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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever: Wētā FX Supervisor Chris White on Exploring the Deep Undersea World of the MCU

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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is currently the third highest-grossing movie of 2022, having taken in more than $400 at the domestic box office. Marvel’s superhero sequel continues the tale of the African Kingdom of Wakanda, albeit with one major difference from the 2018 movie — Chadwick Boseman, who originated the title character, tragically died in 2020, leaving a major absence for writer-director Ryan Coogler to address.

Coogler handles T’Challa’s death with great sensitivity, and he balances out those more melancholic, poignant scenes with his film’s dynamic new villain, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the leader of the underwater kingdom of Talokan, a new locale for the Marvel Cinematic Universe which required a VFX house that could handle all that water and the unique creatures Namor commands.

Chris White was the VFX Supervisor for Wētā FX who took on the very important task of creating Namor’s kingdom of Talokan deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean. White has worked at Weta for 20 years, beginning with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. After that, he worked on Jackson’s King Kong, helping to recreate the New York City of the ’30s, followed by credits on The Maze Runner films and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, for which he received Oscar and BAFTA nominations.

Below the Line recently had a chance to speak with White about what was involved in creating the movie’s incredible underwater environments and creatures, which required special tools to create the needed lens effects. 

Chris White
Chris White image courtesy of Weta FX

Below the Line: I know Weta FX did a lot of the underwater stuff and a lot of the Namor/Talokan stuff for Wakanda Forever. Who decides what each of the FX vendors works on?

Chris White: That was something [managed by] Geoff [Baumann], the main VFX Supervisor. We just decided early on that was going to be a good split between the different houses, that we were going to be deep underwater, [because] we have a good knowledge [of] that kind of stuff. And then some of the above [water] stuff, that would stay with houses [that] had done it on the previous film, [so it was] just kind of split up into those zones. Each person had their own area, and then we began research pretty early on to [capture] that deep underwater look, even before shooting, just to R&D it.

BTL: I was going to ask if you’d worked on the previous Black Panther film or any other Marvel stuff…

White: This is the first time for me, and to be honest, when I saw the first [Black Panther], I was like, ‘Oooh, I wish I had worked on that,’ so when this came [around], I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to be part of it.’ This is the first time for me being in the Marvel Universe, but yes, [Weta has] done multiple shows that you’ve probably talked to Matt Aitken [about].

BTL: What’s the first thing that you’re doing after being hired, and does it involve looking at some of the comics or working with the production designer on the look for Talokan?

White: We’re working with the production designer pretty early on to look at the Talokan city [and] make sure all the things that they had spent quite a lot of time working out the aesthetic [for] and what they were looking for, [to] make sure we were fitting her creative brief. And then, we also had parallel efforts, which were in the R&D and the look of the underwater rendering, the underwater light, the pre-vis of how these characters travel through the city, and post-vis of that. Also, doing research into replicating the lenses and the look of the film that they were shooting for the live-action. That was an important part, to make sure that we match, [so] you couldn’t tell as you switch between effects shots that it looked like it came through the same lenses and all the creative things they were putting into the photography.

Marine Snow Lighting Pass/Marvel Studios

BTL: How hard is it to recreate the effect of lenses on the VFX side of things? There’s an aspect to what DPs do with lenses that seems magical in terms of what it brings to the quality of the cinematography.

White: It’s pretty complex. That’s the thing I’ve learned. Paul Raeburn, my comp supervisor, was working with Michael Ralla, and they were spearheading this whole tool development. It was discussions as to like, “This is the effects of this glass.” We had to break down [the] language of astigmatism and chromatic aberration, to have all these different elements that we were finding. They were using it as a creative element. They were re-tuning and changing the lenses around on set to give [it] a certain look. It wasn’t just like, “Okay, we need to match this lens. We want you to adjust the things that we would adjust on set to give it a creative look, more bouquet [and] out of focus. Let this be for astigmatism.” So it was match and creative tools, which I actually found was a pretty interesting part of the project, personally. 

BTL: Were you working directly with the cinematographer [Autumn Durald Arkapaw] and talking to her?

White: We were working with Michael Ralla, the associate visual effects supervisor, and he was working directly with her. We worked with her a little bit, but it was more us digging into the bolts of all the code in the software and everything [in] creating this tool set. We’d get direct aesthetic notes like, “Can you bring up more astigmatism?” and this factored into everything we were doing. Even when we put all the marine snow or particulate in the water, it was to create a certain bouquet or a certain effect through the lenses. It was through the entire look, it was taken into consideration.

