How those Talokan underwater scenes in ‘Wakanda Forever’ were made

Find out more details about how the civilization under the surface was brought to life by Wētā FX, including all that corn.

At one point in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the king of Talokan, Namor, shows Shuri around his underwater civilization. This elaborate setting was created by Wētā FX and filled with temples, inhabitants, transportation and, lots and lots of corn.

The VFX studio also took dry-for-wet and wet-for-wet plates of actors to feature them in the scenes, often simulating CG hair and costume pieces for the right underwater look. This extended to appropriate lensing and color choices for the submerged views.

Wētā FX visual effects supervisor Chris White explains more, for befores & afters.

b&a: An obvious place to start is, well, this all needed to happen underwater. What were some of the first conversations you might have had with the overall visual effects supervisor, and the director, about depicting underwater?

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Chris White: One of the first things production visual effects supervisor Geoff Baumann said was, ‘We want to do very realistic looking water, but we also know we’re going to have to cheat some things, because it’s obviously a movie…’. So there were a couple of different research avenues that we went down early on.

The first was to achieve a nice, realistic water baseline, where it rendered well, looked correct, matched real world values, and was spectral. And then we used the controls to make creative decisions.

The second one was that we wanted to have it match the photography from the rest of the film, in particular the lenses that Autumn Durald Arkapaw was shooting on, including the defocus, the bokeh, the curvature. All of those anamorphic qualities needed to match so if you flipped between live action photography and visual effects, there’d be no difference. There were creative cheats but it looked like the same photography.

The third thing was that during our previs and postvis stage, we wanted to make sure that everything Ryan and Geoff saw would translate directly to our final render. So the previs had all of the turbidity in the water, and the lights were very much fixed to the suits on these characters, so they needed to see what the lights were doing as Shuri tumbled or travelled around the city, because there weren’t a lot of magic movie lights.

As the show evolved, Ryan said it should almost feel like Shuri was in outer space–she’s in this big suit–and that’s an aesthetic we wanted to have. There’s also not a lot of visibility, it’s very dark so she can’t see too far. You’re supposed to be a little bit unsure of Namor’s motives, too. There’s a foreboding line from the older woman in the village up above – ‘He’ll lure you down into the deep.’

b&a: For close up scenes of Namor and Shuri, how did they approach plate photography there?

Chris White: We had a mix of wet-for-wet tank shots and dry-for-wet for close-ups. I’d say a good chunk of our shots were in the tank, which was great. For the other that were shot dry, they also shot tank reference so we had something to match to. For a lot of their close-ups, those were shot dry-for-wet, so we would have to go in with Shuri and completely replace her suit, put her in the environment. For Namor, we sometimes added digital hair, which would be animated on it, along with his flowing headdress. He didn’t have much movement in his costume, so those would be dry for wet shots.

It’s one of those things where we even looked at the refraction of the glass in her helmet, as it normally would make someone’s head look really small, so we had to figure out the perfect settings for that, how much curvature to include, et cetera.

b&a: When it’s dry-for-wet, are they shooting the actors on wires, or using tuning forks to do this?

Chris White: Yes, tuning forks, or sometimes they were on seats and sometimes it was with wires. Sometimes we would do digital handovers or parts of their body would need to be replaced, if their legs were standing still. We would add to the costumes, too, to add movement. Some of those costumes were designed by Wētā Workshop, so we spoke with them early on about which parts would be replaced digitally when it was shot dry for wet.

We match moved a lot of the characters so they could push around the ‘marine snow’ with their movements, so you feel like they’re interacting within that volume- without that interaction, it just didn’t sell that they were in underwater.

b&a: There’s the inhabitants of that world. Did that involve shooting as many vignettes as you could of them and placing them in? How did it work to populate the world?

Chris White: There were vignettes of different actions, with people swimming around or interacting with others. It was great because there was so much footage that we could suggest things as we were previs’ing and postvis’ing, like ‘Oh, can we use this vignette and put it in here?’ It was a really collaborative show and great that we could pitch stuff to Ryan and he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine. Use those guys there and this there.’ Those tank elements helped quite a lot because they added a nice realism to it the city.

b&a: What about the general environment? We do see so much happening in this city. What were some of the challenges of building a city underwater?

Chris White: We were always trying to figure out how to tell the story of their journey through the city. How would we-in such a short sequence–sell that they’re moving towards his temple, which is more of a red of area, through corn fields and all of these different parts of the city? Ryan wanted it to feel slightly disorienting, so if you actually look, there are structures that are up high, kind of poking down, and one’s coming from the side, which was all part of the design.

