‘The Flash’ visual effects guru talks Gorilla Grodd, Firestorm and more

May 12, 2015 | 3:17 p.m.
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Robbie Amell, from left, who plays Firestorm on “The Flash,” consults with Andrew Egiziano, owner of CounterPunch Studios, and visual effects supervisor Armen Kevorkian at Lightstage studio in Burbank in 2014. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

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Lightstage Chief Technology Officer Tim Hawkins, from left, oversees the shoot of Firestorm actor Robbie Amell inside the Lightstage as visual effects supervisor Armen Kevorkian directs. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

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Grant Gustin is the Flash, Stephen Amell plays Arrow and Robbie Amell is Firestorm in the CW's visual effects-packed series. (Diyah Pera / The CW)

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Dominic Percell portrays Heat Wave and Wentworth Miller is Captain Cold in "The Flash." (Jordon Nuttall / The CW)

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Jesse L. Martin plays Det. Joe West and Patrick Sabongui is Capt. Singh in "The Flash." (Diyah Pera / The CW)

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Grant Gustin, Robbie Amell, Danielle Panabaker and Victor Garber in "The Flash." (Cate Cameron / The CW)

Grant Gustin, Candice Patton and Tom Cavanagh may be in the spotlight in the CW’s hit superhero series “The Flash,” but it’s often the visual effects that steal the show.

So far, “The Flash” has depicted a particle accelerator exploding, a tornado, a nuclear blast, a freeze ray, a human fireball, a train wreck and the villainous Gorilla Grodd, not to mention the Flash himself, a man (Gustin) who can run faster than sound. The mastermind behind these spectacles is visual effects supervisor Armen V. Kevorkian, whose credits include “Star Trek: Enterprise,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” “Alias” and “The Tomorrow People.”

Ahead of tonight’s “Rogue Air,” the penultimate episode in the series’ inaugural season, Hero Complex chatted with Kevorkian about creating Grodd and the other visual effects for “The Flash.”

You created a gorilla! At WonderCon, you talked about how there was initially doubt as to whether it could be done. At what point did you realize that this was a possibility?

It was early in the show, I think it was right after we shot the pilot, when I spoke to Greg [Berlanti], Andrew [Kreisberg] and Geoff Johns, and they did mention that they did want to have a Grodd story line the first season, but it would be later on. So that let us plan ahead to kind of think like how we would do it, with obviously the time and budget for television. Normally you get a TV script, you get seven or eight days of prep, you shoot for seven or eight days, and two weeks later you get the footage. We did have a heads up of, there’s something big coming, so start thinking about it.

Grodd and Grant Gustin in "The Flash." (The CW)

Grodd and Grant Gustin in “The Flash.” (The CW)

So how did you create an entire character?

The technical aspect of it, we started with conceptual art. We sat down with an artist, and we would reference the actual comic book as far as size, you know, attitude, the different things like that. We would show it to our producers who would approve it at that level. And then I had a team of very talented artists who started building it on the computer, basically from the ground up. You do it like anatomy. You start with the bones, you then build the muscles, you put the skin on, the fur, and then you rig it to be able to animate it, to give it facial expressions and all that. It’s a process, and it takes a little bit of time, but I was lucky to have a good team behind me to get me what I wanted.

As far as movement and mannerisms, did you have to look at real gorillas?

We did look at a little bit of real gorillas — there are some videos out there of gorillas, some of them walk upright and all that. We kind of realized though that for our character, because it is still a character that’s different than just a regular gorilla, that none of those would work. I mean, we used it for weight reference and certain aspects, but a lot of times what we were doing was either, I was acting out for the animators what his movements or facial expressions would be, or within themselves sometimes they would record each other doing certain things just so we could kind of see what worked and what didn’t work with the story.

Liam McIntyre as Mark Mardon in "The Flash." (Diyah Pera / The CW)

Liam McIntyre as Mark Mardon in “The Flash.” (Diyah Pera / The CW)

Just watching the show, it seems there is some sort of effect in every shot. Could you talk about some of the day-to-day things that require visual effects that viewers may not realize?

There’s a lot of set extensions and stuff like that. Our S.T.A.R. Labs exterior is completely CG. There’s a lot of those invisible effects that go into the show. Because of the nature of the show, everything is pretty much an effect. Our villains have effects, Flash has effects, some of the things that happen, even if it’s with real plates, like him running water, is a combination of shooting footage and adding our effects on top of it. And the train crash that we had earlier in the season. There’s quite a bit that we blend in really good, but at the same time, people know it’s effects, because it would be impossible to create in real life.

Like creating a tornado.

Yes, or a nuclear explosion.

And there’s the accelerator exploding. And the fireball guy.

