Over the US long holiday weekend, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther smashed box-office records, recording a historic four-day opening gross. It exceeded even the most optimistic prerelease estimates by millions of dollars. The newest Disney Marvel film had the fifth-highest opening for a film ever.
The film expands the VFX Marvel cinematic universe with a rich blend of African and American cultural references and innovations. In the process it delivers a great film with stunning visuals. Much of the film takes place in the Marvel African Country of Wakanda. But how do you build a super high tech futuristic city and still make it respectfully African and not alien?
Production VFX Supervisor, Geoffrey Baumann, oversaw work from Method Studios and ILM along with many other facilities such as Luma Pictures, Scanline VFX, RISE, Rodeo FX, Perception and others. Rachel Morrison shot the film, and has been nominated for an Oscar this year for Cinematography for another film, Mudbound. This makes her the first woman ever recognized in the category. She has previously shot extensively with director Ryan Coogler.
Craig Hammack was visual effects supervisor for ILM who handled much of the vfx work bringing the Vibranium-powered capital of Wakanda to the screen. For Hammack and the team that involved bringing the city to life, solving the design and unique architecture of the city, building all the environments and providing the establishing shots of the proud successful home of the Black Panther.
Wakanda required a huge variety of digital environments, from the high tech landing pad in the city, to the market environment of Step Town, as well as the Tribal Council Chamber, The Hall of Kings, the Borderlands and all the canyon environments for the end dogfight.
ILM and the film’s art department faced not only technical challenges on the film but also cultural design issues. How do you make a city particularly appropriately of African culture and also a high tech mecha of advanced materials and technologies?
Craig Hammack had previously been VFX supervisor on Tomorrowland in 2015. In this film he faced a not dissimilar city building challenge in having to design a city that is familiar and yet futuristic, and made using incredibly advanced technology. The difference in Black Panther was to make the city uniquely and authentically a futuristic city built in a very strong African country. “African culture has symbology, colour and richness and a certain amount of earthy material qualities that make things difficult to design as a futuristic city”, Hammack explains. Most futuristic cities, that are not dystopian, are characterised by vast amounts of clean and complex shiny glass and steel, far removed from earthy tones or natural materials associated with Africa. ILM had to solve how to produce 1,000 ft buildings that still reflected or echoed “mud bricks or thatch roofing – we had to depart from a strict understanding of physics and go into a movie cheat world, but the mandate was to keep the city really grounded in iconic African heritage,” commented Hammack.
Influences to CGI
In the real world, there is a movement away from just glass towers and to trying to design large buildings and apartment blocks with the use of vegetation. Such as the The Tencent Tower project in Canton or others that seek to add vegetation to high rise buildings. For example, the French design group Ateliers Jean Nouvel were recently awarded best tall building for their One Central Park by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology. The building’s key features include hanging gardens, a cantilevered heliostat and low-carbon emission green walls of vegetation and gardens designed by French landscape artist Patrick Blanc. This real building has 1,120 sqm of vertical gardens that cover the surface of the building. it grows 35,200 plants of 383 different species on the exterior of the building.
ILM looked at both these types of modern trends in architecture but also to global communities that are respectful of their past and heritage. The notion being that Wakanda architects may be building with incredibly sophisticated technology, “So while they are building these large towers, they might clad it in something that would bring out and reflect their heritage” he adds.
ILM built sets of key buildings and a library of materials and items that would allow to swap out materials to get more unique buildings and populate the city, “but for us it was always done with an eye to African architecture,” explains Hammack. As part of the production Hammack spent time in Uganda. Black Panther was shot in Uganda, amongst several African locations. “I was fortunate enough to spend 10 days in Uganda shooting helicopter footage and ground plates and I got to experience the culture…Ryan (Coogler) had a very strong opinion of wanting to celebrate the surrounding we were in.” Hammack found the same blending of culture and modern architecture very evident in Uganda itself.
