By Sydney Bucksbaum
July 17, 2019 at 01:00 PM EDT

It’s a bird … it’s a plane … it’s EW’s first monthly issue!

The stars of the Arrowverse — Arrow‘s Stephen Amell, The Flash‘s Grant Gustin, Supergirl‘s Melissa Benoist, Legends of Tomorrow‘s Caity Lotz and Batwoman‘s Ruby Rose — may be joining up for the first ever five-show crossover later this year, but EW gathered them together first for our August cover … and it turned out super (sorry). But while fans have seen these superheroes achieve the impossible in comic books and on TV thanks to CGI and special effects added in digitally, we wanted to do … something else.

“Because this was our first monthly issue we wanted to come out swinging, put our best foot forward and do something that hasn’t really been done before,” EW Photo Editor Alison Wild says. “Carlos Serrao is a famous and iconic photographer known for his active photography so we wanted to think of something that was true to the EW brand but also explosive. We wanted to produce something that will stay around for a while and be hopefully remembered in a good way as EW’s first monthly … and showing off what these people can do. They do their own stunts, they can pull this stuff off so we wanted to do as much in camera as possible – they’re actually superheroes!”

Instead of shooting the Arrowverse stars in poses and adding in special effects after the fact like bullets and knives flying through the air, the team behind the covers decided to do everything authentically. So everything you see in the cover photos was actually there on set, no extra CGI or photoshop needed.

Carlos Serrao for EW

“They wanted it to feel more in camera and organic because a lot of times especially with superhero shows, movies and posters there seems to be a lot of heavy, heavy retouching,” Serrao says. “It almost becomes an illustration because the subject matter is superheroes doing superhuman things. We wanted to do as much in camera as possible with the effects. The motion, shutter drags, coloring and lighting was all done in camera so it feels more grounded. When you look at it, it just doesn’t feel like it was composited in post-production.”

Serrao pauses, then adds, “I hope that when someone looks at it, especially someone who might be interested in photography, they go, ‘That’s cool how it was done in camera or organically as opposed to just like shot against a background and then stripped out and all slapped together.’ I hope it does feel like photography rather than illustration.”

Because Serrao works a lot with athletes, he approached this shoot in the same way to incorporate real movement and action into the photos, something that EW has never done before.

“I know the mechanics of the body and capturing the moment and I also get a lot of technical shoots as well so this was a combination of all of that,” Serrao says. “Getting to shoot the actors in character was so fun because generally I’m accustomed to people who don’t want to be there so I try to make it as painless as possible. But when I get to do these things, it’s much more collaborative. The person is in their character, doing their job, interested and committed to making sure the shots are good.”

Carlos Serrao for EW

And even though “these aren’t professional athletes or stunt people,” the actors surprised everyone on set with how much they were able to do. “They’re physically fit and in tune with their bodies, but they’re still in costumes that can restrict movement playing fantasy-based characters,” Serrao adds. “The fact that they can still pull stuff off for us and make it feel like there is a lot of movement and bigger than life action, that’s what we’re most proud of.”

When it came to deciding what to have each of the stars do in their individual covers, Wild explains that the concept went through a few different stages.

“It evolved into this idea of heroes fighting their way through peril,” she says. “First we wanted to do heroes in peril and while it’s a cool concept, people don’t want to see their heroes about to be defeated. So we decided to give them an obstacle and see how they get through it. And since superheroes are so color driven, we gave each cover its own theme.”

“What I like about them is it’s a nice variation of each character,” Serrao adds. “There is a cohesiveness to all of them but each one has its own unique spin or color palate.”

First up: Benoist’s Supergirl.

DC Comics

“The Supergirl cover is an iconic comic book image most often associated with Superman with him breaking out of chains,” Wild says. “That was a no-brainer for her. Props designer Ward Robinson pulled a bunch of chains and painted them green to match the comic book cover. Then he did this really neat trick where he cut some of the chain links in half and put magnetic pieces on each end so they could clip together.”

Then came the fun part. “We wrapped Melissa up – and she was so lovely and patient – and made sure the openings hit at the right spot,” Wild explains. “We counted down and then she would just bust out of them. It worked so well because for something like this, it’s so obvious if it’s cheated or fake or done all in post-production. That was something we were always really cognizant of – how can we actually, physically do this? Ward and Carlos are both geniuses and all about doing things in camera to not only save time and effort on the back end but then it feels more authentic.”

