By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By IAN FAILES
The third act of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther features a brutal battle set in the Mount Bashenga area of the mystical nation of Wakanda. The action pits the king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) – aka Black Panther – against his adversary Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and involves a host of Wakandan tribes.
To help bring that battle to the big screen, overall Visual Effects Supervisor Geoffrey Baumann enlisted Method Studios to build out the Mount Bashenga environment digitally, and to render several digital doubles, vehicles, creatures and weapon effects for the sequence. VFX Voice sat down with Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Andy Brown and Associate Visual Effects Supervisor Todd Sheridan Perry in Vancouver to find out how orchestrating the massive melee was handled.
The area Method Studios was required to build reached 3,600 square kilometers, centering on a giant spire that heralds the top of a vibranium mine shaft. Around that zone, artists crafted a digital environment somewhat inspired by the Paarl Rock area in South Africa, a huge granite rock formation with rounded outcrops. Into that environment, the studio inserted live-action photography from two shooting sessions that took place in Georgia, and also incorporated several CG characters, creatures and flying ships.
“The set was built on a ranch in Georgia,” outlines Perry. “The battle scenes were split up into two shoots. I was on the principal one and Andy went on the other re-shoot once the scope of the battle increased. They had built the bottom part of the set, the platform that the ships are sitting on and that Killmonger faces off against the Dora Milaje warriors on.”
“They had eight little rigs there,” adds Perry, “with huge bluescreens on them that they would just continually shift around depending on which angle we were facing to try to get as much as possible there in camera. We were doing a ton of rotoscoping, not just of people, but also shadows, because you’re outside so the sunlight changes constantly.”
In addition to the Paarl Rock inspiration for the spire area, Method Studios also had to build out a vaster area. Says Brown: “We spent a lot of time developing that from the main shoot that was happening. It was an extension out from the set, so the set was LIDAR scanned and then we built beyond that. The spire took a lot of development. We had some early previs to go off of, but the actual architecture or structure had to be fleshed out more. Our build went right down into the mine shaft. Then the views behind the spire with the big crater were inspired more by the areas around the Congo. And there was a back story here in terms of the meteorite crash, which contains the vibranium that the Wakandans use for everything.”
“[The vibranium weapons] were based on vibrations and vibranium itself being able to absorb energy. The idea is that it kind of builds up and up, and you can use it, then release it. And that was all based itself on sound energy waves and the patterns that those waves form.”
—Andy Brown, Visual Effects Supervisor, Method Studios
Seen in the battle are a myriad of weapons, most based on vibranium technology. Method Studios referenced cymatics to develop the way weapons looked and operated, as well as engines and other power-emitting devices.
“Vibranium technology was based on vibrations and vibranium itself being able to absorb energy,” explains Brown. “The idea is that it kind of builds up and up, and you can use it, then release it. And that was all based itself on sound energy waves and the patterns that those waves form.”
To research that energy wave look, Method Studios looked at what happens when a speaker is positioned near water, or when dust particles or sand are placed directly on a reverberating speaker.
“Then,” says Perry, “our Houdini team created a mathematical solution that would give us these patterns, and we would use that to drive the effects. That was our starting point for any kind of thing we were developing as a vibranium weapon – we’d need to figure out how to involve cymatics. We would even have cymatic patterns in things like a ship landing. The dust on the ground would shift and form these patterns underneath.”
Digital doubles were a large part of Method Studios’ work on the battle sequence. Black Panther and Killmonger were two of the most ‘hero’ CG assets – a large part of the work here involved crafting their nanotechnology-based suits.
Modeling and texturing the Panther suits involved replicating a multitude of tiny triangle formations and Wakandan glyphs via intricate texturing. “Our asset team is pretty amazing,” comments Perry. “They put those together really, really fast as far as the textures and everything. We had an amazing amount of textures from Clear Angle, who did the original scans of the on-set suits, and then we had the photogrammetry photography as well as a texture shoot that they did, and then we had them send the actual costumes to us so that we could get additional detail if we needed to.”
In addition to the hero actors, there were also digi-doubles required for tribe members in crowd shots and even front-and-center clashes. Method roto-animated the fight choreography from the live-action photography in order to acquire distinctive styles of fighting among the tribes. “And then we also did a couple mo-cap shoots where we had a number of the stunt people who were at the original shoot,” says Perry. “We devised fight antics by giving them 10 or 15 minutes to work through a choreography, and that gave us a collection of all of these pieces.”
“During those mo-cap sessions,” notes Perry, “we’d say, ‘Now, this is a Dora, she’s taking on three guys at one time. So she comes in through here, through here, through here.’ They’d then run through it a couple of times, and that gave us a collection to use for crowds. The crowds would be for the background action. Then our keyframe animation was mid-ground, and live-action was mostly close to camera. We just mixed and matched these to try to get them to work.”
A shot that has turned out to be one of the iconic moments of the battle has Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther’s sister, wielding a set of gauntlets on her hands, which shoot out some high-tech weaponry.
“Unofficially, we called them ‘kitten mittens’,” says Perry. “Our modeler is very, very proud of these things. There were scans of the practical ones and there was an opened and closed version of them, and so we just took that to be, oh, this thing kind of activates and opens up. So in the model he made them transform and had these little animations in there.
“And then we sent it to production,” continues Perry, “and the word back was, ‘Wow, this is really cool. We’re going to make something for this moment.’ That was really cool, to contribute to the story like that.”
One of the interesting challenges in the battle turned out to be ‘battle rhinos’ wearing armor. These began as CG assets shared from Method Studios’ sister company Iloura (now part of Method), which had just delivered VFX for a rhino-filled scene in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Method Studios had also recently worked on Okja, a film that featured a creature with a somewhat similar skin quality to the rhinos.
“All of the animators and the modelers and so forth who had spent a year developing the Okja character now had all of this experience doing these quadrupeds of that size and then the riggers and tech animators had the muscle systems already in place,” says Perry. “And so some of our artists in the asset department, they just moved onto it and they just kind of knew what to do.”
On set, production mostly used a stick placeholder in lieu of any real rhinos. A number of Clydesdale horses were also used, with riders, to act as stand-ins for W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who rides one of the creatures.
“It gives people eyelines and that type of thing, but in some cases we just used a really, really well developed W’Kabi digi-double,” notes Perry. “We grabbed his head off of the performance plate and put it onto the CG body, so you’ve got the natural performance from Daniel, and then you had animation doing all of the step down until he’s just coming off the horse and then you match that.”