The production shot a lot of aerial reference in Uganda. Black Panther featured aerial shots over the Rwenzori Mountain range and Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest. “I went there for ten days to shoot helicopter plates and ground plates in the forest, it was amazing. The Impenetrable Forest is at the edge of Uganda, right before it becomes the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo),” Hammack explains. The production worked with renowned aerial DOP John Marzano (Dr Strange, Jason Bourne) for the aerial reference and plates all over the world. The movie’s aerial shots also included footage filmed in South Africa, Zambia and South Korea.
The design of the individual buildings in the city were driven by designs and reference from the Art Department lead by Hannah Beachler. The six miles of CG city was completed in 3ds Max. ILM sent a supervisor from the General Department to Atlanta for the duration of the shoot, to coordinate between the director, art department and the previz team to make sure the city suited all the needs of the story. ILM’s General Department and Modeling Department shared production of the city models. The city was initially populated by procedural scattering and placing the buildings from this library. ILM wrote custom tools to populate the various towns, cities and regions. After the general layout and structure of the city was established, each district was then assigned to individual artists. Each artist would start with the procedural scatter of buildings and then identify key buildings in each district to flesh out and develop further. The environment work was rendered in V-Ray, (the rest of the VFX CG was done in RenderMan). By completion of the project, the city ended up with 60,000 individual buildings. “It was a process that almost ever ended,” joked Hammack, “The city was the first thing we started and the last thing we finished”.
ILM also did set extensions and for the interior shots,they did blue screen replacement for what can be seen out the windows behind the cast.
ILM also did a very different type of environment for the digital grasslands and savanna plains seen in the Panther Dreams sequences. This environment work followed a similar path but here, and as with the rural sections of the Wakanda, ILM used Speedtree. The savanna is often identified with the acacia and baobab trees which are so often iconically seen in African savannas. The production built a small patch of dirt with a stand-in acacia tree in front of blue screen, but in the final shots all of the environment, the Panthers and the tree are fully CGI. The dream environment is still recognisably African, but the sky reflects something more akin to the Northern Lights. ILM did the night time scene first and then worked hard to keep the Aurora visible and working in the CG daylight environments.
To travel to the ‘dream place’, T’Challa is buried in an underground chamber. In these shots there was real sand, but the last few shovels of sand are fully CG so that the actor, Chadwick Boseman, would not have any issues breathing. ILM took over from practical and digitally buried his head in CG vibranium sand. ILM also burned the set digitally when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) tries to destroy the remaining flower beds. There was some propane bars but the rest of the fire is CG from ILM (see below).
Interestingly, vibranium sand effects were also needed by ILM for the navigation system for T’Challa ship. Several companies contributed to a handful of small vibranium sand shots. These sand controls are only really seen in the first act of the film, however they are referenced very effectively in the film’s title sequence, done by Perception in NY. (Perception also contributed to Shuri’s (Letitia Wright) technology-filled laboratory, and unique interface design across the panoramic displays).
Another blue screen set was the landing pad arrival home of T’Challa. This was almost entirely a blue screen around an exterior concrete slab. The team built a flat shadow caster to provide a shadow from the ship (see above), but the actual ship and all of the surrounding environment was blue screen material over large shipping containers. “Geoffrey (Baumann), as the visual effects supervisor, made some really good choices in terms of shooting those sort of blue screen scenes outside to have natural sunlight” comments Hammack. Even so, with the sun moving throughout the day, a set of shots needed to be shot with the sun blocked and the actors lit with professional lights. These shots were then seamlessly integrated beside shots done in full sun.
Angela Bassett played Chadwick Boseman’s heroic mother Queen Ramonda. On the landing pad Bassett is dressed in one of the most remarkable and complex costumes to composite. “When she first walked on set, I just dropped my head – I was thinking, “what the… what are we going to end up doing with this?” I started picturing having to completely replace the head dress and shoulder costume digitally with CGI given it was so finely detailed in construction… but it turned out that with a lot of pain and roto, and thanks to our great artists doing incredible extraction, that we were able to avoid 3D and composite her live action photography,” comments Hammack. “It is more difficult the closer you look at it, with multiple planes of the same detailing and translucently backlit,… I was very impressed with what our artists could do with it.”
