Behind the CW superheroes flying and fighting for the American way is a league of creative legends who make it all look easy.
Looking for a hero?
These days, superhero fans need venture no further than the interconnected worlds of the CW’s DC Comics–based shows: Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.
Executive-produced by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, among others, the shows all reside in the Arrow-verse that dawned in fall 2012 with the super-fit Stephen Amell as the crime-fighting Green Arrow. And while all four series offer plenty of punch, they also have their own style and feel.
Fans have come to know what to expect: gritty realism from Arrow, geeky fun from The Flash, can-do attitude from Supergirl and intriguing time travel from Legends of Tomorrow. What they possibly don’t know is that these four fantasy offerings offer high style on abbreviated schedules and budgets far smaller than those of the superhero tentpole features.
All of the shows are shot in Canada — Supergirl moved to Vancouver after leaving CBS for the CW in fall 2016. So it’s easier to plan crossover episodes (like the four-part “Invasion,” which aired in November, and the bold Flash-Supergirl musical episode “The Duet,” airing March 20-21) and to share cast and crew.
The shows’ many craftspeople — including costume and production designers, stunt directors and visual effects teams — are well aware that each world has its own vibe, but they must echo one another, as well.
As costume designer Kiersten Ronning points out, “When we were planning the costumes for Supergirl, I researched what the girls looked like on our sister shows, The Flash and Arrow. We wanted to make sure we had our own unique voice, but we also needed to be in line with the others.”
Here’s a look at some of the talented pros who deliver stunning visuals to their DC Comics canvases week after week, with little sign of mortal fatigue.
Supervising Stunts Coordinator
Staging breathtaking fights and eye-popping car crashes is all in a day’s (and night’s) work for James Bamford.
He’s been in the stunt field since the early 1990s, in both TV and film (X-Men 2, Flash Gordon, Stargate: Atlantis). His gig with Arrow began with the 2012 pilot, when he started training star Stephen Amell in martial arts. Though he considers himself more of a Batman fan, Bamford throws himself into the engineering of stunts on Arrow.
“This year we really turned it up a notch or 10,” he says. “We wanted to go back to the grittiness of the first two seasons. We are emphasizing more practical stunts, so we’ve been flipping vans, rolling cars, doing lots of high falls, jumping wire work and lots of intense fights, which is what the show is known for.”
Among the season’s highlights: a tense sequence for episode 15 involving a limousine in flight, shot on the bottom level of the Vancouver Convention Center.
“It’s one of the most spectacular vehicle stunts I have witnessed,” Bamford says. “It involved a lot of detailed planning. We had to figure out where the limo would land, and what we could and couldn’t do. There was a big explosion, as well, so there was a big safety factor.”
Environment plays a huge part in what makes a stunt special, Bamford says. “I think anyone can stage a fight in a big open area,” he says. “I prefer to interact with the environment as much as possible. Some of the fights we had in the Queen mansion [former home of Oliver Queen, Amell’s other persona] were designed for three or more people getting into hand-to-hand combat in this pristine picture of wealth.
“I really enjoyed mapping out our path for the fight, then walking the director through it: ‘Here, they knock over a table. Then they smash a vase, followed by a china cabinet getting toppled over, and then they go through a couple of glass doors.’ It’s all about bringing layers of detail to the scene, like adding paint to a canvas.”
Relatable, familiar and a little bit clumsy. That’s how Kiersten Ronning describes Kara Danvers, a.k.a. Supergirl, as brought to life by Melissa Benoist.
“In the second season of the show, she has grown up a little bit,” says Ronning, who also worked on the 2016 feature Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. “She is finding her way a little bit more, and we’re watching her blossom, but we want to give her room to keep growing. She’s a little preppy and square, and not sophisticated. She’s still trying to find her way in the world, and that’s why fans relate to her.”
Ronning collaborated with award-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood on Supergirl’s original costume for the 2015 pilot. She finds inspiration in the classic Christopher Reeve Superman movies and other shows that target younger female audiences.
“Our show is set in an alternate universe, so I try not to get too hung up on what’s the latest fashion or style,” she explains. Among the series’ highlights this year was the arrival of Superman (Tyler Hoechlin). “There’s a lot of weight attached to taking on this iconic character,” Ronning says. “It has its specific limitations because you don’t want to outshine Supergirl and her world, but you still want to do Superman justice and for the costume to be familiar.”
Another fun character to dress this season was Lena Luthor (Katie McGrath). “It was a thrill to explore different fashions with her, especially since we don’t really know whether she’s good or evil.” The characters Metallo, Miss Martian and Guardian also provided creative options for the designer, as will new villains portrayed by Teri Hatcher and Kevin Sorbo.
To prepare for each episode, Ronning first looks at how the character has been depicted in the comic books. Then, she tries to fit the newcomers into Supergirl’s world and the overall tone of the episode.
“As we get closer to the shoot, we get into the practical details — how the costume will look on camera, how it will hold up in the stunts. You just have to prioritize to make the schedule work because, in my mind, it can always be better. I just love helping bring characters to life that feel real, interesting, otherworldly and futuristic.”
DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow
While Sheila Haley delights in the detailed settings depicted in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, she’s keenly aware of the demands of the job. “I believe we needed over 20 different locations for our 17 episodes this season,” she says.