Some of the shots show the city from very far away, but this actually goes against what naturally happens underwater due to the low visibility and lack of light. We had these wide shots where you can see more than you naturally would, so then the challenge was to figure out how to maintain the feeling of being underwater.

The other big technical challenge was that Namor’s temple area is red, which is important to Mayan culture and design, but red doesn’t survive very long underwater visually – it quickly diminishes. We had to work out different cheats to get that red to come through, but in a way that was as minimal as possible so it still feels deep underwater. We had that discussion through the entire show, fine-tuning that. We bent different things around in Manuka to try and help limit the paths for how far the red would travel.

b&a: Wētā has done so many water shows recently and here was a certain kind of look. You’re deep in the ocean, as you say, it’s kind of murky. I’m always curious about how you’re coming up with ‘the camera is underwater’ look–how much do you see? Is it rendered or is it compositing, or is it a bit of both?

Chris White: We designed it so we had what we considered true water settings, which became the basis for a lot of our renders, maybe with a little bit of adjustment. Then we would also spit out different images and different AOVs, so in compositing they had the ability to push a shot a little more red.

We’d have the true render and then we’d say, here’s one where all the reds survived and got to the camera, so we could dial in a little bit of it so it was evenly distributed from what the TDs and compositors were doing. We also had someone just doing marine snow full- time.

b&a: By that, do you mean all the particulates?

Chris White: Yes, we call all the little particulates that is floating around marine snow – we had someone simulating that for every shot because it was such a characteristic of the show.

The thing that was great about the show was that we started to come up with a shared language while working with Geoff or Ryan, like ‘Okay, this is what we mean by turbidity,’ for example. We had different water classifications so they could point to water turntables and literally say, ‘Make it look a little bit more like this.’

It was similar with the lensing. We broke down every visual thing we was in a lens – this is a stigmatism, this is vignetting, this is a hood shadowing a bokeh… We broke it down to each level so when we’re discussing shots, we could share creative notes between us and the artist. The lens work and the compositing is very much part of that aesthetic.

b&a: I love how you also, Chris, casually mentioned you’re having to simulate the characters’ hair. I mean I know you can do it, but it’s a huge task and there’s also a certain look that works and doesn’t work for underwater hair, right?

Chris White: It was a lot of work on the side running multiple wedges to get the right look, partly because hairstyles differed on different days of the shoot. Our creatures team ran lots of different wedges and settings for the hair and clothing so it moved around. The nice thing is, since we’ve built our own internal dynamics system, the same forces that govern the hair also govern the marine snow, and anything else we want it to do. So, you don’t get a disconnect where the hair flows up this way and all the marine snow and particulate travels a different way – it’s all combined.

Hair is not a small task, and it is one of the many things that brings up all of these little challenges that pop up throughout the show. Bubbles on the skin were another thing we needed to tackle. When you shoot people in a tank they naturally get bubbles on their skin, but it was requested that they didn’t have any bubbles in their hair or in their beards or anything, so we used machine learning to paint out some of those bubbles.

b&a: What about digital doubles? How did you approach them here for replacements or stunt doubles or full character performances?

Chris White: The setup was very similar to how we’ve approached digi-doubles previously. What made it interesting was that there were deep underwater properties that we had to dig into. When we first started making them, they glowed a bit too much, so we spent time looking at our sub-surface scattering approaches again.

Also, because we had darker skin tones here, we looked at how we approached melanin. It’s amazing how different skin reacts underwater. You get this really nice digi-double on dry land, it looks like an exact match, you can’t tell it’s a digi-double, and then you put it underwater and it looks odd or something looks off.

b&a: There’s the birth of Namor in that flashback sequence. Is that some kind of prosthetic or is that a digital creation?

Chris White: It was a combination of both. Namor’s mother was holding a prosthetic baby and then we added in a little bit of facial and leg movement to it to add a little bit of life to it. That was a sequence where we had to use machine learning to paint out the bubbles, because they didn’t want too many bubbles on their faces. They were beautiful plates. They got this amazing light coming through the water.

b&a: What are some things in that underground world that you put in that maybe people might not have noticed?

Chris White: Well, there’s a huge corn simulation in there. There are millions of corn plants. It goes by very quickly, but there was a lot of thought put into every little aspect of that city, including a lot of discussion about the corn and the translucent husks. It’s all to convey that Namor has carried through the Talokanil culture from the surface world down into their environment.

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