The Inside Story Of How The Flash Created TV’s Most Terrifying Villain
In its freshman season, The Flash was one of the most celebrated shows of the year, so when it came time to plan out Barry Allen’s next great adversary, the creative force behind the hit CTV series found themselves in a precarious position. How do you top Reverse-Flash? Even more pressing, how do you find a villain as charismatic and smarmy as Eobard Thawne, played by the charming Tom Cavanagh? The short answer is you don’t.
Instead, creators Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg attempted to create their own Darth Vader, a menacing, larger-than-life villain with a nefarious agenda. Enter Zoom, an enigmatic villain so terrifying he blurs the lines between man and monster. He’s 100 per cent pure nightmare fuel.
“We knew we wanted to have another speedster because, ultimately, the big bad on The Flash needs to be a fellow speedster,” Kreisberg told MTV News. “We knew from the get-go that if this person was going to be the big bad, then they had to be faster and more deadly than the Reverse-Flash. We also knew it was going to be very difficult to build that personal connection to the hero like we did with Reverse-Flash, so the more Greg [Berlanti] and I started talking about it, we said, ’What if we make him completely and utterly terrifying?’”
And that’s exactly what they did. To look at Zoom is to stare into a chasm of darkness. Cloaked entirely in black from head to demonic toe, Zoom’s overall look was inspired by many things, from Spider-Man anti-hero Venom to, well, the big bad shark at the center of Steven Spielberg’s seminal blockbuster Jaws.
“We thought of that speech Quint gives in Jaws—’A shark’s eyes are black like a doll’s eyes. It hardly seems alive,’” Kreisberg said. “So everything about Zoom just feels like death.”
“We had an idea that it should look like a demon,” he added. “Reverse-Flash came from the future and Zoom came from hell. That’s what we wanted.” With that general idea in mind, costume designer Maya Mani went to work.
“I always start with the comic books,” Mani told MTV News. “That’s where I start with all of the characters. So what I was looking for was essentially something of your nightmares. Those are the notes I was given. But if you look at Flash and Reverse-Flash, there’s a flow to them. One costume flows to the other, and I needed to keep that the same for Zoom.”
Mani settled on leather as her skin of choice, mainly because it can take a beating—and for a stunt-heavy show like The Flash, it’s imperative that the costume endures throughout the season. And because Zoom was dressed head to toe in black, in order to avoid looking like a “big black blob” onscreen, Mani relied on different textures to give Zoom’s costume some much-needed definition.
“I was looking at muscles and how the lines of muscles and the textures of muscles are defined,” Mani said. “The leather has a ripple in it, and the ripple was meant to mimic the muscle and the direction of the muscles. That’s what I was trying to do by wrapping those pieces over his shoulders and down his spine. I wanted to mimic that musculature.” Shine was also added to Zoom’s costume “so that it catches the light.”
In total, it took Mani and her team a “few weeks” to complete Zoom’s costume. “It was about getting those lines right,” she said. “As silly as it sounds, 1/8 of an inch up or down makes all the difference as to how it hits someone on their body. That’s why he looks so big, because of some of those lines. We wanted his shoulders to be broad and his waist to be more slender and his thighs to be big. All of that texture is placed that way, to emphasize those things.”
If the Reverse-Flash was a speed warrior, then Zoom is a speed monster. So much so that when Kreisberg and his team were designing Zoom’s mask, the executive producer specifically asked for something that didn’t look human.
“Early on, they sent us a version of the Reverse-Flash’s hood, only black, with makeup on underneath, and there were also some early versions of Zoom with veins on his face,” Kreisberg recalled. “We said, ’No. It should almost be like you don’t even know if there is a person inside of it.’”
“Then the makeup team had drawn a couple of different things, and I actually put something up on the white board and said, ’It should look like this,’” he said, pointing to a quick sketch of squiggly lines in the place of Zoom’s mouth, “almost like the baleen of a whale.”
Mani took those notes and turned it into something even more disturbing: a mask without a defined mouth, only remnants of where one should be. Zoom’s mask and his “tar mouth,” made out of silicone prosthetics, is arguably one of the speedster’s more terrifying features.
“This is going to sound disgusting, but it’s like spit and tar, that kind of gummy texture,” Mani said. “When you look at his mouth, and how it’s all connected, that’s really where I started. You know nothing nice is going to come out of that tar mouth.”
Fans will also notice that Zoom’s mask doesn’t have the same sharp, metallic lightning bolt finishes that the other speedsters have. “In this case, it didn’t make sense to do that because he’s not light and bright,” Mani said. “He’s still kind of a murky guy. I went with more of a tarnished look to it.”
Then, Mani had to design Zoom’s demonic claws (Cisco’s words, not ours), which was more difficult that she originally envisioned.
“You really don’t want them to look like somebody went by a Halloween shop and picked up some claws, so we wanted them to look organic, like they were protruding from those gloves,” Mani said, describing the hard acrylic claws atop Zoom’s leather gloves. “We did one set, and they didn’t work at all. They looked silly. So we did another set and another set. It was a matter of trial and error. And we had to look at them from different angles because you’d think you had it and then you’d look at them from another angle, and they looked ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, visual effects supervisor Armen Kevorkian came up with the idea for Zoom’s menacing pitch black eyes after attempting to originally give Zoom “blue, streaky” corneas. “We didn’t dig how that was working,” Kevorkian said. “It felt forced. There was a lot of back and forth, and the one thing we kept coming back to was this idea of having dead, expressionless eyes.”
