Whenever the Flash runs, Supergirl flies, or the Legends of Tomorrow travel through time, it’s with Armen Kevorkian’s help. He’s the VFX Supervisor and Executive Creative Director at Deluxe’s Encore, which creates the many, many VFX in these three TV shows simultaneously—and does a damn good job, too.
With The Flash and Supergirl having returned from their midseason breaks and Legends of Tomorrow premiering tonight, we spoke with Kevorkian about how he and his team bring the DC universe to life on TV three times a week—especially in regards to giant, evil, telepathic gorillas.
io9: This interview is taking place right after The Flash’s midseason finale, so I’ve got to ask: did you do the scene where the Flash runs across the helicopter blade (1:12 in the video above)?
Armen Kevorkian: Yeah, we did.
That was pretty great. It seems like you guys have at least one awesome special effects scene like that per episode. Is that right?
Kevorkian: Yeah, because we have so much mobility in how we set up everything in our digital world, and we have total control of the camera in the city that we built. We try to have one or two great shots like that that you would see in a comic book [every episode] because we know it’s the eye candy that everybody loves.
How much of that shot was practical? Is even Grant Gustin in it?
Kevorkian: Oh, it’s all digital.
Kevorkian: Every single bit. The city, the Flash—everything.
Clearly then you’ve got a full CG model of Grant Gustin at this point. Do you even need to call him in any more for the special effects?
Kevorkian: Well, depending on what it is, obviously. A lot of the stuff you see him in is really grand. But for those epic shots, we have such a good digital double, we always use it.
Is there a rule you guys have to decide when do a practical effect and when to use CG?
Kevorkian: Not necessarily a rule. It depends on the shot. There are [scenes] where you see Grant first, where he kicks it off, so obviously he’s there for those moments. Then we kind of take over at that point.
But for some of the big stuff that we have a lot more control we do go all digital. Like in our last Grodd episode—when he punches Grodd and sends him into the breach? We didn’t use an element of Grant, we just did a whole CG Grant doing a supersonic punch.
I assume you had to make a giant full-body scan of Grant Gustin?
Kevorkian: Yeah, I did. I scanned Grant the January before we shot the pilot. And we didn’t even have a suit then! We had his body, his face and all that, so we started on that.
I chose to do it “the feature route,” which is more of an intense scan, getting his real facial detail and all that. It wasn’t a one-and-done scan that you sometimes do for characters that are not going to be there as much. I think it was the first time in television anyone had done that kind of scanning for a character.
Since then, we’ve made detailed scans like that for characters on the other shows we’ve done. Like, for some of the Legends of Tomorrow characters. And we did Supergirl as well.
How you prepare such a VFX-heavy a show like The Flash?
Kevorkian: It was definitely doing R&D on speed effects. What do see and what you don’t see: is it a blur? What is it? How’s his lightning going to be represented? So I did a lot of R&D to make that work. That was the start. Even before we had the visual double of Grant, we had a mock-up of the characters, just to kind of play with different looks.
CW shows don’t generally have the biggest TV budgets. Does that limit your process at all?
Kevorkian: I mean obviously you think about the budget, but that was the least of my worries. I just wanted something that would be representative of what would look cool—what was established in the comic books, but still felt it lives in the real world.
I always feel like—and this goes for movies, too—once it airs, it lives forever. So if you feel that you didn’t put everything into it, to make it the best you can? Then you’ll regret it. Once it’s out of your hand and it airs, it’s theirs. I kind of represent the work that you put into it. At the end of the day, you want to do the best that you can, but what does air is worth the blood and sweat that you put into it.
Speaking of blood and sweat, are you doing the VFX for Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl simultaneously?
Kevorkian: I am, actually.
Which one takes up the most of your time?
Kevorkian: They all do. [laughs] But it’s a lot of fun. If it wasn’t fun, I don’t think I could do it. When we read fan reaction and some of the things you guys write, and you do justice to a character that people grew up with, that they love, and had their doubts about... and we did something that was pleasing to people. I think that’s a good bit of gratification.
Did you start with Arrow, too?
