Primetime: CBS's 'Supergirl'
Issue: October 1, 2015

Primetime: CBS's 'Supergirl'

Based on the DC Comics character, Supergirl, the new CBS series of the same name, finds the young biological cousin to Superman learning to embrace her powers and embark on a career as a superhero.  As can be expected with any superhero scenario, VFX play an important part in the content of the show. Supergirl is shot in and around Los Angeles and on the Warner Bros. lot on Arri Alexa; Red cameras are also deployed when 6K resolution is required for greater control over certain VFX shots.

A team of 120 people at Encore VFX Hollywood ( works on Supergirl and The CW’s returning The Flash. They follow an almost identical workflow, except the latter show shoots in Vancouver. “Since our facility does all the effects work, the day-to-day is pretty much the same: meetings, prepping shows, seeing what’s possible, talking to the location scouts. We know the strengths of the people on our team, which is especially important as we explore the nuances. That always makes things go faster without sacrificing quality, which is a big challenge for VFX for TV,” says Armen Kevorkian, senior VFX supervisor and executive creative director at Encore.

As Supergirl fans might expect, flying effects play a major role in the series. “There are three techniques for flying,” Kevorkian says. “Starts and stops are sometimes a combination of wire work on location and a transition to a digital double; sometimes it’s all digital double; sometimes it’s close ups of [star] Melissa [Benoist] on greenscreen. A couple of years ago the digital double part wouldn’t have been attempted, except for being small and in the background. But we’ve had success with The Flash and his digital double, although Supergirl’s hair, cape and skirt make her more challenging.”

As with The Flash, Encore took “a feature film approach in detail and resolution” when scanning Benoist for the digital double that would perform dynamic moves impossible even for a stuntperson. “It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it,” Kevorkian says. As villains are cast, those actors are scanned as well. “We work closely with the stunt department to tie our digital doubles to their great choreography. We want the characters to perform practically whenever possible.”

A character team of about a dozen artists concentrates on building, rigging and texturing digital doubles using Pixologic’s ZBrush and Autodesk 3DS Max. A team of 15 animators uses Autodesk Maya to animate the digital doubles, and compositors tap The Foundry’s Nuke to integrate them into the live action. 
Sitni Sati’s FumeFX and Side Effects’ Houdini create contrails for Supergirl, tying her into the environment and really selling the flying shots. “Although skydivers drop vertically, we looked at shots of how the wind affects them, how the camera moves, what we’re used to seeing when people control their flight,” says Kevorkian.

Encore created a complete digital city for Supergirl to fly through in the pilot. “That gave us the flexibility to do camera moves through the city that would be impossible to get otherwise,” he says. Assets from the digital city are used for set extensions so “we can open up and track” the action. “It’s nice to be really flexible about how to put Supergirl in those scenes; it also gives the DPs a chance to give her a nice golden hour look on greenscreen that we can match and use to integrate her into the scenes.”

Even a bit of Krypton has been seen on the show. “We built her home planet in 3D and comp'ed it into shots with a plate or a complete 3D rendering we fly through,” Kevorkian explains.

A lot of 3D fire and smoke is also crafted in close collaboration with the special effects department. “We try to have SFX give us the hit so we have something grounded in the real world,” he notes. “Marrying SFX and VFX gives the best look.” More destruction simulations are expected as the season gets underway."