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How the VFX studio made the character fly, and how they also helped orchestrate the Talokan attack on Wakanda.
At one point in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the Talokanil attack the Golden City of Wakanda, flooding much of the city and unleashing a number of water bombs. The resulting melee also provides audiences with a chance to see Namor, King of Talokan (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) in full flight, courtesy of feathered wings attached to his ankles.
Industrial Light & Magic was behind the VFX for the attack on Wakanda and the flying sequences with Namor. Establishing his super-human flight movement and speed initially proved challenging, with one method the visual effects studio employed to explore flight options involving placing a CG Namor digital double atop a helicopter sim in Maya.
ILM visual effects supervisor Craig Hammack, who earned an Oscar Nomination and received the BAFTA for Special Visual Effects for the original Black Panther, worked on Wakanda Forever with production visual effects supervisor Geoffrey Baumann, tells befores & afters more about the flying Namor scenes, plus the Golden City destruction and water bombs.
b&a: For Namor, what plates would you typically receive for him when he needed to be flying?
Craig Hammack: It was a full mixture. There were shots on the tuning fork, there were shots on full wires and there were shots with him standing on boxes. In post, too, there was actually a decision made that we would need to adjust his costume. The belts needed to be bigger, the shorts needed to have a different pattern on them. Then of course we had to do the wings on his ankles. This meant the majority of the shots where we see Namor from the waist down were CG replacements.
b&a: I know it’s very familiar now for all these characters in superhero films, but what was involved in scanning the actor for your Namor digital double?
Craig Hammack: Boy, there were so many scans, and it’s something that Marvel does really well, which is, document the shoot. There’s a full understanding of how necessary it is and what trouble you get into later if you don’t have scans. Clear Angle was the company that provided the scans to us, and they were there for the whole shoot. At some point we had to break up into multiple units and they brought in a second scanning company; SCANable, to help.
Clear Angle did their photogrammetry scans and then we also did ILM MEDUSA scans on top of that for facial expressions and dialogue that Namor would do. With this, you pick a middle ground of, well this is the high-res scan halfway through the shoot, so it covers him for any kind of change in physique early on or late.
b&a: Yes, that’s a real thing, isn’t it? Actors really can change physique during shooting, which means they may not then completely match the scan and CG build.
Craig Hammack: They do, they do. It is noticeable sometimes. Here, Namor is shirtless. That means fully exposed muscle development on display. Fortunately for us, Tenoch was very dedicated and regimented and so he came into the shoot in great shape and looking good. It’s just a thing that you have to keep an eye on though.
b&a: In terms of Namor’s ankle wings, what were the conversations you had about those with the production VFX supe and the director and Marvel?
Craig Hammack: These were a very important part of his character. Marvel has their own internal visual concept department who work tirelessly to get these characters figured out. So by the time it came to us, it was narrowed down into a range of concept pieces that were pretty tight. They had established what they wanted to the point where they had started building an on-set representation, almost like a little maquette of the wings, for reference.
We ended up making the wings larger and going into some more development of how they anchor into the ankle. There was some visual development on the Marvel side that had been done for how it would actually tie into the musculature and the bone structure of an ankle, which was a great reference for us.
Typically on things like this, you might identify a real bird and say, ‘We just want to match this, we just want these wings to be a swan wing or a cardinal wing.’ Here, though, Ryan Coogler was very particular about the shape and coloring and tone of it. So we couldn’t actually just pick a bird in nature and follow that; there was more creative exploration.
For the sizing, once we started getting a rig in it and figuring out how the flap cycle worked, and the folded up pose, that actually determined the final size.
On our side, there were conversations about whether the wings needed to be ‘hummingbird speedy’. They’re not large and he is a large man. So the physics of it kind of fought with the visuals that we wanted to present where you could still have moments where he hit poses but where it didn’t become this blur of gray on his ankle. It was a bit of a stylized choice at that point, which I think was very successful.
Wait, helicopter sims?
b&a: He also flies quite differently from scene to scene, sometimes leaps, sometimes more elegantly, sometimes like a superhero. How did you develop an animation approach and still think about physics with his speeds and zipping style?