Kevorkian: No, actually. When they did Arrow, I didn’t know Greg Berlanti yet. I met Greg on Political Animals, which isn’t really an FX show, but it had quite a bit of invisible effects. When we met, he had already done Arrow at that point. And then Greg did another show called Tomorrow People, which I did for him. And then that kind of rolled over into The Flash and then eventually Legends and Supergirl.
How many people do you have working on all this?
Kevorkian: We have about 120 people. A big team of animators, a big team of character guys, a big team of L&R [lighting and rendering] guys, environment guys, a big team of compositors… I have a lot of support, obviously. I’d go crazy if I didn’t.
They’re a really, really, really hard-working team that’s very passionate about what they do. They come to work not looking at it as a job, and I think it’s the dedication and the hard work that I’m surrounded by that is able to bring the vision, at least, that I have, for these effects.
I was about to ask if was like 40 people per show, but I assume they’re all working on all three shows simultaneously.
Kevorkian: Yeah, I think that’s the best way to do it. If you say, “you’re only working on this show,” you’re not really tapping into the talent where you need it. One guy might be really good at building a creature, but not as good as building a spaceship, so—if there’s a creature in Supergirl—he does it. If there’s a creature in Flash, he does it. And then, if a guy’s better at something else, then you give it to him. So we don’t limit who works on what show.
Are you a comic fan at all? Is this job a dream come true?
Kevorkian: Oh, absolutely. I grew up reading comic books as one of my—I used to go to a 7/11 when I was 11 years old, and buy my comic books from there, because there were no comic shops near my house. Every month you’d wait for the next issue to come out.
It’s playing in a giant sandbox and getting paid for it, you know? You get to work with great people like Greg, Geoff Johns, Mark Guggenheim… They all love what they do as well, so it’s not just making a show. It’s not a job. We’re all older, but we still get excited in the room when we see something cool.
Then I imagine you all must have been pretty excited when you put a giant evil telepathic gorilla on primetime TV. Did you all always know you were doing Gorilla Grodd?
Kevorkian: Well I remember when we did the pilot—in a conversation with Geoff Johns, Andrew Kreisberg and Greg Berlanti were there—and we were just talking about, “well now the pilot’s picked up, what are we going to do?” as far as like villains and all that. And they said we’d really like to explore Grodd.
The minute that I heard that, I went back to my team, and said, “We have to start designing Grodd,” not even knowing if we were going to do it or not. Because I knew if we didn’t get a headstart, we couldn’t do the character any justice. Full week, just in the background while we’re working on current episodes, we would start building him. Two hours today. Three times a week. Little bit. Little bit. That way you’ll be prepared for when it’s written.
Has he been the toughest VFX of your three shows?
Kevorkian: No. Obviously he’s not easy, but the team that I have, as far as with characters and all that, they’re really, really, really, really strong. I have a good team of animators.
I find the toughest effects sometimes are actual effects. Like, what’s coming out of someone’s gun needs to be different. Someone has powers coming their hands, for example. Those are a little bit more difficult, I think. Just kind of getting a look that... something that nobody has ever seen before, and hopefully something that everyone’s going to like. Those seem to be harder to nail down.
Has there ever any DC character or monster or any effect that made you say, “No, that is just too out there. It’s impossible”?
Kevorkian: No. Not as of yet. The one thing that I like about what we do is I actually like the challenge of doing something that may be more on the difficult side, cause there’s that internal satisfaction knowing that you pulled it off. There’s also the risk that you failed at it, of course. But we’ve been lucky so far.
Even when we were told we were going to do King Shark—and I think I’ve told this story before—it was pretty much me walking by Andrew Kreisberg in the hallway.
“Hey, we’re thinking about doing King Shark!”
And that was the conversation. I went back to the office and said the same thing: “I think we’re doing King Shark.” And we started that day.
Is there any character or fight or anything on your VFX wish list?
Kevorkian: Yeah. Who wouldn’t want to see a King Shark and Grodd battle?
No one. Not a single person on the planet.
Kevorkian: Yeah, exactly.
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