One of the most memorable aspects of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the creation of the undersea kingdom of Talokan, ruled over by the mutant god-king Namor (Tenoch Huerta). Moving away from the comic book canon, in which Namor leads the more fantasy-based realm of Atlantis, director Ryan Coogler reinvented Talokan as an offshoot of an ancient Mayan society, with deep roots in Mesoamerican culture and history.
While Talokan and the Talokanil people are still wildly imaginative sci-fi/fantasy conceptions, the film and story nevertheless make them as realistic as possible (relatively speaking), grounded in both real South American cultural history and at least a smidgen of scientific plausibility. Much of this was brought to life in the film through the work of New Zealand’s Wētā FX, the iconic VFX house originally founded by director Peter Jackson.
Among the portions of the film that Wētā worked on were creating Talokan itself, displayed in the sequences in which the kingdom’s history is revealed, and Namor takes Shuri (Letitia Wright) on a private tour. The latter in particular featured immersive CG-generated environments that included the population of the city, a marketplace, various gardens and temples, a transportation system, and the nation’s “sun,” the power source created by Namor, all rendered as realistically as possible.
Also on Wētā FX’s assignment list was water—lots and lots of it, with the CG environments designed to mesh seamlessly with plates shot in a physical tank.
“Water has a lot of challenges,” says Wētā VFX supervisor Chris White. “A lot of the stuff that we had were plates that were shot in the tank, filming underwater camera movement and then putting in digital environments behind it.”
And White has had a lot in thinking about how to visualize underwater living. too Before production on Wakanda Forever began, he worked extensively on the underwater realms of Avatar: The Way of Water. And he says one of the biggest challenges of filming an underwater environment is getting the little details right.
“A small example is that we needed to remove bubbles because they live deep underwater, you know, so you can’t have bubbles coming out their nose or stuck in their hair,” he explains. “Digitally, there’s a lot of challenges with movement, making realistic movement in the cloth, movement in the hair. Skin reacts differently underwater, so it was important that the skin tone stayed correct, because skin tones on the characters vary in and out of water.”
Even some of the cultural details of Talokan are impacted by being set in watery environments, as White also reveals. “One of the things that we were trying to balance is that in a lot of the Mayan culture, red is a very significant color,” he says. “You’ll see red in [Namor’s] throne room and red on different things. But the natural physics of water means red gets absorbed very quickly, and you don’t actually see much red under water. So it’s finding that balance between realism and creative.”
A major part of the job on a project like Wakanda Forever is research, which begins about five or six months in advance of any CG rendering, according to White. Wētā has compiled a vast library of information over the years, ranging from research papers to NASA footage, which allows the VFX house to find and plug in almost anything that the filmmaker may request, from different hues of water to the shape of marine snow (the random material, including fish poop, that floats around in the ocean).
When it came to creating Talokan and what the undersea city-state looked like, White says that they were “striving for having that realistic foundation,” which is something that Coogler stressed from the start.
“Ryan said, ‘I want it to be what it’s like down there. It should be dark. You don’t have to see too far,’” White recalls. “The director of photography as well was like, ‘It’s okay to let things fall off in the darkness. You don’t have to see everything.’ So it was okay for things to get out of focus and blurry back there, because that’s what it looks like down there.”
He continues, “With the tank footage we shot, there was a lot of cloudiness in the tank and I thought, ‘Oh, they’re never going to let us get away with having it that cloudy.’ But they said, ‘No, let’s go with that. That’s what it looks like.’ Some of the compliments I had from some of my friends who dive and saw the film said, ‘That’s what it feels like when you go underwater.’ So it was nice to the filmmakers were embracing that and allowed us to do that.”
That attention to detail extended to the design and construction of Talokan’s capital city itself, with White adamant that the undersea metropolis had to be a functional, working environment in addition to a richly multi-dimensional cultural center.
“Even before we get into rendering, we’re asking, how big is the city? How is this relative to the size of Chicago? How many people would be in there? What would be the districts?” says White. “You know, all of those kinds of principles. How do they light the walls? There are designs in the architecture that are actually filtration systems that are filtrating the water and all kinds of things that you wouldn’t know as you whip by. But all of those little details, we try to ask, can we ground this in science? Everything needs to have a purpose, or a reason, so we look at those things and try and take that in mind.”
It’s that incredible, precise attention to every detail—whether it be the way that the Talokanil move through the water or the colors of the historical designs on the walls of Namor’s throne room—that makes Talokan and the overall world of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever seem so real to viewers, even if they don’t necessarily notice every tiny aspect themselves. At least not consciously.
“The viewers are so sophisticated when things don’t look right, and they have such a critical eye in a good way,” says White. “What we found is that unless you put those details in there, you can feel when they’re not there. Whether they can see it or not, they can kind of feel that something’s off. It’s those little micro-details that add to the realism. So when we dig into it like that, whether it’s visible or not, we know that it helps the overall picture.”