. Actually I can't give away too much. But my episode was very Zoom-heavy."
Despite trying to maintain continuity from the series premiere, as new technology comes out or different skills are developed, Barry's visual effects are constantly evolving from a technical point of view. Kevorkian has a creative reasoning to explain that.
"I'm considering for next season to change up the look of his lightning," says Kevorkian, who has been working with VFX since 1999 on Star Trek: Voyager. "I think that works with the storyline. The better he has use of his speedster powers, it makes sense that there would be a little shift in his look without doing a 180 and it's completely different. A little bit of difference year-to-year can't hurt."
The Flash isn't the only superhero TV show Kevorkian has on his résumé, having also served as the visual effects supervisor on CBS' Supergirl, The CW's Flash/Arrow spinoff Legends of Tomorrow as well as Berlanti's short-lived The Tomorrow People, with each series presenting a different challenge.
"Supergirl had its own challenges with dealing with a cape, skirt and hair, so her digital double was a bit more labor intensive than the Flash digital double," he says. "She has no mask so there's less you could get away with. It's a lot of preplanning to get things right because if you can't do things right you shouldn't do it at all. And then Legends was in space with a spaceship and you have to deal with all that stuff. They're all different animals."
With credits including Homeland, Ghost Whisperer, Berlanti's Brothers & Sisters, Alias, Ray Donovan and Hawaii Five-0, Kevorkian says superhero series are easier to work on than non-genre fare.
"Shows that have invisible effects, you're faced with that challenge of integrating certain things that people are used to seeing," Kevorkian explains. "There are shows that I've done where we've had to add a city full of cars on a non-effects show. If you didn't do that right, people would notice that mistake more than if you do a superhero show with powers, which is something you establish so people buy into what's presented to them rather than something they've seen for real. There was one show that I did where we had to re-create Pearl Harbor, and that was all real things people are used to seeing: airplanes, environments, explosions. So it's either how people imagined it to be or it's not."
And he knows that most people assume the opposite to be true. "Even within our shows, there are moments where the effect that we're doing is not necessarily something that is in the superhero world," Kevorkian says. "You have to ground it in reality as much as possible so it just blends in and people don't even know it's CGI. A lot of the shots you see within our city of the Flash just running, they're not real. It's convincing people that we used an actual camera to shoot footage of a city from overhead and not having them realize it's a CG city that they're flying through."
Given the demanding work, Kevorkian says seeing the response from fanboys makes it all worth it.
"That you were able to bring this thing to life that people had just been reading in comics all these years, and the joy they got to see it on television and how fascinated they were that they could see something like that on a TV budget brought to life — that's the fun part for me," he says.
The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW.