Marvel's Black Panther powered into theaters with a record--setting box office and high fives from critics for the story, fully-realized characters, and overall, thought-provoking vision. Ryan Coogler of Creed and Fruitvale Station fame wrote and directed the Disney release, Marvel's first black superhero film.
Black Panther stars Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa/Black Panther, a newly crowned King of Wakanda. Wakanda is a secret, technologically advanced African nation that harbors and leverages the glowing blue element vibranium, brought to earth via a meteor crash. T'Challa gains superhuman strength by ingesting a glowing, blue, heart-shaped herb. Michael B. Jordan plays his nemesis, the aptly named vengeful villain Erik Killmonger, a US black-ops soldier intent on overthrowing T'Challa and gaining access to the country's vibranium and its weapons. He's allied with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, last seen as Snoke in Star Wars and Caesar in Apes), a South African black-market gangster and arms dealer sporting a sonic disruptor arm cannon made from stolen vibranium-based Wakandan mining equipment.
Lupita Nyong'o, last seen as Maz in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is Nakia, T'Challa's former lover,
a member of Wakanda's River Tribe, and an undercover spy on missions throughout the world. Danai Gurira as Okoye leads the all-female Wakanda special forces who serve as T'Challa's bodyguards. Martin Freeman is Everett Ross, a CIA agent who works with T'Challa. Letitia Wright is T'Challa's brilliant younger sister Shuri, the head of a research lab who, like Q in Bond films, designs new technology.
Rachel Morrison, the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (Mudbound), was the director of photography. Hannah Beachler, Art Directors Guild winner for "Beyoncé: Lemonade," was production designer.
Geoffrey Baumann, a visual effects supervisor at Marvel Studios who previously led second unit teams on Doctor Strange, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and other films, was overall visual effects supervisor. As with most Marvel films, multiple studios created the effects.
"We had 12 primary vendors – ILM, Method, Scanline, Trixter, Rise FX, Luma, Double Negative, Storm, Ghost, Exceptional Minds (which we always try to use), Capital P, and our in-house studio," Baumann says. "Plus, a few studios for other work – Technicolor for cleanup, Lola for digital makeup. We had Third Floor do previs early on and Digital Domain for previs and postvis."
All told, the film has 2,500 visual effects shots, with 2,000 having significant effects.
"We took on every shot to a degree," Baumann says. "The visual effects ranged from subtle, small effects to full-CG shots, but they aren't groundbreaking. We don't have a Benjamin Button face or full-CG characters. A lot of the work in this film was environment work, backgrounds, things not in your face that complemented Ryan's [Coogler's] storytelling. What we wanted to do was make sure we created a world still of this earth."
Baumann continues: "So, we based the environments in Africa on actual locations. Those environments were created primarily by ILM, except for the waterfall and the area around it. For shots around the waterfalls, we had a huge set in Atlanta and a massive water tank. Scanline did extensions beyond to create waterfalls through a huge gorge. It took a tremendous amount of rendering and simulation."
THE SKYSCRAPERS IN WAKANDA HAVE AN AFRO-FUTURISTIC AESTHETIC, A FEELING OF OLD-WORLD MATERIALS.
Because Wakanda's "golden city" and surrounding environment were so important to set the film's tone, the filmmakers began working with the crew at ILM early. Craig Hammack, who received an Oscar nomination last year for Deepwater Horizon, was the visual effects supervisor for this film at ILM.
"Hannah [Beachler] had worked with Ryan [Coogler] to get the right Afro-futuristic feel, so we had a fair amount of concept art," Hammack says. "The nation was far ahead of the world in technology, but Ryan and Hannah wanted to feel the history."
Wakanda is hidden for protection, but it's present in today's world. "The cities have skyscrapers, but they have a connection to Africa and the past," Baumann explains.
For example, although a traditional thatched roof wouldn't make sense on a 1,000-foot building, Coogler wanted to see a representation on skyscrapers.
"They wanted the feeling of old-world materials, even if built in steel," Hammack says. "We'd develop part of the city, and he'd say, ‘Those glass domes don't belong here.' "
To base the environment on locations in Africa, Baumann's team captured locations in South Africa, Lesotho, Uganda, and near Zambia's Victoria waterfalls with photography and scans to give the visual effects studios photogrammetry and textures from those areas.
"We expanded the valleys, but it gave us a real-world base and scale," Baumann says. "We'd drop footprints from cities we're accustomed to, like New York City and Chicago, into the valleys and see how they felt relative to the mountain size. The hard part was breaking away from the square blocks and building something with a circular, not gridded, base."
A non-Wakandan traveling through or flying over Wakanda would see a poor African nation with small huts and farmers. They wouldn't see how carefully the Wakandans guard these borderlands, or that part of the apparently dense jungle seen from the air is a hologram. Wakandans in high-tech airships flying home from the outside world dive through the hologram to go inside their country, which harbors several different tribes and environments. Inside Wakanda, the people wear tribal costumes. Outside, they blend into whatever milieu they're visiting.
The CG city built inside Wakanda by ILM artists in Vancouver and San Francisco occupies an area approximately three miles wide and six miles long, formed with two main centers created with concentric rings. The palace is in one area; a business district occupies the other.
"Different tribes influence distinct districts," Hammack says, "the Merchant Tribe, River Tribe, Mountain Tribe. As we did urban planning and layout, we tailored the architecture and colors to the tribes."
ILM's Generalist [digital environments] Supervisor Dan Mayer was on set during filming in Atlanta to do some quick city-blocking.
"Fortunately, that gave us a huge head start," Hammack says. "We got direct feedback from Ryan, Geoff, and Hannah for a couple months, so we could hit the ground running in postproduction with a good organization of the city and how it fit into the landscape."
Modelers at ILM built highly detailed buildings in Autodesk's Maya – skyscrapers, medium-sized buildings, two-story storefronts, and so forth – that went into kits that artists working in Autodesk's 3ds Max used to lay out the city and do look-development. They rendered the environments with Chaos Group's V-Ray.
"We'd do a scatter plot of the layout to blanket the city," Hammack says. "Once we had that, we could divide the city into sections that we gave to artists to start building streets, adding larger structures and then smaller buildings around those. To make the city feel like it was built in a jungle, we created vast parts with relatively raw landscape and huge swaths of trees. We even put greenery on the buildings to ground them in that African forest feel."
Practical sets in Atlanta provided environments for the actors to work in – a tribal council room with a bank of windows that, later, would show ILM's CG city outside. A market street with dirt roads and shop fronts that ILM extended.
ILM artists also built environments for a dream sequence (see "A Dream," page 10), burned the special herb beds (see "Fire in the Greenhouse," page 9), and built the hero spaceship-like vehicle T'Challa flies in. That ship takes part, along with dragonfly-shaped airships built at Method Studios, in an aerial dogfight ILM created during the third act. The dogfight starts outside the city, flies through the city, across a lake, into a canyon, and through the canyon – a huge digital environment created at ILM.
"The city was most difficult," Hammack says, "the scale and the aesthetics. Also, these long environment shots with slow flyovers. It was a huge part of the movie and important to get the flavor right. It helps the audience understand the history of the civilization, how they interact, and how they fit into the world. It felt like that tapestry was one of the main goals of the movie."
T'Challa returns from his work as a politician in the outside world where his father was killed and where, in his superhero form as Black Panther, he had joined the Avengers in the film Captain America: Civil War to avenge his father's death. Before being crowned as king, he travels to Nigeria, where Nakia is rescuing kidnapped women. The scenes were shot in Atlanta and created in postproduction by Trixter.
"It was January in Atlanta and we were supposed to be in a jungle," Baumann says. "Hanna [Beachler] built a road through a large stage with dirt, trees, and greenery to give us a base." Trixter provided the jungle environment surrounding the area in which T'Challa meets Nakia and, with help from his bodyguard Okoye, rescues the kidnapped girls.
Once back in the city, Okoye shows T'Challa a hologram of Klaue planning to sell stolen vibranium to CIA agent Ross. T'Challa and Nakia, in Western clothes, travel with Okoye, who has traded her warrior costume for a cocktail dress and wig, to a casino in Busan, South Korea, where the deal will take place. A crew at Luma Pictures in Santa Monica and Melbourne worked on visual effects for the following casino fight and car chase sequence.
Sonic Disruption in the Casino
The sequence begins in the casino, a two-story interior set in Atlanta with no ceiling or ceiling lights.
"They wanted the fight scene to be edited as one take, so they shot it in succession, mostly using cameras on cables that could be pulled around and handheld cameras that could be picked up," says Kevin Souls, who supervised Luma's crew in Santa Monica. "The longest and most elaborate was a seven-shot setup. It starts on the ground floor. They pull a camera up to the second floor and also use a handheld camera there, where Okoye is fighting Klaue's goons. We cut the goons out of the plate, re-animated them in 2D, and replaced Okoye's spear [which magically appears] with a CG spear. She kicks a goon. He breaks a railing and falls off the second floor, and she jumps after him. We replaced the stunt actor with a CG Okoye and did face replacement. There's a wipe to another plate. We repositioned the spear and goon on the ground. The camera switches to T'Challa and follows as he jumps up in a full-digital takeover, then switches back to the actor on the second floor. The camera swings back to look at Klaue, and we see his arm split open to reveal the weapon inside."
The CG weapon is a sonic disruptor gun powered by stolen vibranium that shatters whatever it hits. Klaue fires the gun. A cart explodes. Paper money and chips bounce off the walls and land everywhere.
A CG CITY BUILT AT ILM IS SEEN OUTSIDE THE WINDOW OF A SET CONSTRUCTED ON STAGE IN ATLANTA.
"At the end of the day, we had 2,000 frames to time out and cut together," Souls says.
In addition to digital doubles and face replacements during the sequence, Luma artists added the ceiling, chandeliers, and damage as the shot progressed – bullet holes, broken glass, and debris – all the while matching the on-set lighting.
"The lighting on set would change as they moved the lights, and there were subtle variations in the lighting overall," Souls says. "They had to reposition large chandeliers on set as they filmed. There were lights in the walls and decorative lights around the perimeter. We added 10 to 15 lights, built so that their reflections would match what was on set."
The special effects team rigged the set with squibs and cannons to shoot debris around. The visual effects team added squibs, bullet hits just missing the actors' heads, and so forth. For the debris, they applied photographed elements to 2.5D cards.
"We had a ton of roto and camera tracks for everything," Souls says. "There was old-school plate manipulation where we'd have to move a stunt actor, repair the frame, and make sure the timing worked. The ‘big stitch' was one of the first things we started and one of the last delivered. The fight is kinetic, but it's a smooth path that leads to the final blast from the sonic destructor."
Car Chase in Busan
"Every Marvel film has an exciting chase scene," Baumann says. "Ours is in South Korea, and it's as much fun as you'd expect. This one is exciting because visually there is more eye candy. We have the vibrant neon colors of Busan at night."
SCANLINE CREATED ENVIRONMENTS FILLED WITH WATERFALLS TO EXPAND SETS BUILT ON LOCATION.
The chase after Klaue and his goons in black Toyota 4Runners through the Busan streets begins outside the casino. T'Challa in his Black Panther suit rides atop a Lexus LC 500 driven remotely by Shuri back in Wakanda, and two women race after Klaue in another car.
"We had everything from typical ‘A over B' plates, to compositing moving backgrounds around actors on a soundstage, to full-CG roads and intersections," says Brendan Seals, who supervised Luma's team in Melbourne. "The main shot is when T'Challa is on top of the blue Lexus and it turns around a corner. Klaue opens his arm, fires, and the blast rips through the Lexus. It does a full flip through the fish market. We had amazing photography with the Lexus traveling at 50 to 60 mph and a stuntman in a black suit on top. It was great reference to see how light moves across the suit and to get a sense of chaos and action. Once we had the plates, we worked with Marvel to connect all the dots, to sell stunt work captured in camera or replaced digitally."
The process involved starting with LIDAR scans of Busan and the roads and buildings on set. The artists mapped the geometry with projections from still photographs of details on the streets and moving panoramas.
For the panoramas, a circle of cameras on an "array vehicle" took 360-degree images from two heights as the vehicle moved down the street. Both Luma studios would use the LIDAR scans and the photography – Melbourne for the middle of the chase, Santa Monica for the end.
"There were thousands of images," Souls says. "The volume of data was astounding. The guy who acquired it came and worked with us at Luma to help sort through it. After that, Marvel would give us selects. We'd sort through the footage using setups in [Foundry's] Nuke that reconfigured the plates so we could point around and look. Once we figured out what part of a street they wanted and what speed, we could correlate it with LIDAR scans and project the footage onto geometry."