DC Comics

Rose’s Batwoman cover shoot went a little differently since they couldn’t actually throw knives at her … for obvious safety reasons. But Serrao and Robinson found the right workaround to still make sure the shoot was as real as possible.

“We knew we wanted this concept of her running through knives because of the classic comic book cover,” Wild says. “The knives did have to be put in during post-production because we didn’t want to injure the actress. We don’t want her actually running through knives but it was still shot in camera. Ward brought in a ton of knives and strung them up with fishing line, working with Carlos to decide location of the knives and depth so we were able to actually shoot that.”

“We made two images layered on top of each other and there wasn’t any other post-production work besides that,” Wild adds. “It gave Batwoman the chance to do much more without the fear of getting nicked by knives because they were real knives!”

Carlos Serrao for EW

After eight years of playing the Green Arrow, Amell already has hundreds of photos standing in front of a bullseye with a bow and arrow. The challenge for his final EW cover kicking off the final season of Arrow was making sure it was different and stood out from all the rest.

“There was a loose – extremely loose – inspiration from the iconic Esquire Muhammad Ali Saint Sebastian cover with his hands behind his back getting shot by arrows,” Wild says. “But we didn’t want Arrow shot because he’s a hero and if everything goes our way, he’s not majorly injured. We put a spin on it where he’s dodged all these arrows that were shot at him. We built a wall, Ward stuck a bunch of arrows in it and Carlos shot him from the side through all the arrows and it captivated all of us. It ended up looking so striking.”

DC Comics

For Gustin’s cover, it turned out to be the perfect example of letting the art do the talking. The EW team went into Gustin’s shoot with a specific idea in mind, executed that idea and it turned out great. But when they asked Gustin to take some photos of him just running, everything changed.

“What we thought would be the cover ended up not being the cover after we had him run,” Wild says with a laugh. “You’ve seen him running on literally every single poster or promotional art the show has ever had. I felt so bad asking this guy to run, again, but Grant is such a nice guy and knows that this is his character. He’s got the running down pat so of course we had him run and since he’s so tall and had a brand new costume that’s debuting in the new season, he started running and the shot was just stunning.”

The photo then “took on a life of its own” according to Wild, which is everything a photographer and editor could hope for during a cover shoot.

Carlos Serrao for EW

“It reminded me of what you would see in ESPN’s Body Issue and you just admire the physicality of athletes’ bodies,” Wild says. “We saw it on the monitor and we just knew that was the shot. Even [Gustin] said he wanted it to be his new profile picture and that’s all the validation you need that he truly likes it – he wants to put it on his social media! There was a lot of people on set that day and everyone was truly gasping at that shot. We did others where he was running through bullets which was a nod to iconic comic book imagery and it turned out great but this was the true winner.”

One challenge came when it was time to shoot Lotz’s individual cover, as White Canary doesn’t have as iconic comic book imagery as the other Arrowverse characters for inspiration. So the team was free to come up with a fresh, new idea.

“Something I’ve always wanted to see someone do is punch through glass and it seemed like a cool choice for her,” Wild says. “That’s actually sugar glass [in the photo] which is frequently used in TV and movie production. Caity had worked with it before but had never punched through it.”

Carlos Serrao for EW

The photo team thought they would have to layer two photos together to make Lotz’s cover work: one of her punching the air and another of the already-cracked sugar glass panel. But after punching through a smaller test panel to figure out how much power to pack behind her fist, Lotz decided to actually punch the glass for the photo to have her cover turn out as authentic as the others.

“She punched through that with no problem, like a boss,” Wild says. “She liked it and was down to do more so we got a bigger piece, directed her so she didn’t obscure her face and she was such a champ. She punched through it multiple times and she was a rockstar. We got a cool shot where she punched through it and it created this unique web of glass cracks and that was it. It was so graphically interesting and it became one of my favorite covers. It was like breaking the glass ceiling as a bisexual superhero.”

Just add that to the already long list of reasons why all the Arrowverse stars are actual superheroes, both onscreen and in real life.

For more on how the Arrowverse saved the TV superhero, pick up the August issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands July 25-26. You can buy all five covers, or purchase your individual favorites featuring Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, White Canary, and Batwoman. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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