“With Reverse-Flash, he had the red eyes and he always had a constant vibration, so we didn’t want to do any of that with Zoom,” Kevorkian said. “So we went with the exact opposite. We gave him these black, dead eyes and then that constant blue lightening that is the Speed Force emanating from him.”
Instead of using colored contact lenses, which can disrupt the stuntman’s vision during shooting, Zoom’s dark eyes are created through VFX in post-production, along with his blue Speed Force lightning.
A full digital model of Zoom was also created in order to make the computer generated (CG) sequences easier to produce. Kervorkian’s team of 120 visual effects artists also supports Berlanti and Kreisberg’s other superhero shows, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow, so digital models like this are crucial for efficiency.
When Barry and Zoom went head to head in episode 6, their Speed Force scenes were created digitally. These digital doubles often come into play when Barry and Zoom use their Speed Force powers to run around Central City, and it’s surprisingly not as labor-intensive as it looks. Zoom’s digital double was easy to create, given his nondescript features.
“It’s always easier when there’s no face, especially with the eyes,” said Kevorkian. “The eyes are the most difficult thing with digital doubles to sell. You know how they say ’the eyes are the windows to the soul?’ It’s always hard to get that across.” If that’s true then Zoom’s soul is blacker than we thought.
As far as meta-humans go, Zoom has been one of the VFX department’s easier subjects. At this point, Kavorkian has mastered the speedster formula. “I came onto ’The Flash’ project the October or November before we shot the pilot, so I did a lot of research and development of what would work and what I thought wouldn’t work when someone’s traveling really fast. You always try the scientific approach first, and then you realize the scientific approach doesn’t look cool. So you take that creative license you say, ’Forget what’s real. Let’s see how we can bring the comic book feel to it and still make it look believable.’”
That epic fight between Barry and Zoom, in which the demonic speedster fractured Barry’s spine, cemented Zoom’s place atop our list of terrifying TV villains. He’s just straight-up evil.
“Zoom didn’t even care enough to kill The Flash himself,” Kreisberg said. “Up until that point, he had been sending over these minions to try and do it. So that gave the impression that he couldn’t even be bothered to kill The Flash himself because he didn’t think that The Flash was worthy.”
But the final crucial piece of the Zoom puzzle was the voice. Originally, Kreisberg and co. thought Zoom should remain silent, adding to the enigma, but that idea was quickly nixed when they started playing around with different voices in ADR. Then, when actor Tony Todd was cast as the voice of Zoom, the character finally felt whole.
“We’re always conscious of not trying to repeat ourselves, and that’s been a lot easier on Arrow because you have villains who have such different skill sets,” the EP said. “But on ’The Flash,’ you have to have another speedster… So having a different colored costume and having claws and black eyes and blue lightning, visually, made it different. But also, giving it that movie star voice makes it feel even more inhuman and even more disconnected from anything that could possibly be good.”
Todd, known for his terrifying work in the horror flick Candyman, provided the perfect voice for the Flash villain. Guttural and almost sinister, Todd’s work in the ADR booth officially solidified Zoom’s place in our nightmares.
“Just like with Darth Vader, and having James Earl Jones’ voice completely mask what could possibly be underneath the costume, getting Tony Todd to come in and fill it out, it’s just scary,” Kreisberg said.
“The first day Tony Todd came in for his ADR—and I’ve only ever seen him in movies and television—he comes in wearing shorts and a t-shirt,” he recalled. “He’s such a lovely man, and he’s so sweet and kind. And then he starts saying [in Todd’s Flash voice], ’I’ve come to kill you, Flash.’ Literally, the hairs in the back of your neck go up.”
In fact, when all was said and done, Team Flash thought Zoom was so scary, they started to have second thoughts. After all, 8pm is the dedicated family hour of primetime television slots, and The Flash has a lot of family viewers who maybe didn’t want their kids to have perpetual nightmares.
“We have so many family viewers, and we take that responsibility very seriously, but then we thought about our own childhood favorites, like Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch,” Kreisberg said. “Those guys were terrifying, too. We’re not saying we’re in the same league as those types of villains, but for kids today, who are fans of the show, if Zoom becomes that seminal villain of their childhood, that’s great.”
And like Darth Vader, Zoom has an incredibly simple—and dare we say human—motive for his Earth-hopping madness.
“Aside from world domination and taking over cities, every one of our big bads wants something that’s very simple and easy to understand,” Kreisberg said. “We try to make it as human and grounded as possible. Last year, with the Reverse-Flash, every decision he made—every person he killed, every person he hurt—it was all in service of one thing, which was ’I want to go home.’”
“This year, Zoom has a very simple, easy to distill motivation, which we don’t want to reveal yet, but it’s a very similar simple, easy-to-understand need and desire.”
While we’ll have to wait until the end of the season for this hellish speedster to be unmasked, we can guarantee that whatever Zoom’s motive is, it’s not going to make us forget about the time he nearly killed Barry. That terrifying scene is going to be hard to forget—and that’s exactly how it was intended to be.