“I love doing period work, and my background prepared me for this, but we never had to do so many different ones for one show,” says Haley, who has worked on movies such as The Accused and Blair Witch and TV projects including Psych, Touching Evil and Millennium.
Among the places and periods seen this season were: prehistoric times, feudal Japan, England’s Camelot Castle, German U-boats circa World War II, 1776 New Jersey (for George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware) and Al Capone’s Chicago. The series is shot across mainland Canada, as well as on stages south of Vancouver, allowing Haley and her staff to stretch their imaginations.
“The type of sets we do aren’t often seen in the comic books,” she explains. “I really enjoyed researching the episode where they go to feudal Japan, for example.”
In any given week, Haley & Co. are working on three episodes at once.
“First, you figure out how many locations you need and how you can make the most of our budget,” she says. “I talk to the producers, and we figure out which sets are going to be built and which will be shot on location. I then design the big sets, and the draftsmen and the set designers take over.
"Meanwhile, I have to start scouting for the next episode. We also work closely with the visual-effects team to figure out the CGI set extensions.”
Some may consider Haley’s job glamorous, but for her, the reality is far from it. “Most of the time we are slipping through muddy trails because of all the snow we get here. But I love that we have to move quickly. You have to go with your gut, make fast decisions and move on to the next challenge.”
And while all of its time periods and places make Legends special, Haley also revels in the show’s sense of humor. “So many of the superhero shows and movies are serious,” she notes. “Our superheroes don’t take themselves so seriously. The show is actually funny!”
Flash , Supergirl, DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow
What’s more impressive than the superhuman deeds on the CW’s DC shows? The amount of visuals delivered each season by Armen Kevorkian, who oversees VFX on three of those shows.
An Emmy winner for his work on Banshee in 2013, he is used to juggling. “We usually have about three weeks to finish every episode,” says Kevorkian, who began his career on Star Trek: Voyager. “It was a bit of a challenge in the beginning, but when you find out what the scripts are ahead of time — and have more time to work on the challenging effects — then you feel there’s always a way to accomplish those tasks.”
Kevorkian, who is also the executive creative director at Hollywood-based Encore VFX, oversees about 120 VFX shots per episode for each show. With his team of 140 artists and support staff, he races the clock to finalize the visuals for the three weekly series.
Early discussions about the CG needs of characters such as the Flash villains Gorilla Grodd or King Shark give the team a head start — key to a two-part episode on Flash involving the return of Grodd, which Kevorkian calls “our biggest show this season.
“We had to build a complete Gorilla City environment,” he says. “There’s a three-minute-long fight sequence in a stadium, which involved a lot of previsualization work and asset building, something you don’t often see on TV.
“You try to visualize the coolest thing people would like to see in Gorilla City. We have done larger episodes with more shots, but this one had about 111 VFX shots.”
Other visual-effects highlights this season include the villain Parasite on Supergirl; an alien race called the Dominators, for the crossover episodes between The Flash, Supergirl, Arrow and Legends; and a realistic dinosaur for DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.
“I also loved working on the Legends episode where a shrunken Atom [Brandon Routh] is being chased by a rat in an air duct,” Kevorkian says. “Everyone who works on these shows — from the writers to the costume designers to the visual-effects artists — is so gung-ho about what they do. It feels more like playing than working.”
DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow
Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow
Vicky Mulholland was sold on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow when it was described to her as “Star Trek meets Twilight Zone with lots of time travel and superheroes.”
“What makes this show so special is that we get to do all this research into different time periods,” Mulholland says. “In one episode, we went to 17th-century France and visited the court of Louis XIII and the Musketeers. Then, we went to France in the 1940s, to the Folies Bergère, where Victor Garber’s character sings a wonderful version of ‘Edelweiss.’”
For a weekly series, the show has an astonishing number of superheroes and villains. Justice Society members (superheroes made famous in the comic books) include Rex Tyler, Obsidian, Vixen, Dr. Mid-Nite, Stargirl and Commander Steel and villains ranging from Malcolm Merlyn and Damien Darhk to Reverse-Flash (all of which, save Rex Tyler, made their debut this season).
“We had so much fun creating the costumes for the triad of bad guys,” Mulholland raves. “The chemistry between them is really electric. Plus, they are a lot of fun to dress.” Because the show has such a high demand for costumes, Mulholland and fellow costume designer Maya Mani have a team of 35 on hand.
“There’s so much to build, so we have a huge sewing room with stitchers, cutters, leather workers and other specialists,” Mulholland explains. “We can put together costumes from what’s on the page right here. We use lots of leather and have to make several versions of the same costume to make them survive all the stunts and action sequences.”
For Mani, who works on three shows, the key is to “make sure everything is fresh, but also to acknowledge what the fans are looking for, because they’ve grown up with these characters. We make the costumes look heroic as well as functional.”
Delivering creative costumes like those she designed for the Atom (from Legends) as well as Killer Frost and Vibe (from The Flash) has been memorable. “I love the moment when the actors put on their costumes for the first time,” Mani says. “They look in the mirror and suddenly have this realization: ‘Holy smoke! I’m a superhero!’ That’s a magical experience.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017