BTL: I’m not sure I’ve spoken to anyone at Weta about the coding — not that I would understand any of it — but I do hear about building tools for specific purposes, and you come from that technical side of things as well, right?

White: I’m kind of a mix of both. I’ve always been a developer for 25 years, and on the art side as well. I’ve always straddled both those camps because I find each one of them interesting. For this project, it’s one of those things that when you’re in the early stages of the project, you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, what do we need to achieve? What are the tools we need to build? What gives us creative control but what also looks realistic, and how do we balance those two things?” It’s always [about] finding that balance, so that was one of the research projects.

Lighting Pass/Marvel Studios

BTL: It must be nice if you’re on the creative side and you need to do something, but you don’t have the right tool, then you can just develop it, even though it probably adds more time to the whole process. How do you juggle those two things?

White: It’s one of those things that Geoff and I talked about early on, and it was a good plan. He was like, ‘I want to have the ability to render the water [and] make it look as photorealistic as we can. That’s the base, but we know it’s an action film. We know we’re going to be able to adjust it. We have some principles against that, and we always want to be able to go back and say, ‘This is what it should look like, and then here’s how we can creatively adjust it to fit our creative needs?” We spent the first four, five, six months just going through all those principles of water. How does it react? How do you light it? What is in it, down to the tiniest little bits of marine snow, really digging into the science of it, and meanwhile, building the tools to adjust it for the artists as well.

BTL: There are many complex underwater scenes featuring heroes. What are you getting from the set, as far as plates? How much of it are you shooting on your own stages, and how are you working with the main unit to accomplish what you need? 

White: They did a great job of shooting a lot of plates in the underwater tanks. We had witness cameras set up on there to help capture the motion and have reference for it. A lot of plates were shot in the tank. Some were shot dry, where they were on wires, not a huge amount, where we would augment to put in digital clothing and hair and give it the underwater look. The nice thing about when they did shoot it dry, they also shot a lot of reference of what it should look like in real water. So that helped quite a bit, as we’re trying to make something appear underwater, we have this reference as well of what it would look like. It was excellent how much they shot for us in terms of footage.

BTL: When I spoke to Guy Williams for Peacemaker, he was saying that for the first Avatar, they had the costume designer creating physical costumes even though they would be recreated using visual effects. Was that the case with this show as well? 

White: It’s like you said. All the costumes are built and sometimes they would have to pull the costumes off if it was shot dry so that we could digitally simulate it. To your point, they would put it in the water. They did tests in the water and movement in the water. I think the thing for your audience to take home is how much research and how much we dig into these things and do those kinds of tests. How does it move around? What is the light quality underwater? How does people’s skin react underwater? How do darker skin tones work underwater? All of those little principles that we spent a lot of time doing practical tests and real tests and research [for], trying to figure [those things out] so we’re not [just] guessing at it. There’s even, like, down to the fish, I think it’s called a Strouhaul principle, like how fast their tails move relative to how far they thrust forward. When our animator puts our fish going through, unless he’s cheating it, the tail will flap at the speed that’s appropriate to how fast it’s moving to the water. And that’s based on a whole principle, so, those kinds of things.

BTL: Who is the person that spent all those years researching how fish move to come up with that principle?

White: It’s amazing, as you dig through these scientific papers, someone has researched it as their Ph.D. We hire interns, sometimes. I think we even had an intern on The Hobbit for just feathers. Her specialty was just feathers. It’s similar with this. We have scientists that are digging into all these principles.

Wakanda Forever Namor
Namor (costume bake)/Marvel Studios

BTL: Speaking of feathers, I personally have never worn them in or out of the water, but when I first saw the trailer and how Namor was dressed, I was curious whether they’d get wet and soggy, and possibly drag him down in the water. Was that issue on your mind at all, and if so, how did you address it?

White: It’s interesting, because they’re feathers, but they’re also kind of like fins. Namora, she’s actually a lionfish. I’m trying to think what the correct term was, but they’re almost like fish fins, in a way, so we liked the properties of [the] feathers, and that’s actually what we found with some of our initial tests — that they are supposed to be kind of fin-like, but we actually liked the properties of feathers. So we gave it more of that quality. That was some of our creature simulation work, adjusting those parameters and getting the look that we wanted. If dresses started to flow up too much, to keep them down, things like that.

BTL: Things like the whales and other undersea creatures, were those already in Weta’s wheelhouse from other shows?

White: We did have different projects where we’ve done different undersea creatures. All of those were built new and the thing with these was that for Talokan, they were supposed to be very deep creatures like hatchet fish and snail fish, and tube worms, which you don’t actually find very high up. All of those were creatures that we were learning about and building, to get that deep underwater feeling.

