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Wētā Forever: The Esteemed VFX Studio Dives Deep on ‘Black Panther 2’

In an extensive Q & A, Senior Animation Supervisor Sidney Kombo-Kintombo and VFX Supervisor Chris White talk about water, swimming, beards, and bubbles – all part of their work on Marvel Studios’ ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,’ now in theaters.

More than 80 years after he first appeared in Marvel Comics #1, the character formerly known as the Sub-Mariner returns as Namor, ruler of the underwater kingdom of Talokan. In this new incarnation, he alerts the inhabitants of Wakanda – who are striving to embrace their next chapter in the wake of King T’Challa’s death – to a global threat and his disturbing plan to thwart it. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Shuri

(Letitia Wright), M’Baku (Winston Duke), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the Dora Milaje (including Florence Kasumba) must band together with the help of War Dog Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) to forge a new path for the kingdom of Wakanda.

Directed by Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Fruitvale Station), Black Panther: Wakanda Forever placed daunting demands on the teams responsible for animation and VFX in the sprawling epic. Because much of the film takes place underwater, it was necessary for them to deal with challenges ranging from the physiological – how to best realize believable swimming motion – to the effervescent, in the case of how to get rid of unwanted bubbles.

New Zealand-based Wētā FX, which has built a formidable reputation built upon its work in such blockbuster films and series as Thor: Love and Thunder, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Peacemaker, and many, many others, handled all of these task with aplomb. We spoke with Senior Animation Supervisor Sidney Kombo-Kintombo and Visual Effects Supervisor Chris White about their undertakings under the sea, and elsewhere.

AWN: Much of Wakanda Forever takes place in Namor’s undersea kingdom. It's not like we haven't spent time with superheroes underwater before, but it's still a setting with a particular set of challenges. What did you have to work with, in terms of designs, previs, models, assets, etc.?

Chris White: We worked directly with Hannah Beachler, the production designer, and she had a pretty extensive bible of the underwater world designs, including historical influences. So our work was almost in two parts. Some of it was realizing her design for the city and the culture, and then there was some crafting of tools to give this underwater feeling that Ryan wanted, which is very deep below, with not a lot of visibility. He talked about it feeling like outer space, a lot of turbidity in the water. So some of the tools that we came up with in the beginning, and some of the animation previs that Sidney and the animators were doing, was geared toward achieving that kind of water and light quality.

We started doing tests over two years ago, some even before we had designs. It was like, what is this water going to feel like? What's the color of it? What will the terrain be like? But within the design points, there was one important principle, which was that red had to be visible, because that's part of the Mayan culture. Red is painted onto the walls and it has a certain royal aspect to it, but red doesn't survive very long in water, it gets absorbed very quickly. So there was a lot of work on making realistic-looking water, but also being able to have some of these colors come through, and this feeling come through.

AWN: Sidney, what were your priorities, from an animation standpoint?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: It was great to be involved in the creation of Talokan, the underwater world, very early on. We actually did the previs. We were trying to conceptualize the type of swimming motion that they would have. Do we need to create a different type of swimming, or are we going to use what already exists and just try to make it as convincing as possible that these people have been living underwater for a long time? We went for the latter option because it was the one that was the most recognizable to a broad audience.

We also had to deal with what Chris was talking about – the “blue room,” which is that idea that you cannot see beyond a certain point when you are so deep underwater. So we had to find clever ways to tell the story of their journey to Talokan – like having the whale suddenly appear in front of Shuri. We had to find different ways to handle that particular environment when creating the animation.

We were very lucky to have Chris, who spent years working on developing the water system. He had a lot of the information that I'm totally lacking, since I'm not an expert on superheroes being underwater.

AWN: How much actual shooting was done underwater and how effectively were you able to use that in creating the VFX?

