The Super VFX of 'Black Lightning'
Christine Bunish
September 20, 2018

The Super VFX of 'Black Lightning'

Based on the DC Comics character of the same name, The CW’s new series  Black Lightning  follows the retired superhero and current high school principal Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), who is forced to unleash his powers and return to crime fighting when a local gang threatens his community.  

Black Lightning can harness and control electricity; his elder daughter, who eventually fights crime as Thunder, has her own superpowers, while his younger daughter, Jennifer, is just beginning to discover her abilities.

The series is shot in HD in Atlanta and debuted in January for a 13-episode run. Burbank, California-based Encore VFX, assisted by its now permanent office in Atlanta, is the sole VFX vendor for the show.

It’s not surprising that the key visual effects for the show have been Black Lightning’s signature superpower. “The comics were great for reference, but television is a different medium. What might look good in a drawing may not look as good as live--action effects,” notes Armen Kevorkian, creative director and senior visual effects supervisor at Encore VFX. He serves as VFX supervisor for Black Lightning.

Encore was challenged to take something — lightning — that everyone recognizes and “change it up” by adding other elements. “We didn’t want it to feel like it was just bolts,” Kevorkian explains. “So, we comp’d in secondary elements to give almost a sizzle off the bolts, like a residual energy.” Artists achieved this look using Thinkbox Software’s Krakatoa plug-in for Autodesk 3ds Max.

“Every scene is different, so there are long and short bursts of lightning and a move where he swirls his hands to harness the energy before it shoots out,” says Kevorkian. “Everything is pretty intricate and customized, not from a library. The lightning is 3D; the 2D department integrates the lightning with interactive lighting and other elements.” 

Encore also devised variations on lightning, including a power shield layered over the core lightning blast and a power bubble that forms around Black Lightning.

The superhero’s daughters exhibit more subtle, energy-themed powers. Anissa Pierce (Thunder) uses a stomp or clap to send out a thunderous energy wave. “It’s a distortion effect, played up or down depending on the environment and how much you want to read it, with a little color to show it off,” describes Kevorkian.  

The younger Jennifer Pierce displays subsurface energy under her skin, mostly on her hands. “It’s one of my favorite effects,” Kevorkian reports. “It comes and goes and undulates; it’s almost like when you stick a flashlight in your mouth and you see the veins in your cheek. The effect shows a bit of veins and muscle detail. You see this on Jefferson Pierce, too — on his neck and chest. It’s the energy that lives within him all the time.” An “eye gag” also reveals the energy welling up in Jefferson’s pupils.

Cress Williams was scanned with and without his suit so Encore could create digital doubles of Black Lightning for stunt sequences, hovering, and flying shots. Some flying scenes feature the actor shot against greenscreen and composited into environments; others are all digital with a digi-double and CG environments.

For Season 1, Encore also crafted muzzle flashes, CG piranhas for an aquarium scene, and CG weapon darts.

The artists’ toolset features Autodesk’s Maya for animation, Pixologic’s ZBrush for modeling, Autodesk’s 3ds Max for lighting and rendering, Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes for tracking, and Foundry’s Nuke for compositing.

Encore’s Kim Rasser is on-set VFX supervisor for the show, providing expertise on shooting for VFX and ensuring that the best possible plates are delivered to the VFX team. 

Encore had “a small presence” in Atlanta before, says Kevorkian, and now has a permanent office in the production hub. “The Atlanta office does a lot of comps for the final look of everything, and they’re starting to do some 3D now.” All QC and reviews are done in Burbank.

“The post team is great, and Salim [Akil] is a very collaborative EP to work with,” Kevorkian says. “He knows what he wants and trusts us to come up with those looks. It’s a very no-nonsense process.”