BTL: What about the whales with the Talokans hanging onto them? Is that all visual effects, or was there stuff being shot on set for those scenes as well?

White: There were some practical elements that were shot on rigs and stuff. A lot of the whales were all digital, so just building those out. Even discussions about the harnesses on it. The Talokanese are living in this environment, so we wanted to make sure the harnesses were actually not imposing, and what kind of materials and kelp and things they use to build those attachments. 

Namor (marine snow lighting pass)/Marvel Studios

BTL: That makes sense. Of course, when I saw the movie, none of the things like the feathers really bothered me, since it all seemed fairly organic. Did you do any of the out-of-water fight scenes with those characters as well?

White: No, those were a mix between ILM and [Digital Domain], they would do anything that was above water. I think a lot of that was DD.

BTL: I was wondering about characters like Attuma and Namora, who are going in and out of the water. So, underwater, it’s Weta, and above water is another vendor?

White: Particularly in the water for us, it was always deep water, so some of the other houses might have been right on the surface, doing the transition, and then also with the skin tone stuff. Some of the stuff we did was the mining mission in the beginning, and some of Nakia’s diving down and learning about Cenote and those underwater caverns, building that. They’re very deep in the trenches, studying that deep underwater.

BTL: Was that cavern entrance we see a few times an actual, practical thing when we see them diving down to Talokan?

White: That cavern is the same cavern the shaman originally goes down in the beginning. Then Nakia goes later. That was practical above, and then all of our work was the Cenote switch, which I guess are all throughout Central America, those holes in the ground and all that water. We were building that underwater environment with the Skirmisher, helping design and work to build a Skirmisher, Nakia’s vehicle.

BTL: Is there anything you’re particularly proud of that you want people to pay attention to when they see the movie?

White: I go back and forth, because I like all the Talokan city and I’m always big on building these big environments, but I also really liked the mining mission, because when they’re going down to find the Vibranium, it’s a very small sequence, but I personally just like the look of it, like the lenses and not being able to see very far and just the combination and mix between plate photography and all CG. It just has a nice aesthetic that I like that’s kind of organic. That’s a part that I always kind of go back to, and some of the Cenote stuff is nice as well. I do like those.

Mabel Cadena as Namora (final shot)/Marvel Studios

BTL: How are you working with Sidney Kombo-Kintombo and his animation team? Can they actually start doing any work before you have the final look of things?

White: His team was great; they designed quite a lot. That whole journey through pre-vis, through motion, and one thing we did do is, we set them up with our in-house hardware renderer, so that [when] they were lighting, [they] had good visibility on the lighting of it and the water properties. We didn’t want to do a bunch of animation and go back and light later, and a lot of the lights are coming from Shuri’s suit. They were not just doing motion; they were kind of setting the mood and feeling of the scene. This was the first time I’ve worked with Sidney, and he’s great about storytelling and what you want to convey in each shot. [He’s] coming from that traditional background as well, like composition and posing, [so] I learned a lot about framing and posing from how he approaches animation. It’s almost like it’s beyond motion. It’s also lighting, composition, and storytelling that team is working on. That lighting part, we also directly related it to our final renders, so that we knew what Ryan was seeing, and then, [when] we started to do the final quality, it was a very similar look.

BTL: I’ve spoken to various Weta people over the years, and obviously, New Zealand was one of the countries that probably did the best job with lockdown due to your Prime Minister, and Weta pivoted quickly to move everyone home, so is everyone pretty much back at the offices now or is there a hybrid of remote and office workers?

White: I think it differs for each project. I mean, for me, luckily, I’m mostly doing marketing these days, so I’m at home. I call in and I help with that, and I have access to it, but we fared pretty well, as you said, through the pandemic [with] a mix between work from home and going in, and then finding that balance between the two. I think some shows are in all [the] time and other ones may be differing. I think it depends on what the project is, but it’s nice that we were able to do it and [Microsoft] Teams helped with some of that stuff. It’s funny, that new way of working that we had to do.

BTL: I’m seeing Avatar: The Way of Water next week, so I’m curious, did you work on any of James Cameron’s other films when you were at ILM?

White: I joined ILM [during] Twister. I’m trying to think if there’s anything we did… I think he took it all to DD. That was right when DD was being formed for Titanic, but I worked on the first Avatar, and I’ve worked many years on the second one. I think those are probably the three projects of his [I’ve been around for]. I was looking at the dates of when Twister was, [and] it’s interesting to see how many years have gone by.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is still playing in theaters and is expected to debut on Disney+ early next year.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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