CW: I don’t know the actual percentage, but a fair number of our shots incorporated live action. They either used a tank element for characters or, for some of the sequences where they're in the suits, those were shot in tanks, and we'd end up keeping their faces. But a fair amount was used from the tank shoots and there were only a handful of sequences that had dry for wet, where we did it. So that was the nice thing – having that true underwater motion.

AWN: How much more difficult is it to animate and create these effects in a water environment, compared to other settings?

SK-K: It's not that much harder for us as animators, but it's interesting because it pushes you towards more reference and to learning more about how the body reacts. Where do you put the center of gravity to make sure that, when we see that character moving, the audience will believe that’s actually somebody swimming? As Chris said, there were some sequences that were dry for wet, which is shooting on the land, and then Chris and the team made it look like it was actually underwater. And that was possible to achieve thanks to the very solid reference of underwater shoots. We had a capture that was taken underwater and so we had something to refer to in order to understand exactly how far we needed to take the motion and what type of motion we needed to create.

AWN: What were some of the sequences, or areas of production, that were the most intrinsically challenging, or the most interesting for you, because it was something you hadn’t done before?

CW: For me, one of the most interesting sequences was the first sequence we did, where the two divers are just going below and they're going to the [vibranium] detector. And the reason this was really interesting was because the DP wanted to match the aesthetic of the lenses that she shot the film with. She was detuning and creating these custom lenses to get a very specific look that's across the film. And from a technical point of view, we needed to replicate those and build a whole library of creative controls to get that look.

So there was a whole level of research and development, which wasn’t just to get that underwater look, but also this kind of creative bouquet and edges and things. So there were a lot of discussions that we had about things like that – what does the bouquet look like? What are these different areas? So there was a whole storytelling aspect to that. And I found it visually interesting because I like those images that have more of an organic feel to them. So I'm particularly proud of that sequence.

AWN: Sidney, what about for you?

SK-K: It's definitely the journey to the city, and also the moment when Namor speaks to his people, when he's coming out of the sun and sitting on his throne. It may not mean much from an outsider point of view, but what I like about the collaboration with Marvel is the opportunity that we have to participate in deciding how to present their main character. Or those tubes that the people get inside of – we were calling them hydro current – and how the camera gets in and out of this development. At the end of the day, you have a sequence that’s only four minutes long, but it took you a year and a half to get there, and you realize how much you learned from it.

CW: Yeah, exactly. And I just wanted to add that we were doing postvis as well. So they would shoot some things in a tank, and Sid and his guys, and my team, were looking at some of the tank footage and going, “Hey, what if we were to pull this element in here, or this shot in there?” So that collaborative part wasn't just at the beginning; it was throughout the process.

AWN: What were some of the most difficult things that you had to tackle? I'm sure there are things that, when you begin on a project like this, you say, this is probably where we're going to need to devote additional resources and time. But, sometimes, other things that you didn't think  would be as challenging surprise you, and vice versa. So, looking back on the production, where were the big challenges?

CW: Yeah, it's weird. You plan out all the big stuff and you're like, this is going to be the problem. But it's always the things you don't plan for. For the dry for wet shoots, Namor is wearing this headdress and, to keep the headdress exact, they had to use a chin strap to keep it in place. So then we had to replace his beard to make sure that it looked like his other beards. People were in there sculpting every bit of the thing underneath his beard to make sure that that replacement could work. I didn't see that coming.

Then, with the marine snow that's floating around… we did one take at the studio and everyone's like, we love this, this is perfect. So then it was like, now how do we translate that to the other 200 shots? What was it about this particular setting? So then you're trying to figure out how do you make that work, those magic numbers that person found across everything – real quick, because we don't have a lot of time. There's tank shots where Namor is being born, in which the characters had a lot of bubbles on them, and we developed some machine learning techniques to paint out all the little bubbles, because underwater people can't have bubbles stuck in their hair and in their beards. So this was one that was easily solved, machine learning helped us paint out the bubbles that were on the plate shoots. But it's never what you think it's going to be. And then you're up late at night trying to fix the beard.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.