Before the game-changing Black Panther, visual effects supervisor Geoffrey Baumann had worked on a number of Marvel projects, supervising computer graphics and second unit work before earning his current title in this domain. A BAFTA nominee this year, shortlisted by AMPAs as well for Best Visual Effects, Baumann had one mandate from director Ryan Coogler, when it came to his first blockbuster: Above all else, Black Panthershould hold true to Africa.
Based on a superhero character first appearing in comics in 1966, Black Panther (or T’Challa) was a king-to-be, a rising force in the invisible and technologically advanced African kingdom of Wakanda, whose domain would be like none seen before in the MCU. Between Wakanda, the Golden City at its center, and the otherworldly metal it possessed, allowing for superhuman feats of engineering, Baumann knew he had enormous challenges ahead of him, with the role he played in bringing this world to life. “I’m like, ‘Okay, we want to create a big city that’s tactile, and real, and of this earth, that we’ve never seen before,’” he recalls. “We didn’t want it to feel like Asgard; it was supposed to be something that was here, where you could fly there, technically, if you knew how to get into Wakanda.” Of course, in Baumann’s craft, the demand for fresh worldbuilding is par for the course. What isn’t so frequently encountered is a film “that has a social impact,” and Black Panther was that in spades, “which I think added more pressure to all of us, even Ryan.”
Fortunately, in this endeavor, Baumann wasn’t alone. To say nothing of the hundreds of artists in his department, and the various effects houses they represented, the VFX head worked closely for a prolonged period with Marvel’s Visual Development team, production designer Hannah Beachler, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, cinematographer Rachel Morrison, the team at ILM and various other department heads, developing a finely-orchestrated plan on site in Atlanta that allowed creations, physical and digital, to merge seamlessly.“I think we did end up creating a city that felt [of] Africa, utilizing references of buildings and structures that are in Africa,” Baumann reflects. “The materials were all there, and the colors and patterns were all based off of things that we could physically go reach out and find.”
For you, on Black Panther, how did the process begin?
I had just come off of Doctor Strange, and then I had my first meeting with Ryan, and was really excited about Ryan’s approach to Black Panther. Being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was in stark contrast to the films that he had made, with Fruitvale and Creed being very strong character pieces, I was curious to see how he would approach that, and when I met him for the first time, he was one of the most genuinely likable, honest, good human beings out there. So, it was a process that I felt honored to be a part of. His personality is so welcoming and open that you want to go to the nth degree to try to help him achieve his vision. For me, meeting him and knowing that he wanted to make a strong character film in the Marvel Universe was unique and exciting.
What did you speak with Coogler about, early on? As a VFX supervisor, how do you collaborate with a director who may not know speak the technical language you know so well?
One thing that I try to do is to not overwhelm them with what we could technically do—to let the story evolve, and then see how we can help with the visual storytelling. I think for Ryan, early on, it was an exploration of Africa, before any of us could dig into what we could do visually. Practically, it was first letting Ryan figure out what African heritage he wanted to explore. I think right when he got onto the project, before I began, Marvel sent him to Africa for his own pilgrimage; he went to a bunch of different countries, spent time with a bunch of different tribes.
That then translated into my world, making sure when we were building the Golden City, for example, with ILM, that the materials and shapes and structures of all the buildings were representative of things you could see in Africa. We wanted to create a skyline that would be unique, like you might see in Manhattan, or Singapore, that has this iconic, big-city feel, but at the same time, let that city or that skyline be shapes that were in Africa, and not the kind of hard, rectangular buildings that we might see in Manhattan.
Hannah Beachler and I started at about the same time, and she and Ryan started to put together what we called ‘The Bible.’ There were images of buildings across Africa, of tribes and colors, and patterns, and shapes. That became integrated into all of the effects, and I’m really proud of the collaboration across departments, which in the long run, strengthened the visual effects. We were all telling a common story, visually, which then supported the characters’ stories.
The film opens with an elaborate VFX sequence, establishing the world of Wakanda, and Black Panther lore. What inspired that sequence? What went into crafting it?
That’s a sequence I’m really proud of. We didn’t want to assume that the audience coming into this origin story had the same knowledge of Black Panther and the history, but we also didn’t want it to stretch out for too long. The point was to just get everybody up to the same page. The idea of this prologue came in, I think, after principle photography; we were already in post when we realized we needed to get that piece working.
We’d been moving forward with another aspect that was quite challenging, which was the Wakandan technology. We decided everything was based off of sound; acoustic sound waves could cause levitation, so there’s acoustic levitation, and all those things. We did have this vibranium sand, seen in Shuri’s lab, which would float, and create holograms and shapes, so we decided we should use this vibranium sand, early on in this fairy tale, to help tell this story. We thought it could be backlit, and dramatic and artistic, and we could have the sand drop away and re-form, in order to show the story without a bunch of cuts. We had Perception, who did a bunch of motion graphics for us in New York, help conceptually flesh out the ideas, with a lot of shadow puppets and silhouettes, and a lot of backlight atmosphere. We figured out what the tone would be, and then a company called Storm [Studios] took that sequence on, and we split it up; I think in the end, it was seven shots, but they all seamed together, and then they worked hand-in-hand, taking it to pre-vis.