While ILM did not do a huge amount of character animation, they were given the task of producing the rhino at the farm scene where we are first introduced to the big battle rhinos. The later fighting rhino was handled by Method Studios who were a lead vfx contributor on the film (see below). “That was just about our only creature in this film, other than digital double work and of course the Dream sequence Panthers,” comments Hammack. “The Rhino was derived from quite a bit of work we did with a real rhino, then scaled up,” as the Wakanda rhinos are much bigger than normal rhinoceros. ILM naturally has a lot of history with CG elephants, rhinos and other similar creatures, so ILM leveraged its textural advances into producing the rhino which is seen close and still to camera. While the rhino was shared with Method Studios for the end battle, the two beasts are not seen close together on screen and so only basic structures, scale and details needed to be shared between the two teams.
“I have to say this was a great project to work on,” finishes Hammack. “The idea of working with such a rich culture and there are so many great aspects of it – it all made for a really fun project. And working with Ryan (Coogler) was great fun, he is incredibly complementary, and a bit of a kid in a candy store, in the sense he was amazed at what can be done, and that seemed to inspire his imagination even more, so there was a lot of presenting things, him getting excited, and then him riffing off that… it was fun to see such enthusiasm.”
See also our sister site fxphd.com’s blog on the work of Scanline and Luma Pictures on the film.
As a primary VFX vendor for ‘Black Panther,’ Method Studios also created the digital environment of Wakanda. In particular, they did the suits made of dynamic nanotechnology, digital doubles for Black Panther and Killmonger, and the bulk of the film’s third act battle.
Method’s team of 400 artists, led by VFX Supervisor Andy Brown and Associate VFX Supervisor Todd Perry, worked closely with the director and VFX Supervisor Geoffrey Baumann. Method artists referenced multiple landscapes across Africa to build a 3,600 square km CG Wakanda environment which is seen in various fly-through shots. The CG environment was also seen from on the top of the mystical nation’s highest point, Mount Bashenga. “Looking out from the top of Mount Bashenga, you can see the rich diversity of African landscapes – it looks lush and jungle-like in one direction, and more like the plains and savannah in the other, so we had multiple ecosystems to tackle, but it really drives home the vastness of these shots,” explained Brown. “The environments were extremely detailed and often required a high level of interactivity; for example, in fight scenes we would have CG grass and other elements interacting with both live action and digital double characters.”
Method’s suits needed to be photoreal and hold up to a lot of scrutiny in both action sequences and downtime in Shuri’s lab.
In addition to the look of each suit, which incorporate Wakandan glyphs and other unique design elements, the suits have active properties that needed to feel believable. Perry explained, “The suits are made of dynamic nanotechnology that binds together around the wearer. To convey that visually, we developed triangles as the micro-structure of each suit. The nanotechnology scans its wearer and these triangles respond through a procedural simulation to form the suit around the given structure, starting with one wave and growing out from there. Each suit also captures kinetic energy which can be released later as a fighting tool. We conveyed that through a bubble effect with unique colors representing the coursing energy for each character.”
Additionally, Method was responsible for the bulk of the film’s climactic third act battle between multiple warring factions, ultimately leading to a one-on-one showdown between Black Panther and Killmonger.
Method built the Talon Fighter and Dragonflyer aircrafts seen in the sequence, and created 40 digital doubles plus crowd simulations for the large fight. Given that each faction, such as the Dora Milaje female warriors and the Jabari fighters, have unique fighting styles, Method directed motion capture sessions based on input from the stunt coordinators to gather a foundation for each style.“In addition to randomizing the height, weight, and other characteristics of each fighter to add variance to the crowd, we had to incorporate more specific elements such as unique face tattoos for each Dora Milaje fighter and the signature hairstyles of the Jabari warriors,” said Brown. “Each was built in high resolution so that any of the keyframed more foreground characters could be swapped out. We also completed digital double work for Black Panther and Killmonger, which of course needed to be fully photoreal. Thanks to Chadwick’s and Michael’s great performances, we had a strong foundation for our work.”
Method also contributed design work and effects shots showing the inside of Wakanda’s vibranium mine, the look of Shuri’s lab as well as animating the gadgets within, and created CG rhinos, vehicles, and weapons.