During the chase, Luma's digital Black Panther bounces electric blue vibranium energy from his suit, runs across buildings and cars, and spins through the air (see "Power Suit" page 9 and "Cymatic Vibranium Energy," this page). Rather than using projected footage, the crews rebuilt anything that was reflective in CG – wet roads, metal, windows – and added CG vehicles. All the hero CG cars are destroyed during the sequence.
Luma artists used Maya for animation and rigging; Foundry's Mari, Pixologic's ZBrush, and Maya for modeling; Foundry's Katana for shading and lighting; and Auto-desk's Arnold for rendering.
Near the chase sequence's finale, Klaue decides to have a little "fun" with Okoye and Nakia, and fires his sonic destructor at their car.
When the blast hits, time slows down," Souls says. "Okoye tumbles through the air, reaches up, grabs her spear, jabs it into the ground, slides down, and kicks the debris off. Nakia slides next to her, and they give each other a little look. It's a funny moment."
The shot begins at full speed, slows down when the car is hit, continues in slow motion until the end, and then speeds up.
"At first, everything is full CG," Souls says. "The car, the actors, and the overhead shot with debris. Then Okoye is a plate except for her arm from the shoulder up when she grabs the CG spear. When she lands, it's a full-CG shot with her face projected onto the CG character. Then, the last shot is a plate with a CG environment, CG car, and CG destruction. It ends with a plate of Okoye and Nakia sliding down a hill. Matching CG to plate and plate to CG was complicated."
Eventually, Klaue crashes his car, T'Challa (Black Panther) rips the sonic destructor gun off Klaue's arm, Ross interrogates Klaue, and that's when Killmonger shows up and makes his intentions known. For that scene, Luma artists painted out Klaue's (Andy Serkis's) arm and replaced it with empty cloth, adding a subtle cloth simulation to make it believable.
"We got to do such a fun sequence," Souls says. "It was 20 minutes of screen time with set extensions, elaborate reconstruction of a fight scene, a car chase, full-CG builds, massive destruction, a CG Black Panther attacking live-action Klaue in a virtual environment, and then the cloth sim – which was harder than you might think."
Killmonger's arrival sets up the third act, during which he makes his play for the kingdom. He wants to send vibranium and Wakandan technology out into the world and arm a global uprising. He begins by challenging and fighting T'Challa, and wins by tossing T'Challa over a Scanline-created waterfall.
Nakia, Shuri, and T'Challa's mother escape to Jabari land, an environment created at Rise in Munich and Berlin. For reference, the crew used aerial photography of the remote Rwenzori mountains in Uganda.
"Ryan [Coogler] was fascinated that there are beautiful mountains covered in snow and glaciers in Africa," Baumann says. "Although Rise ended up augmenting the photogrammetry, it was important. It grounded the environment in reality."
The refugee women decide to return to the city and fight Killmonger, who by now has attracted support among Wakandans. The fight takes place near a small hill that had been pushed up by the meteor crater.
"Method built a world based on multiple locations in Africa," Baumann says, "a hybrid of trees, foliage, grasses, and rock formations found throughout Africa. And, we have CG rhinos storming across the battlefield."
Using concept art and photogrammetry shot in Africa, the Method artists sculpted terrain out from the base of the hill to create the battlefield environment.
"We have a savanna with Acacia trees toward the east, a vast jungle toward the west, mountains in the background, and we can see the city 15 kilometers away," says Method Visual Effects Supervisor Andy Brown. "We modeled the terrain in Maya, imported it into [Side Effects'] Houdini for erosion filters, and populated it with plants. We also created digital extras, crowds, and the armored rhinos for the battle."
The battle moves back and forth from the fight on the ground and in the air to Shuri's lab, and then into the vibranium mine where Killmonger battles a revived T'Challa, both wearing power suits now. The shots involved multiple vendors: ILM, Method, Ghost, Rise, and Cantina sharing environments, ships, and hologram elements during the dogfight, ground battle, and in the lab. Method sent Killmonger and T'Challa down a CG mine shaft, and then Double Negative handled the fight scene on the vibranium-powered tracks – one, that unlike many earlier sequences in the film, was obviously created with visual effects.
Hollywood is already aware that visual effects films bring box-office bucks. The millions of people seeing this film might at last convince Hollywood that there is profit in diversity, as well. At the end of Black Panther, T'Challa calls for unity among all the tribes on the planet, a message that hopefully will vibrate as strongly as vibranium.
Barbara Robertson (BarbaraRR@comcast.net) is an award-winning writer and contributing editor for CGW.