Like any film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever features some stunning CGI work, bringing fantastical locations like the undersea kingdom of Talokan to life and infusing massive battle scenes with all sorts of powers and effects. But Ryan Coogler’s film is also laser-focused on the emotional arc of its characters, still reeling in the wake of T’Challa’s death even as new threats emerge. This focus on character and story carries the film’s various elements and directly impacts how the special effects were utilized.
In an interview with CBR, Digital Domain VFX Supervisor Hanzhi Tang discussed how Black Panther: Wakanda Forever juggles the film’s emotional throughline with the MCU’s massive effects. Tang explained the importance of finding the balance between small character beats and the chaos of battle and explored the differences between Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and the other MCU projects he’s worked on.
CBR: You’ve worked on other MCU projects in the past, with films like Black Widow and Captain Marvel under your belt. How would you say Black Panther: Wakanda Forever differed from those experiences?
Hanzhi Tang: I think with the visual effects work, they wanted it to feel aesthetically less about energy weapons and the big, showy effects. They wanted to keep it more subdued and subtle and a little bit more physical. They’ve turned down a lot of energy effects and anything that looks too magical. It’s more about what’s happening with the characters and the emotional weight of the whole movie. We really didn’t want to distract from that with over-the-top effects.
I mean, there’s a lot of stuff still going on in the movie, but we would try to keep it a little more low-key than the usual Marvel movie. I think that shows. Everything was focused. It’s to keep the emotional weight of the story. What the characters are going through as they reach the final battle, how Shuri changed from the happy-go-lucky genius in the first movie, and after everything, she’s becoming darker and more delicate. It’s all in service to that rather than too much of a spectacle.
There’s so much going on in that fight between Namor and Shuri. The film blends the actors, the stunt performers, and the visual effects to create a seamless sequence. How do you approach something with so many moving parts without losing track of the core of the film?
The way they staged that fight, it’s like a one-on-one fistfight, you know? It’s not an Avengers film where they’re throwing buildings at each other. I think that helped keep it really intimate. We filmed it in Atlanta, in this working quarry, where there are still some giant mega trucks loading sand and rocks. It was set up to shoot the film, but we had to wear special badges and take safety classes to make sure that we weren’t run over by a truck.
We had to extend the boundaries of what you could see and remove most of the trees to make it look like the Atacama Desert. I think just that little location, it’s really intimate, and it’s just the two of them. The movie has these great moments of silence. I think the sound design really is something else. They use silence a lot, and it’s quiet when it needs to be quiet, and I love that. It makes that fight, their one-on-one fight, less visceral but far more intimate. That helped a lot.
So many characters come together all at once in the battle between the Wakandans and the Talokan. How do you balance all those elements?
I mean, on set, there were so many stunt people. When we filled in the background, we could keep it further away. It’s not really meant to be distracting from what’s happening in the foreground. Usually, Ryan focuses on two characters having a moment, whether it’s Attuma having his face off with Okoye, Namora and Riri, or Namor and Shuri. There are multiple pairings of different characters. I think Ryan wanted to have it this way because of the ensemble cast — there are so many really beloved characters. You didn’t want to shortchange anyone. The whole film is focused on battling between these elements.
We’re just trying to provide a continual kind of backdrop of fighting. That’s the continuity and part of the flow of the sequence. We had to sit down and plan the flow of the sequences. As the edit changed, the number of background characters would have to change as well. I think the movie, at one point, was four hours long. Some of it was that final battle. We all managed to pare down to something that still gives everyone a moment without it running on too long.
When you look at a character like Ironheart — who’s only been around for a few years — or the Midnight Angels — who were a relatively new concept ahead of the film — how do you approach them from a visual standpoint? How much do you look to the original comics, how much do you look to the director’s vision, and how much do you bring to the table yourself?
Well, I think design-wise, those are Ryan’s choices. I know the Midnight Angel armor is drawn from comic books and the style of it. I think later on in the film, the way the helmet actually retracts and sits on their heads was a change that happened in the middle of the movie. They wanted that to be closer to the comics. We had to do pieces, like CG helmets back to the back of their heads… I think Ryan was acutely aware of little details like that. He wanted to stay true to that. With Ironheart, there’s 2D artwork out there. There was a 16-inch model that he had that was built that was slightly different. Legacy Effects built a practical suit for Dominique Thorne to wear. I think there’s a lot of concept art in the design, but you know, Ryan had tweaked certain things. There are some in-between phases of that suit that didn’t end up in the movie.
I think, for our part, we’re just trying to facilitate each and any of those changes. I think we shared that asset with ILM. We had to make sure [the armor] could function and that when you animated it, it didn’t crash into itself. And we had some freedom to tweak minor details like that. But it’s based on what Ryan wanted. There’s a scene when Ironheart is fighting Namor. She tumbles, and then she goes into pursuit mode. The armor opens up around her legs, and extra thrusters go out. Those were not part of the design. It’s something that they left for us to try. Yeah, I have to fit all these parts in, [and] they’re gonna have to animate out.
So I mean, there was some stuff that we had to go into to help as they approached the final edit. These things are going to happen. It’s important not to get too attached to any one shot. There are some fantastic shots on the boat and probably more underwater that the effects guys really had fun with, but ultimately, we also helped finish [streamline the film] by simplifying some of it.
What lessons would you say you’ve learned from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever?
I’m so used to rolling with the punches, what and how they shoot it. I think my lesson is really to expect anything. This movie, you have to remember, it’s shot in the middle of a pandemic. Not everyone was available all the time. It’s shot in multiple pieces that we have to try and patch together. With some takes, maybe this is a double, or maybe it’s the actor, but we have to be ready to jump in and make something work. I think that’s the general rule — I think when you’re working on these films, you have to be ready for whatever the film needs.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now playing in theaters.