In The Flash, the television series currently airing on The CW and based on the famous DC Comics character, assistant police forensic investigator Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) suffers a major electrical and chemical event that causes him – and other ‘metahumans’ – to possess incredible superpowers. For Allen this is the ability to move at superhuman speeds, an effect achieved in the show largely with the help of Encore Hollywood. We find out from visual effects supervisor Armen Kevorkian how they helped bring the Flash to life.
In the show, the Flash’s super-speed is depicted generally in four ways:
1. Wide shots showing the Flash powering through a city street or environment, completed as CG streaks by the VFX team.
2. Fast ‘in and out’ of frame shots. “We call them flash blurs,” says Kevorkian, “where we don’t need a transition between him and a CG double, but it’s not wide enough to showcase that.”
3. Transition shots, for example of Allen launching into action which then transitions into a CG double.
4. Completely CG double shots. For these, Encore invested significant time R&D’ing a more feature film approach to the digi-double work.
For several years one of the most successful solutions for crafting a digital human character has been to acquire scans of an actor’s face via a Light Stage, technology that is continually developed at USC ICT and based on original research by Paul Debevec at UC Berkeley. “I had been reading about Paul’s work for years,” says Kevorkian, “and I thought if I ever did a superhero show, that’s the way I would do it on television.”
Before shooting had begun, Kevorkian had Gustin attend a Light Stage capture session (other characters in the series were captured this way too). “Early on,” comments Kevorkian, “I knew that having a really good quality CG double was going to be really important to the show and it was a feature mentality of how to do it. It meant that we could be really up close to the CG double and if we do our job well with lighting and integration in the scene, no one will be able to know.”
– Above: watch a breakdown of the Flash head rig. CounterPunch Studios used the Light Stage scans to produce a digital model of Barry Allen’s face for Encore’s visual effects work.
To create the rest of Flash in CG, Kevorkian orchestrated a further body scan of Gustin, and captured high quality texture photographs with polarized lights and filters of the on-set costume.
The digital Flash makes appearances for several kinds of shots; when stunts would be too dangerous, for example, and for when the shots need to depict time slowing down around him. In the show’s pilot, these slow-mo sequences were filmed with a Phantom camera, but that proved to be too cost prohibitive going forward. Now the production take advantage of the ARRI Alexa’s 120 frames per second abilities and do slow-mo and time ramp effects in post. “The biggest challenge with that is that the way we generate our light beam is based on his motion and speed,” says Kevorkian. “We technically have to work with a lot more frames and animate them at 120 even for the moments that are sped up just so everything looks natural.”
The correct look for the Flash – featuring his trademark blur and also resulting pieces of lightning – was nailed in the pilot for a scene when Allen rescues a bicyclist messenger who is struck by a taxi. “That was shot with a Phantom at 900 fps,” notes Kevorkian. “We did the stunt for real and they pulled him in a way that looked like he was flying up in the air and then something comes and takes him and saves him. It was the first shot we added a CG Flash to where we animated him the whole way but then would expose or slow him down for the moments you want to see him connecting with the bike rider.”
A recent episode, ‘Going Rogue’, in which Flash encounters the dangerous Leonard Snart / Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), presented a stand-out demonstration of Encore’s digital Flash. The episode’s signature sequence involves a train crash orchestrated by Snart when he fires his icy cold gun to freeze the train wheels. “Cold jumps off the train and Flash has to save all these people,” explains Kevorkian. “We did a half real time / half slow motion train crash, going inside the train which was shot on stage – people hanging in the air, glass breaking in the air – all in Flash time.”
“You cut outside as the train is crashing in slow motion and we have him zipping in and out saving the people,” adds Kevorkian. “We built a completely CG train. I then needed plates of the tracks so I flew to Vancouver and shot the track plates. We also had previs for it so knew what the beats were. Then we added the train. And because it was a black background we thought it would be cool to add a city back there so we decided to throw in a CG city.”
That train crash certainly illustrates the benefit of having a highly photorealistic digital Flash to ‘play with’. It’s something Kevorkian believes allows him to pay proper homage to a very popular comic book character. “I think it’s everyone’s childhood fantasy come true where you’re getting paid to work on something like The Flash,” he says. “The best part for me is that my 11 year old can go to school and tell his friends that his dad works on The Flash.”
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