How the ‘Wakanda Forever’ Visual Effects Team Evolved the Way Dark Skin and Hair Are Digitally Reproduced on Screen

Angela Bassett as Ramonda and Tenoch Huerta as Namor in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. (Photo: ©Marvel/©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Between Ryan Coogler Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and James Cameron Avatar: The Way of the Water, the technological wizards of Wētā FX have cornered the water effects market. Co-founded by the Lord of the Rings maestro, Peter Jackson, the New Zealand-based F/X house played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in two of 2022’s biggest sequels, both of which involve a lot of water. But wakanda forever Visual effects supervisor Chris White suggests that there was never any competition between the two productions.

“They’re different things,” White told Yahoo Entertainment. “While Avatar build new aliens and stuff we put people in [aquatic] environment.” The specific people who swim through wakanda foreverDeep beneath the sea are the Talokanians – the descendants of an earthbound Mayan tribe who escaped beneath the ocean waves to avoid the horrors wrought by Western colonialism. Their society is ruled by the god-king, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), an age-defying mutant who draws his power from an herb enriched with vibranium.

One approach the two films share is that they immersed the actors in real water tanks instead of shooting primarily “dry for wet” – meaning the effects are used to simulate aquatic environments. It’s a technique the notoriously picky Cameron specifically wanted to avoid for his Avatar followed, which required the invention of new performance capture technology that could work underwater.

“The key was to film underwater and on the surface of the water so people would swim properly, get out of the water properly, dive properly,” the director has said in interviews. “It feels real because the movement was real. And the emotion was real.”

(Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta)

Namor’s throne room at Wakda forever was a “dry for wet” set where water effects were added later. (Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta FX)

White is careful to note that wakanda forever features “dry for wet” sequences, notably the scenes in Namor’s throne room, where Huerta and his fellow actors had to be in full costume. “We were going in and increasing and adding water around the images,” he explains, adding that many small visual details that define the space were also added by the Wētā team.

(Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta)

What Namor’s throne room looked like without digital water effects. (Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta FX)

“There are little details about the eels and the carvings and stuff like that,” he notes. “I think of those subtle things, like the eels that recoil when Namor goes down [to the throne], and the way light adds different colors to the space. And even when we were doing the “dry for wet” scenes, they were shooting stuntmen in full costume performing the moves in a tank of water, so we were able to use that footage as a reference.”

(Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta)

An unfinished F/X shot of Namor’s throne room reveals the details that were added by the special effects team. (Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta FX)

One of the biggest conversations to take place in Hollywood in recent years – especially as black-led blockbusters like wakanda forever continuing to diversify the types of heroes moviegoers see on screen – is how to properly light darker-skinned performers. And White – who is black – says the issue of colorism is very much on the minds of VFX artists who often work with digital versions of human artists of color like Huerta, originally from Mexico, or Mabel Cadena and Alex Livinalli, who play the best soldiers of Namor. , Namora and Attuma, respectively.

“There’s a lot of discussion in the F/X world about whether our algorithms are set up correctly and whether they’re doing the right thing,” he observes, noting that the company’s digital lookalike for Shuri from Letitia Wright – who inherits the mantle of Black Panther during wakanda forever – required many adjustments in terms of reproducing the skin tone of the actress. “Last year we started looking at this in terms of correctly calculating melanin. And we had the added complexity of the underwater scenes here, where your skin reacts completely differently to light.”

Replicating the darker skin tones of actors like Huerta is currently a major issue in the visual effects world.  (Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta FX)

Replicating the darker skin tones of actors like Huerta is currently a major issue in the visual effects world. (Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta FX)

“You’re always trying to balance how the water absorbs the warm colors,” White continues. “If you start to lose that, the characters look too cold. So it was a balancing act in every shot, and it really made us dig into how we do the digital doubles. There’s still work to do, but it’s an important thing to do.”

An unfinished digital double version of Huerta as Namor.  (Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta FX)

An unfinished digital double version of Huerta as Namor. (Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta FX)

When asked why it’s taken so long for Hollywood as a whole to have this necessary conversation about skin tone, White says the industry had, until recently, followed idea-based photographic standards. more limited – and potentially biased. “Some of the science that went into the infographic was based on medical journals that might have had some bias,” he notes. “Now it’s starting to catch up and we’re finding that our algorithms just aren’t suited for darker skin tones.

“There will be complexities in the future, because melanin is on a certain layer of skin,” White adds. “But it’s great that we’re more aware of it now and that people are doing a lot of research on it. And that goes for hair as well. There hasn’t been enough research on the different hair types. “

Another unfinished look at Namor's digital double.  (Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta FX)

Another unfinished look at Namor’s digital double. (Photo: Marvel Studios/Weta FX)

Speaking of hair, James Wan previously revealed to Yahoo Entertainment that keeping Jason Momoa’s long locks flowing under the sea was the toughest special effect in his 2018 comic book blockbuster. Aquaman. (It should be noted that the DC Comics-based hit was largely filmed “dry for wet.”) And White says it wasn’t necessarily easier to animate the Talokanians’ hair in wakanda forever.

“It’s always a little more work than you think,” he admits with a laugh. “It can be very tedious – you know, adding a little more movement or a little less movement. We were doing simulations on the hair and the clothes, and then we had to say on set, ‘Take off that little clothes, because they should be circulating, so we’ll have to do it digitally. Something that surprised us was that the tank footage had bubbles in the performers hair, so we had to machine teach what bubbles are and how to paint them properly! It was a new technology that was developed on this film.

For the record, White is adamant that none of Wētā FX’s technologies were responsible for “Bulge-gate” – the debate that went viral online after side-by-side footage of Huerta on set and in the film showed a pronounced difference below the belt. The actor himself later confessed rolling stone that the smaller photo was closer to reality. “I’m not going to lie to people,” Huerta said. “Every man in the world, we have a fragile masculinity, but not in this area. I will say…the real one is the picture on the right.”

“I didn’t even know it was a discussion,” marvels White, who says Industrial Light & Magic’s F/X team – which created Namor’s initial design – was the likely source of the battle around this bulge. “A lot of his design came from ILM, and we inherited that from then on. Every time he went ‘dry for wet’, his legs were on the ground, and we had to replace whatever was there. underneath and keep his upper body. But we used the final design they came up with for that.”

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever now playing in theaters.

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