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Digital Domain Gets Stealthy for ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ VFX

The studio harnessed Maya and Houdini to deliver 500 visual effects shots, creating backgrounds for the film’s finale aboard a futuristic Wakandan stealth ship; with Houdini’s crowd tools, CG digi-doubles based on live-action footage of 20 stunt performers translated to 100s of warriors on deck, on the hull, and in the water.

Oscar-winning VFX studio Digital Domain was tapped by Marvel Studios to provide effects for the pivotal confrontation and finale of its latest feature, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In the movie, two worlds collide with brutal results; the technologically advanced Wakandans and the fierce warriors of Talokan fight it out on the high seas, while a decisive battle between the new Black Panther and the Talokanil leader, Namor, takes place in the desert.

“From the moment Marvel Studios approached us about Wakanda Forever, we knew it was going to be a special project, built on emotion as much as visuals,” said Hanzhi Tang, Digital Domain VFX supervisor on the film. “But it was also an ambitious film that introduced several major characters to the MCU, along with an army of amphibious superpowered warriors. That let us get creative and use everything from our most sophisticated tools to hand-crafted techniques.”

The Battle for Wakanda

The studio’s work on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever mainly focused on the film’s finale, which begins in the Atlantic Ocean aboard a futuristic Wakandan stealth ship known as the Royal Sea Leopard. To create the ship’s deck, the filmmakers utilized an elevated, open-air stage, 60 feet long by 75 feet wide, built on a mechanical rig 20 feet off the ground. The full set was surrounded by bluescreens, leaving the rest of the Vibranium-covered ship, ocean, and backgrounds to be created by Digital Domain, using Maya and Houdini.

Throughout the fight, the Talokanil continuously scaled the hull while battling the Dora Milaje, which led the filmmakers to build a second vertical stage covered in handholds for the stunt performers to climb. Digital Domain digitally removed the physical handholds, smoothed out the ship's surface, and replaced the stunt performers’ hands with CG versions that appeared flat against the metal. It then animated the hands to include movement. Once on the deck, the Talokanil stunt performers were required to wear shoes for safety reasons, which led artists to replace the footwear with bare CG feet.

To convey the true scope of the fighting, the filmmakers needed to depict an epic battle as the two sides fought to determine the future of the surface world. So, using the live-action footage of 20 stunt performers, the team used Houdini’s crowd tools to create entire armies of Wakandans and Talokanil with 100s of digi-double warriors appearing across the deck, on the hull and in the water.

The fighting continues until an underwater explosion – caused by hundreds of Talokanil hydrobombs – rocks the Royal Sea Leopard. That triggered the physical stage to tilt to a 35-degree angle, causing a mixture of real performers and CG digi-doubles to fall to the water below. With the inclusion of underwater grenades, Digital Domain had to rethink and re-examine the physics of an explosion. First, the VFX team had to factor in the lack of oxygen, fire, and shrapnel, then replace the outward expulsion with an implosion and subsequent shockwave.

Introducing the MCU’s Newest Heroes

Along with creating two CG armies, Digital Domain also helped to introduce four new Superheroes to the MCU, taken directly from the pages of Marvel comics.

During the battle on the seas, a small CG craft appears, heralding the arrival of Wakanda’s newest guardians wearing the “Midnight Angel” armor. Working from concept art provided by Marvel Studios, Digital Domain went through several iterations of the two armored characters, ensuring that they had a familiar but unique look. Finally, with the look and style determined, the supercharged Dora Milaje veterans Okoye (Danai Guira) and Aneka (Michaela Cole) are introduced in full armor as digi-doubles, flying over the water and into battle.

The fight on the Royal Sea Leopard features the introduction of another character: Ironheart. Introduced early in the film, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) is a major focal point. Her official introduction as Ironheart, however, occurs over the Atlantic Ocean. Building off 2D artwork from Marvel Studios and a partial practical model built by Legacy Effects, Digital Domain developed the Ironheart armor primarily in Maya, including animations of the character in the air and underwater.

Shuri’s (Letitia Wright) introduction is a critical moment in the film when she arrives as the new Black Panther. The reveal happens in the Jabari throne room before the final battle and features a digi-double of the new Black Panther dropping from a ship high above. Digital Domain then used another digi-double of the character as she ran and jumped on the Royal Sea Leopard hull, repelling the attackers.

Building a Blue Army

Throughout the movie, Talokanil appears in two different environments with different looks. While in their natural environment underwater, they as average humans, but on the surface, they take on a blue coloration. The performers wore full-body blue makeup to create this look and received a handful of digital alterations.

The Talokanil exist on land thanks to a mask over their mouths that provide them with water. The apparatus is necessary for a group that lives underwater but was not practical for performers. To address this, the filmmakers tracked the head movement of each Talokanil performer, allowing Digital Domain’s artists to add the water masks individually, along with distinctive jewelry unique to each character.

To depict the Talokanil underwater swimming toward the ship, the creative team studied the movements of Olympic swimmers and Ironman athletes. Using this as a guide, artists created a look that conveyed a sense of ease in the water and an enhanced strength that allowed them to move quickly. Then using Houdini’s crowd tools Digital Domain created an entire army of CG Talokanil swimmers.

Namor vs. Black Panther

With the battle at sea raging on, Namor (Tenoch Huerta) arrives and threatens to turn a fight into a slaughter. Huerta stood in a water-filled tank on a wire harness to depict him shooting out of the water. Everything below his neck (including the wires) was digitally removed and replaced. Once airborne, Huerta was replaced with a dig-idouble, captured by a Wakandan aircraft. As the ship reaches a deserted shoreline, an explosion breaks the craft apart, leading artists to create a CG environment to depict the fiery impact of the wreckage.

In creating the final confrontation, the production team employed a combination of digi-doubles and stunt performers, selected for their skills and physical stature. Live-action performances of the stunt people were taken and replaced with partial or full digi-doubles to highlight the superpowered abilities of each character. Parts of the performer’s legs, who played Namor, were replaced to create the small wings on his ankle that allow him to fly.

The battle ends with a brutal sequence featuring bloody CG wings, a broken environment added later, and a fireball that left Huerta covered in burn makeup, augmented with digital smoldering. In total, Digital Domain provided roughly 500 VFX shots to the film.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is one of the VFX studio’s recent collaborations for features and series, alongside She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and the Oscar-nominated Spider-Man: No Way Home. Its subsequent work will appear in the Marvel Studios’ project, Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, coming to theaters on February 17, 2023.

Source: Digital Domain

Debbie Diamond Sarto's picture

Debbie Diamond Sarto is news editor at Animation World Network.