How 'Black Panther' VFX Artists Brought Wakanda to Life

It's been more than a decade since Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man 2' earned the Academy Award for best visual effects, but Ryan Coogler's film could finally end a dry spell for superhero movies at the Oscars.
Courtesy of Strategy PR
Warrior Falls, where 'Black Panther's' scenes of ritual combat take place, was actually filmed in Georgia using a physical set augmented with lots of CG water effects.

If Oscar voters are amazed by the sight of Black Panther's Warrior Falls, the watery arena where Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa fights to defend his right to the Wakandan crown, then the decade-long drought that has affected superhero movies seeking to claim an Academy Award for visual effects could finally come to an end.

For even though the biggest comic book movies feature elaborate VFX displays, the last year one earned an Oscar for its visual effects was 2005, when Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, featuring a web-swinging CG Spidey and the villainous Doctor Octopus, pulled off that feat.

During the past 10 years, the film that won the Oscar for VFX has tended to be a VFX nominee also nominated for best picture — among them Avatar, Life of Pi, Hugo, and Gravity.

This year, that trend could play to the advantage of a film like the $200 million Black Panther. It's one of the three Marvel Studios tentpoles included on the shortlist of 10 films, announced Dec. 17, that are in contention for the VFX Oscar — the others are Ant-Man and the Wasp and Avengers: Infinity War. Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, which recently got the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval ("game-changing," she declared), is a critical and box office juggernaut, having grossed a whopping $1.3 billion worldwide. And awards pundits have greeted it as a genuine best picture contender.

Certainly, its VFX work is worthy of consideration. The movie contains more than 2,000 VFX shots of varying complexity, including some that are fully CG, such as several wide aerial shots of the Wakanda metropolis and a sequence explaining how the fictitious African nation came into existence. To accomplish that volume of work, multiple VFX providers, including teams from Industrial Light & Magic, Scanline, Method and Luma, all took part.

Black Panther's biggest challenge was the creation of the rich nation of Wakanda — it had to feel like a real place, so the VFX teams worked closely with production design and even took a scouting trip to Africa. One of the more technically demanding settings was Warrior Falls, designed by production designer Hannah Beachler and inspired by the Oribi Gorge in South Africa.

The live-action portion of Warrior Falls was a complex outdoor set built at the OFS fiber-optics plant in the northern part of Atlanta. It encompassed a 60-foot-wide pool with 30-foot-high cliffs behind it that featured three running falls feeding 30,000 gallons of water per minute over the cliff set and into the pool.

The pool itself was elevated 6 feet off the ground, allowing the water to spill over its sides and drain back into the tank while also allowing cinematographer Rachel Morrison's cameras to move in any direction, explains VFX supervisor Geoffrey Baumann. The set was then extended with CG to create the full environment, which included 102 waterfalls, each of which had "unique simulations that required a bunch of time and render power."

Adds Baumann: "We even replaced the surface of the water [in the tank] because it didn't give us enough flow and danger. Ryan wanted that sense of danger that if you fell, you could get washed over the edge [of the falls]."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.