Craig Hammack: Geoff Baumann and Ryan Coogler came to us early on to try to figure out his style of flying. They wanted it to be different and unique, and it needed to be driven by these wings. We always want to start with grounded mathematics and physics, but we started exploring things like hoverboards. There was one moment where we took this helicopter simulation that you could do in Maya where one of our artists had put together a simulator for helicopter dynamics and we constrained Namor to the top of it.
The thrust vector was in the right spot at the bottom of him and you could immediately start to see how he would need to lean into any kind of forward momentum and throw his legs forward to arrest that momentum and stop. It became a real eye-opening moment of, ‘Oh, this is the dynamics that we need.’
Then once we started talking about individual shots and motions and moments like how he leaps into the air to start his flights, Ryan–coming from a sports background as a college football player–had a very grounded understanding of movement, and he always was referencing various sports. For example, we did an exploration of a triple jumper. And then there are moves in his fight that are taken straight from reference of running backs as they move around the football field.
b&a: In the attack on the Golden City sequence, there’s also a lot of destruction here involving ships hitting buildings, going into the water etc. Is there something you can say generally about the approach to destruction that you had to do here?
Craig Hammack: Well, firstly, when this initially came to us, it was a really exciting opportunity to get back into a city that we had built six years ago for the first film. It was a huge massive build at that point and something we loved putting together and doing and we were really excited about how it ended up in the movie. And so bringing that back, we were like, ‘Okay, well this is an opportunity to just plus that out even more and build on top of it.’ Well, as I’m sure you know and have heard, anything you bring back six years later is not going to work.
Craig Hammack: Our pipeline and software is constantly evolving – Everything’s moved past that technology. And so it became a task of basically resurrecting the assets and, beyond that, figuring out how to wrap destruction into it and specifically how to do these flooded scenes through the streets. The minute that you try to do fluid sims, then every piece of geometry needs to be a completely legit, watertight, almost hero build and at a city scale–that’s just a monumental task.
For us it was an exploration of how we could get everything in one spot with all these buildings, and all this data that goes with fluid sims. We wanted to render those together so that we got accurate refraction, accurate reflections onto the water of the buildings, correct water lines, stains on the buildings, everything like that.
b&a: And then there’s also the Talokanil Water Bombs. I felt like I had never seen water explode like that before, partly because it’s coming from a small thing to a big explosion. How did you accomplish that?
Craig Hammack: The water bombs were pretty exciting for us. That was something that was creative and fantastic but also grounded in real world stuff at the same time, which is always fun. Marvel, again, had done a good job of rationalizing some real world explanation of hydrogen atoms, coming together with air, and this massive kind of water expansion. In the computer world it’s relatively straightforward to make something out of nothing. Now, the expansion rate of water just becomes–I don’t want to say problematic–but the faster something moves in a dynamic simulation, the less detail you get out.
And so, with something like this, which expands to some 70 foot tall water explosions, you need a lot of detail in it to carry because it’s going to cover a lot of screen space, and so you need to the visual complexity to carry someone’s attention and not just wipe out the screen with bland looking stuff.
It was a development process for us of using fluid sims at a kind of time scale that allows it to resolve into interesting structures. Luckily, we have incredibly great engineers that build tools to do this. And it becomes fun on my part because when you start talking about this with the people who are actually doing the development, you’re immediately the least intelligent person in the room and it just becomes about throwing out visual cues that they need to hit.
We also did physical tests of air cannons and a practical version of a water bomb, and we found that it does aerate into whitewater immediately. It becomes this kind of misty whitewater that just diffuses and becomes this sheet of white. I think it was pretty clear early on that that was not going to be something that anyone liked because it doesn’t carry the weight of something that would be damaging. It needs to be scary, it needs to feel like it would cause damage to these vibranium structures and vibranium ships, and so you’ve got to keep a bit of surface to it, a bit of mass and a bit of exposed water surface.
If you go to whitewater immediately, you lose structure, you lose weight, and it becomes incredibly difficult to light white things and show structure in them. It all came down to breaking it down into three layers, a water surface layer, a splash whitewater layer, and a mist layer that we could dial in and tune to the shot to get enough visual complexity to feel like this massive structure could cause damage.
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