How the 'Wakanda Forever' visual effects team evolved the way Black skin and hair are digitally replicated onscreen
Between Ryan Coogler's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and James Cameron's Avatar: The Way of Water, the tech wizards at Wētā FX have cornered the market on aquatic effects. Co-founded by 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 happen to involve lots and lots of water. But Wakanda Forever visual effects supervisor, Chris White, suggests there was never any competition between the two productions.
"They're different things," White tells Yahoo Entertainment. "Whereas Avatar is building new aliens and stuff, we're putting people within this [aquatic] environment." The specific people swimming through Wakanda Forever's underwater depths are the Talokanians — the descendants of a terrestrial Mayan tribe that 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 derives his power from a vibranium-enriched herb.
One approach both films do share is that they immersed the actors in actual water tanks as opposed to shooting predominantly "dry for wet" — meaning that effects are used to simulate aquatic environments. That's a technique that the famously fastidious Cameron specifically wanted to avoid for his Avatar follow-up, which required the invention of new performance capture technology that could work underwater.
"The key to it was to actually shoot underwater and at the surface of the water so people were swimming properly, getting out of the water properly, diving in properly," the director has said in interviews. "It looks real because the motion was real. And the emotion was real."
White is careful to note that Wakanda Forever does feature some "dry for wet" sequences, most notably the scenes in Namor's throne room, where Huerta and his fellow actors had to be in full costume. "We would go in and augment and add water around the footage," he explains, adding that a lot of the little visual details that define the space were added by the Wētā team as well.
"There's little details of eels and carvings and stuff like that," he notes. "I think of those subtle things, like the eels pull back when Namor descends [to the throne], and the way the light adds different colors to the space. And even when we were doing the 'dry for wet' scenes, they were shooting stunt performers in full costume performing the motions in a water tank, so we were able to use that footage as a reference."
One of the larger conversations being had in Hollywood in recent years — especially as Black-led blockbusters like Wakanda Forever continue to diversify the kinds of heroes moviegoers see onscreen — is how to properly light performers with darker skin. And White — who is Black — says the colorism question is very much on the minds of VFX artists who are often working with digital versions of human performers of color like the Mexico-born Huerta or Mabel Cadena and Alex Livinalli, who play Namor's top soldiers, Namora and Attuma, respectively.
"There's a lot of discussion in the F/X world about whether our algorithms are set up correctly and if they're doing the right thing," he observes, noting that the company's digital double for Letitia Wright's Shuri — who inherits the mantle of Black Panther during the course of Wakanda Forever — required a lot of adjustments in terms of replicating the actress's skin tone. "Last year, we started to look at that in terms of calculating melanin correctly. And we had the added complexity of underwater scenes here, where your skin responds completely differently to light."
"You're always trying to balance between the way water absorbs warm colors," White continues. "If you start to lose that, the characters look too cold. So it was a balancing act with each shot, and made us really dig in to how we do digital doubles. There's still work to go there, but it's an important thing to do."
Asked why it took so long for Hollywood at large to have this necessary conversation about skin tone, White indicates that the industry had, until recently, been following photographic standards that were based on more limited — and potentially biased — ideas. "Some of the science that went into computer graphics was based on medical journals that might have had a certain bias to them," he notes. "Now it's starting to catch up and we're seeing that our algorithms are just not tuned for darker skin tones.
"There will be complexities going forward, because melanin sits at a certain layer of skin," White adds. "But it's great that we're more conscious about it now and that people are heavily researching it. And that goes with hair as well. There hasn't been enough research into different hair types."
Speaking of hair, James Wan previously revealed to Yahoo Entertainment that keeping Jason Momoa's long locks flowing under the sea was the most difficult special effect in his 2018 comic book blockbuster, Aquaman. (It's worth noting that the DC Comics-based hit was largely filmed "dry for wet.") And White says it wasn't necessarily easier animating the Talokanians' hair in Wakanda Forever.
"It's always a bit more work than you think," he admits, laughing. "It can be very tedious — you know, adding a little bit more motion or a little bit less motion. We would run simulations on both hair and and clothing, and then we would have to say on set: 'Take off this bit of clothing, because it should be flowing around so we'll have to do that digitally.' Something that surprised us is that the tank footage had bubbles in the performers's hair, so we had to teach the machine what bubbles are and how to paint them out correctly! That was some new tech that was developed on this movie."
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For the record, White is adamant that none of Wētā FX's technology was responsible for "Bulge-gate" — the debate that went viral online after side-by-side images of Huerta on set and in the film showed a pronounced difference below the belt. The actor himself later 'fessed up to Rolling Stone that the less bulgy photo was closer to reality. "I'm not going to lie to people," Huerta said. "Every man in the world, we have fragile masculinity, but not in that issue. I will say... the real one is the photo on the right."
"I didn't even know that was a discussion," marvels White, who says that the F/X team at Industrial Light & Magic — which created Namor's initial design — was the likely source of the battle over that bulge. "A lot of his design came from ILM, and we inherited it after that. Whenever he was doing 'dry for wet,' his legs would be on the ground, and we'd have to replace everything below and keep his upper body. But we used the final design they had come up with for that."
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is playing in theaters now.