Oscars 2023: Why Murkiness Mattered for Wētā FX’s ‘Wakanda Forever’ Water

Wētā FX's Chris White tells IndieWire about creating marine snow and a blue wall for Ryan Coogler's favorite shot in the sequel.
Tenoch Huerta Mejía as Namor in Marvel Studios' Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.
"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever"
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
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At this year’s Oscars, Wētā FX will compete against itself three times over, thanks to its Best Visual Effects-nominated work on “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “The Batman,” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” It’s a feat the effects house pulled off once before: In 2012, Wētā was nominated for “The Avengers,” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” and “Prometheus,” but lost out to “Life of Pi.”

This time, in an interesting twist, both “Avatar” and “Wakanda Forever” are being honored for their uniquely innovative photorealistic water breakthroughs. While James Cameron’s blockbuster sequel and Oscar favorite (led by four-time Oscar-winning senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri) featured groundbreaking underwater performance capture and a rebuilt global simulation tool set for both water and fire, Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” sequel (supervised by Wētā’s Chris White) created realistic water specifically for the Mayan-influenced underwater city of Talokan.

“The thing that was unique about it was we wanted this very realistic, murky water,” White told IndieWire. This was part of an overall strategy devoted to turbidity: the particles suspended or dissolved in water that scatter light, making the water appear cloudy or murky. Wētā developed their pipeline and software to accurately simulate this murky look for both CG sequences and for shooting dry-for-wet in water tanks.

VFX frame from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”Courtesy of Marvel Studios

A major factor in creating that turbidity was marine snow, the fish waste that contributes to the murkiness. This often creates a blue wall that fish will swim through, almost appearing out of nowhere.”Ryan wanted to make sure that we had that feeling of a blue wall,” White said. “There’s a specific shot that came from some of our original previs, where a whale comes out of nowhere, and that ended up making it into the film because Ryan always liked that shot.”

One of the first sequences that Wētā developed was the early Talokan attack on an American mining mission searching for Vibranium on the sea floor. “A lot of our development in the beginning was to match realistic waters, which is based on measurements and stuff that we had and we put through our spectral render of Manuka,” White added.

A major issue related to turbidity was color management, specifically involving the color red, which was a significant part of the Talokan architectural design (culled from Mayan culture). “We did did early tests about how to accommodate this because red is the first color that gets absorbed in water,” White said, “and when you get that far down, it disappears pretty fast. In reality, you wouldn’t see color, but a way to justify that was through the [Talokan] technology of light creation, where there would be a little bit of washed out or muted colors.”

VFX frame from Black Panther Wakanda Forever
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”Courtesy of Marvel Studios

As Wētā built their setup and software, they could control how much red was being absorbed by light and make creative adjustments on a shot-by-shot basis, depending on story needs, for an underwater field of vision. In parallel, they did lens profiling to replicate characteristics of vintage anamorphic lenses from cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw. This was achieved through a combination of on-set and digital methods, applying astigmatism-like effects to the background.

“This was very important for us to match the look of Autumn’s lenses so that you didn’t feel a difference, and she would advise us on how to master that,” added White. “It just has a nice organic quality to it, a curvature towards the edges. It varied per sequence to fit the storytelling. The reason I bring that up is because the marine snow that’s floating around in there and giving us texture to the water once it came through was a process that we built in the composite. You have these beautiful bokeh and all these kind of organic shapes that would make the image imperfect in an interesting way.”

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