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How CW’s Television Superheroes Get Their Powers

Behind the fan-approved VFX of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow created on a TV schedule and budget.

How CW’s Television Superheroes Get Their Powers

There are two main ingredients for superhero magic: Spandex-ready bods and visual effects.

The latter half of that recipe gathered last week at the Television Critics Association Press Tour to discuss creating the high-concept visuals and superhuman feats on CW’s Supergirl, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Arrow, which return the week of January 23.

There, the shows’ VFX supervisors Andrew Bardusk and Armen Kevorkian joined producers Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg, Jennifer Lence, Jon Wallace, Geoff Garrett, and Joanie Woehler. It was an unusual panel for a convention that traditionally touts above-the-line creatives. But CW’s successful translation of DC Comics characters to TV—both network and publisher are divisions of Warner Bros.—comes from storylines and visuals that continuously pass muster with the exacting standards of comic fans. And given that these four shows share a universe and occasionally engage crossover stories, they require a visual consistency with one another that extends to effects.

The series task two postproduction studios with this job—Zoic handles Arrow, while Encore tackles Flash, Legends, and Supergirl, usually with just a few weeks for prep and post per episode—a tall order considering, in the last year alone, the four shows involved nearly 7,800 VFX shots.

“From the very beginning, we approached our VFX vendors not as vendors, but as creative partners,” says John Wallace, Arrow’s coproducer and postproduction head. “It’s essential to how these shows can be made. If executed properly, VFX can really enhance the story and a lot of times be invisible.”

Their robust VFX collaboration has been able to expand story ideas, whether long-term planning or last minute.

“There will be instances where I’ll be in the editing room and go, ‘Oh, I really wish I had that shot,’ or, ‘I really wish the Green Arrow was doing this,’ and Zoic was like, ‘Okay. No problem,'” says Arrow/Legends EP Marc Guggenheim.

But it took awhile for the showrunners to trust the system. “I worked on a couple of science-fiction fantasies before Arrow. People would write stuff that was outlandish, and I would say, ‘Don’t even bother. You can’t do that, so let’s scale it down now,’” says Andrew Kreisberg, who executive produces all four shows. “Even when we started Arrow, we were, ‘Let’s not let our imaginations get ahead of ourselves.’ And now, we don’t have to be afraid of going big, wrecking a city block, or having a thousand Dominators, because we know that they can pull it off.”

“Sometimes, we’ll suggest the craziest thing we can think of, and they will take it to the next level,” Kreisberg laughs. “There doesn’t seem to be any limits on our imaginations. There is artistry to that.”

Balancing digital and real life

From there, the teams look for a sweet spot combining live-action stunts, special effects, and pyrotechnics with digital character and scene builds, within the allotted time and monetary budget. The houses use standard industry software—, 3DS Max, and Nuke—with some proprietary coding for unique flourishes. Since the VFX budget hasn’t changed, they’ll amortize the cost of asset builds by reusing them in multiple episodes.

“To me, the best sequences are the ones that are a blend of both,” says Kreisberg. “When there’s as much reality as it can be within it, it actually enhances the digital world.”

“When everything is completely digital, the audience can tell,” adds Guggenheim. “It may be cheaper and easier to do it digitally, but we always want to start with doing it practically and have visual effects enhance it rather than start just from a place of, ‘Oh, we’ll just do it digitally.’”

A foundation of stunt work and fight choreography adds directorial depth and keeps actors emotionally invested in scenes, which grounds the hyperrealism.

“You rely on the stunt coordinators’ expertise as well,” says Flash/Legends coproducer Geoff Garrett. “These are people who have been choreographing fights for years, and they’re experts at coming up with dynamic, unique, creative ways. It also allows you to keep your actors and characters present in the scenes, and so they feel emotionally connected and excited by the sequences. Then the VFX can extend it beyond that.”

VFX at a TV Pace

Producers and VFX teams begin collaborating on episodes while the producers and writers are still outlining stories, some two to three weeks before they write the scripts. If plots call for something particularly time-consuming, like destroying a city or building a digital double close-up, the showrunners might approach the VFX crews even earlier.

“Most shows have a prep schedule that lasts eight or nine days before they shoot it, and they really don’t think about what they’re going to do next until they get to that prep,” says Kreisberg. “For us to pull this off week in and week out, we constantly have to stay ahead, so the scripts are coming out weeks, sometimes a month before the prep date. That way, Armen can see months in advance of shooting what he’ll be up against. That can be interesting for directors, who are used to coming in and ruling the roost. On these shows, by the time the director shows up, preproduction is well underway. There are storyboards of action sequences, even animatics, which the director is told to follow because we’ve already been planning on it. But it’s that preplanning that allows all four of these shows to hit the highs every week that they do.”

“These guys are really good at coming up to us, so there are no surprises,” says Kevorkian. “When I read the script I start visualizing what this might be. I’ll call them and say, ‘Is this what you were thinking too?’ and we’ll go back and forth. We work with storyboard and previz artists to show them what we’re thinking and bring it to life. It’s little baby steps, but at a faster pace. Everything is hand-animated. We try to look at the real science of everything first, and then if it doesn’t look right, we’ll change it. But we don’t do shortcuts.”

“Features have the benefit where they have a lot of time,” says Arrow VFX supervisor Andrew Bardusk. “Any of these shots, no matter how great they look, if I had a few more months, I would find ways to spend it. We just try and hit the story point as best we can in the time we have.”

Beyond hiring solid VFX talent, preplanning, workflow streamlining, and amortization, and growing familiarity with characters, the final step is both knowing—and pushing—VFX limits.

“We surprise ourselves every year,” says Kevorkian. “It’s a matter of trying and seeing what can be achieved. In the past TV has been afraid, in the mind frame of ‘it can’t be done.’ But if you continue that way you’re never going to try it. If we agree to these guys that we’re going to do something, we’re going to pull it off.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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