Fall TV: CW's <I>Batwoman</i>
Karen Moltenbrey
Issue: September/October 2019

Fall TV: CW's Batwoman

Crime has been on the uptick in the streets of Gotham, and criminals have become increasingly emboldened after the city’s well-known crimefighter, Batman, suddenly disappeared from the public eye three years prior. For Kate Kane, the situation is personal. Her father and his military-grade private security have been trying to keep the baddies at bay, but the situation has taken a turn for the worse after his best security officer — who happens to be Kate’s former girlfriend — is kidnapped by a psychopath gang leader. As a result, Kate steps into the spotlight in place of her billionaire philanthropist cousin, Bruce Wayne, as Batwoman.

The CW television series Batwoman, developed by Caroline Dries and Greg Berlanti, began airing in October. The series stars Ruby Rose as Kate Kane, a highly trained street fighter/vigilante who must wrestle with her own demons in addition to those who threaten the city. Batwoman was introduced last year in a CW multi-show crossover event that had characters from Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (each of whom have their own shows on The CW) tangle with villains alongside this openly gay new character. 

Encore Hollywood’s Kim Rasser serves as VFX supervisor on the series, which contains a wide range of visual effects, from set extensions and digi-doubles to smoke and explosions (some practical, some CG and some a combination of the two). “We’ve only done a few episodes at this point, so it’s early in the series. We’re just getting started on the weapons,” she says.

Unlike some of the other CW superhero shows, Batwoman is more grounded in reality, without magical elements like those shows have. What audiences will see are gadgets, like the bat-shaped batarang throwing device. And, in keeping with her namesake, there are CG bats. 

Insofar as Batwoman is part of the DC Universe, the overall design closely aligns with the traditional Batwoman and Batman look — dark and gritty. Batwoman takes place in the Arrow-verse and leans toward the tone of Arrow. To this end, it is filmed with an Arri Alexa camera and anamorphic lens, helping to give the series a certain moodiness and a more cinematic feel. 

The series is filmed on a soundstage and on location in Vancouver, whose rainy climate dovetails nicely with the Batwoman aesthetic. However, a number of scenes have been filmed in Chicago, which has a more traditional Gotham vibe. “Right now we’re using plates of Chicago [to stand in for Gotham], and then altering or modifying certain buildings and removing signage to make it look less like Chicago and more like Gotham,” Rasser says. 

Currently, the series averages approximately 100 VFX shots per episode. “In the tradition of Batman, there’s really good fight scenes, but unlike the other [DC Universe] shows, we don’t have to do too much intervention,” adds Rasser. 

The VFX team uses a range of content creation tools for the work, including Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya for modeling, shading and texturing, as well as Pixologic’s ZBrush for sculpting and Foundry’s Nuke for compositing, in addition to a number of plug-ins. Rendering is done in Chaos Group’s V-Ray and Redshift, which was recently acquired by Maxon.

Thus far, the artists have not encountered any substantial character challenges. “Our challenges are mainly building hard-surface models, such as vans and cars, helicopters and so forth. For a recent episode, we built an elevator shaft and complex motor — the whole shebang,” says Rasser.

For the pilot episode, the artists created a large set extension of an ice-covered environment, which was filmed on a small practical set as Batwoman emerges from the ice during her training. The VFX team extended the environment, making it appear as if it was situated in the middle of nowhere, in an Antarctic-type location. “We shot a lot of underwater [scenes] with her in a small water tank that we then extended to appear as if she is underneath the ice,” explains Armen Kevorkian, senior VFX supervisor and creative director at Encore. “We had the ice surface on top and extended the background to make it feel like a very large area.”

According to Kevorkian, the sequence involved intricate rotoscoping and matching the caustics of the actual water the actor is in to the digital water in the background. The artists also had to add water simulations, which were done in Max and SideFX’s Houdini. 

The artists also built another large environment extension for the pilot, this one involving a flashback sequence whereby a young Kate Kane is in a car crash during which the car plunges off a cliff. The team had to turn a small incline where the sequence was filmed, into a steep ravine with running water below. “It was completely CG,” says Kevorkian of the crafted environment as well as the vehicle. He points to another sequence shot against greenscreen, with plates of Chicago added to the background, making it appear as if the action is unfolding on a floor of a tall building under construction. Augmenting the scene are digital doubles of Batwoman and a person she rescues. “As she comes off the building, her wings open up, she grabs the person and they do a soft crash through a rooftop,” he says.

At this point, the VFX team is working episode to episode, generating assets as needed. Although the Batwoman work involves grounded images, look for some atypical elements in another crossover event with The CW’s other superhero shows.

Rasser expects the series’ VFX needs will continue to grow. 

“It’s in its infancy at this time, and we’re just starting to build [weapons and assets] now,” she adds. “We’re looking forward to the challenge!”