Translating some of DC Comics’ most iconic villains from the page to the screen is always daunting for the creative team behind “The Flash.” But none more so than Grodd, an 800-lb. gorilla with psychic abilities and genius intellect who goes toe-to-toe with the CW show’s super-powered hero just as believably as the series’ human antagonists.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” have raised expectations for viewers accustomed to seeing photo-real creatures on screen, and yet “Flash” visual effects supervisor Armen Kevorkian and his team at Encore Hollywood eschewed the motion-capture approach utilized by those blockbusters in favor of computer animation, earning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual effects for the episode “Grodd Lives.”
“We start from scratch — that way we have total control,” Kevorkian says. “We have some really talented animators here and it was just a matter of me demonstrating what I thought the scene needed, what the shot needed, and going through different versions until we got to where we got to, even with the facial expressions.”
Although Kevorkian’s team consulted videos of real-life apes for inspiration, Grodd’s more human attributes altered their approach. “A lot of times, you realize that even if you reference a real gorilla, it doesn’t work for the character that you’re establishing here — you have to take creative license in his actions, his attitude,” Kevorkian notes.
The strategy paid off, with many viewers unaware that the character was entirely computer-generated. “We read some fan reaction and some people thought it was partially CG, partially makeup, maybe a guy in a suit for certain shots,” Kevorkian says.
Audiences were also fooled by the digital double used for Grant Gustin’s titular hero in a scene where Grodd lifts the Flash into the air like a toy. “It’s always challenging adding any kind of digital double to a shot. We’ve had Grant’s from the very beginning,” Kevorkian says, disclosing that Gustin was intricately scanned before the pilot, allowing the vfx team to perfect his double on a timetable similar to feature films. “I think we’ve fooled people a lot more times than they’ve noticed, but obviously there are certain scenes you know can’t be the real actor.”
With the demands of a broadcast television schedule always a challenge for effects-heavy series, Kevorkian is grateful that “Flash” exec producers Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns warned him that Grodd was part of their season one master plan soon after the pilot was shot.
“That allowed us to work on designing him based on how he’s been established in the comic books; (to) work with conceptual artists, design his new look. We started building him in 3D while we were delivering other episodes.”
Kevorkian’s team pulled off countless cinematic setpieces over the course of the first season, from crashing a train to simulating a tsunami to making fans believe a man can both fly and burst into flames, but it’s the little tricks that often escape detection that satisfy the vfx magician most.
“It’s the small things sometimes that make you smile, like (Flash) running up a building. Those things that work in a comic book that you’re always afraid might not translate well to moving picture, and finding a way bring the two together.”
Kevorkian notes that his team strives to bring artistry to the comic book spectacle.
“The equipment is great, the software is great, but it’s the guy who sits behind the box that makes the difference. In our industry, you have a lot of people who know how to use the software, (but) it doesn’t necessarily make them an artist. It’s truly the artists that we have that help me bring everything to life.”