Yes, there’s Firestorm, which we re-created. We obviously have the software that’s kind of catered to that. And there’s a lot of us doing R&D, knowing those gags are coming up that helps us get to where we want to get. They’re all pretty much done as simulations in the computer. We reference obviously some of the things from the real comic book and see what would look best in a real environment, like, for example, the guy on fire, Firestorm, he has a certain look in the comic book that we try to stay true to, but also give it a little bit of our own taste.

Lightstage Chief Technology Officer Tim Hawkins, left, oversees the shoot of Firestorm actor Robbie Amell inside the Lightstage as Armen Kevorkian, right, visual effects supervisor directs. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Lightstage Chief Technology Officer Tim Hawkins, from left, oversees the shoot of Firestorm actor Robbie Amell inside the Lightstage as visual effects supervisor Armen Kevorkian directs. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Once you add motion, there’s so much more to handle than just on the page.

That’s the tricky part. I’m glad you brought that up. In the comic book, it’s still images, and certain gags might look great as a still image, and when you try to re-create it moving, you realize it doesn’t work, and you have to put a different take on it.

Was there any project you found particularly challenging?

I mean, they’re all challenging. It’s been a pretty challenging year. But you know, it’s all fun, so you kind of forget the challenge aspect of it as far as it being a handicap but more of a booster to do a better job in next week’s episode. I think a lot of the expectations on shows like this is you deliver a really great pilot, and everyone says, “Well, they blew their [budget] on the pilot.” So you want to prove that wrong and do better week after week after week and kind of give everybody what they’re expecting on a show like this.

Grant Gustin as The Flash. (Jordon Nuttall / The CW)

Grant Gustin as the Flash. (Jordon Nuttall / The CW)

When you describe the Flash’s powers, it’s just somebody running very fast, and that’s not necessarily very visual. Yet you’ve interpreted it as something very dynamic and engaging. How did you develop the look of the Flash in motion?

Early on, we kind of went to the science of it first when we were prepping the pilot, and then we realized the facts didn’t matter. It was just a bunch of R&D and me working with our artists and saying, “Hey, let’s try this, let’s try that.” And finally finding something that we can all agree that looked cool and that the producers liked of course, and that the studio was OK with. So it was just a lot of playing around and seeing how we could bring that still image of the Flash to life in moving images and make it look as real as possible.

There are a lot of little details, like every time he leaves the room, there are always papers fluttering and people’s hair blowing back.

A lot of times what we do is we time his exit with a practical gag of having like air blowers or fans or whatever works for that specific scene. That way you do have a practical element of him within the scene, which takes it to another level of being more believable.

How’s it been working with the cast members, many of whom don’t have a lot of action experience?

They’ve been great. For an actor to act with things that they’re not seeing, it’s not an easy thing. And again, with a television schedule, it’s not like we have a lot of prep. If we’re doing a feature, we do certain rehearsals certain ways. With TV, everything is pretty much on the day after they’ve read a script, and we need them able to do what we need them to do so the visual effects part works. Grant’s been fantastic, and that’s one challenge that we weren’t faced with, was working with actors who would not understand what we’re doing. So that’s been really helpful for us.

Stunt work on the set of "The Flash." (Dean Buscher / The CW)

Stunt work on the set of “The Flash.” (Dean Buscher / The CW)

Were you a fan of the comics before you did this?

I was. Growing up, I did read all the comics and all that. So there’s a little part of that that you realize, we’re creating this character. That’s probably the biggest challenge or pressure that you have. When you’re working on something like that, you always think, am I going to do it justice for the millions of fans who are out there, who are expecting something to be great, who just came from a $200-million movie that they saw? So there’s the pressure of that. But that just keeps us on our toes. We just push it as much as we can to make sure that everybody’s happy.

I don’t know that there’s another show out there that’s as ambitious when it comes to effects?

I would agree.

As far as a modern-day superhero TV show, they’ve had a few shows here and there over the years. But “The Flash,” bringing a character so rich with actual powers and abilities, and villains having powers and abilities, it’s probably the most ambitious one today.

Dominic Percell as Heat Wave and Wentworth Miller as Captain Cold in "The Flash." (Jordon Nuttall / The CW)

Dominic Percell as Heat Wave and Wentworth Miller as Captain Cold in “The Flash.” (Jordon Nuttall / The CW)

Is there a show you’ve worked on that prepared you for this one?

No. Every show that I’ve done in my career has been different from the others, which kind of keeps it fresh and keeps it challenging, and keeps it fun.

As a fan of the comics, is there a character or ability you’re hoping you’ll get the chance to work on going forward?

There’s so much stuff that we could do. “The Flash” story line is great. Geoff Johns really brought it to a new level of different areas that we could explore. There’s time travel, there’s different things that we’ve kind of touched upon this year. We could go further. There’s a whole story line of Gorilla City, which could be interesting too. Whatever they throw our way, we’re willing to take it.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | @LATHeroComplex

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