They did their pass at pre-vis, and then the one thing that we spent a lot of time on was working on camera and the dialogue, to make sure that the timing of all of our beats jibed, and we were hitting key moments in history, while at the same time, trying to weave the Wakandan lore into it, as well. You can see those hints at slavery, and the colonization of Africa, which was a very strong part for Ryan in the film, trying to cope and recognize that this colonization happened, and that Wakanda would be a country that had never been colonized. In the end, I think Storm did a great job in their particle simulations and the lighting of that sequence. It’s not just telling the story, but it’s visually beautiful and engaging, as well, and then takes you right into Oakland.
Could you elaborate on the approach you took to the film’s technology? One of the most impressive manifestations would have to be Shuri’s car, which seems to manifest out of thin air.
We had to make sure that the technology was based off of vibranium, and make it more futuristic that anything we’ve seen today. We wanted to research white papers and experiments that universities across the globe are doing, and be able to grasp a hold of at least some thread of that experimentation in our world. Lastly, we wanted to make sure that it was different than anything we’d seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before; that it didn’t look like any of the Stark tech, or Stark holograms, or shield tech. Those have their own visual language, and we were trying to create something different. Perception helped us do a bunch of research, and together, we explored a bunch of different technology, but eventually landed on acoustics and sound waves, coming up with this story that vibranium is a very unstable metal, that in it’s unstable state, can be very violent, and dangerous, and explode.
Wakandans had learned over time to harness this energy and use it for weapons, for medicine, for all of their tech. Everything they do that is otherworldly is based off of this harnessing of vibranium. For example, Klaue’s sonic disruptor is a big sound blast that almost fires out; the sand that forms in Shuri’s lab, all of the patterns that it generates before the car is formed are based off of sound. For the thrusters on the back of the Royal Talon Fighter, the shape and design is actually a cymatic pattern, which is again, sound-based. We tried to lean into that from the beginning; that prologue had the initial hint of the black sand, but then you’re introduced to it again in the Royal Talon Fighter.
Consistently throughout, we tried to make sure that visually, the message was [clear] that their tech was sound-based, Shuri’s lab being the hub of it all. In there, we tried to incorporate, in the monitors, sound graphs, sound waves, and all those kinds of things. Probably the most difficult or complex tech that they had was that sand chair that formed, giving her this interesting, almost augmented reality world, where she could be in Korea in that car chase with Panther, driving through the streets. We ended up shooting a bunch of array tile sets—a 360-degree array—driving through the streets of Busan, and we then mapped that onto various cars and geometry to represent this dome that she ends up sitting in. Then, we played with different patterns that could help form that projection space, so that you felt she was there, but not quite. We wanted to make sure that the audience never got confused for a moment like, “Wait, is she actually there?” We were trying to keep some sense of a screen out there, yet still feel like she’s involved, and that a sense of urgency exists with her, as well.
Apart from Wakanda itself, the Ancestral Plane is one of the film’s principal environments, which must have been crafted with a fair amount of VFX.
The Ancestral Plane was about a 40×40 patch of dirt in the middle of a blue screen stage, and that was probably one of the most emotional scenes in the film. We tried to set it up, from a shooting standpoint, in a manner that let Ryan interact with Chadwick [Boseman] and John [Kani], his father, and not become too involved, so that Ryan could get the emotion out of the scene that he wanted.
We had some early concepts that showed the two different environments, one being this magical, Aurora Borealis scene, with panthers in the trees, and that stayed consistent throughout, at least that general look. The second Ancestral Plane was more of the sunrise, with the ancestors approaching, and evolved throughout the film. It initially was in more of a barren landscape that was a little more depressing and sad, rather than embracing this wild sky. [These scenes] were really supposed to be the one moment in the film where you’re in this surreal state of being; you’re not quite sure what is real, and what isn’t. ILM did both of those sequences, and those kinds of surreal pieces are sometimes very difficult. But at the end of the day, I think everybody was pretty happy with where we landed.
Apart from what we’ve discussed so far, what major challenges did Black Panther pose?
One [aspect] that I’m really proud of was those simulations in the waterfall. It was a very difficult set to work on. We were outdoors, in Atlanta in March. Daylight wasn’t always cooperating, and [there were] different weather conditions, which made it challenging. We ended up replacing all of the water. Even though we did have a pool full of water, all of the water in the ponds was replaced, entirely. We didn’t shoot without it—we got them dragging their feet, and the splashes were all coming from the interaction that they had—but it didn’t give us enough sense of danger, of flow off the edge, so we replaced all the water to make sure there was this definite directionality.
I think by the end of it, Scanline [VFX], who did that sequence, was [generating] terabytes of simulation data per day. The environment was so big that it was a tremendous amount of computing power, in order to execute it, and a very slow and consistent methodology for completing it. It isn’t the type of environment or effect where you can just change your mind quickly; there were so many dependencies. But I believe that at the end of the day, they had 102 individually [simulated] waterfalls.