By Michael Goldman
When reminiscing about the most expansive and complex project she has worked on to date, namely Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw ASC brings up one of the film’s most emotional sequences as an example of how the visuals she crafted for the film tracked with the poignant themes its director, Ryan Coogler, strategically wove into the story.
That scene takes place in the Wakanda Tribal Council room, when Queen Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett, dresses down and fires her subordinate, Okoye (Danai Gurira), for failing to complete a dangerous mission, as she tries to save her homeland from disaster in the wake of the loss of her son, the original Black Panther (the late Chadwick Boseman). Boseman’s death in real life and his character’s death in the story serve as the driving force for the movie’s creative aesthetic. During the scene, Ramonda emotes about the loss and sacrifice she has had to deal with as the kingdom’s matriarch.
“That is definitely my favourite scene that we shot,” Durald Arkapaw recalls. “In a movie like this, we had lots of insane sets, big action sequences and underwater work, but I really appreciated the character-driven dramatic work. What’s great about working with Ryan is that he’s able to infuse all of those types of filmmaking into one piece, and the movie still feels intimate and character driven.
“When we filmed that scene in the Tribal Council room, I remember watching Angela’s performance with my own two eyes, and felt it was groundbreaking. I almost felt like a spectator watching the movie. But the way we framed and lit the scene, going a bit moodier, really helped. We framed Okoye a little bit lower than usual on her close-up as a tear comes down her face. We used one of Ryan’s and my favourite lenses, a Panavision 35mm B-series Anamorphic. We ended-up doing a lot more of our close-up coverage with that wide lens, and Ryan really loved it.”
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is actually Durald Arkapaw’s second foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) after her recent work on the Disney+ series, Loki, but visually and otherwise, it’s a far different creature. She was recommended to Coogler by Rachel Morrison ASC, who shot the first Black Panther (2018) film for Coogler, but had a schedule conflict this time around. According to Durald Arkapaw, the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman in 2020 radically altered Coogler’s script and plan for making the movie, translating it into an homage to the acclaimed actor and the iconic character he portrayed, and also an illustration of the torch being passed as part of the film’s essence, including the visuals.
“When we first met, Ryan was very clear he wanted his audience to intimately feel a sense of grief and then rebirth and redemption,” she elaborates. “He also wanted the female characters, who largely carry the movie, to be highlighted, along with relationships between mothers and daughters. I’m a mother, and I have experienced loss and grief, so this was very personal to all of us, and we grounded the movie in those themes.”
“We had lots of insane sets, big action sequences and underwater work… but the movie still feels intimate and character driven.”
Among other things that she brought to the project, Durald Arkapaw strengthened Coogler’s choice to shoot the movie in the Anamorphic format using the Sony Venice 6K camera system in full-frame, outfitted with Panavision expanded T-series Anamorphic lenses for a 2.39:1 extraction, and in some sequences, Panavision 1.3 Ultra Panatar lenses for a 1.90:1 extraction for the film’s IMAX deliverable, since particular scenes in the movie “cut in-and-out between aspect ratios,” as the cinematographer puts it. Those IMAX pieces included, among others, the opening scene in which an American cargo ship is raided by the Talakon underwater people commanded by the film’s antagonist, Namor (Tenoch Huerta); and a climactic battle near the end of the film on a giant Wakandan military ship in the middle of the ocean.
“Ryan had never shot Anamorphic before, but he was open to it, which was not an easy decision considering you are changing the whole field-of-view from how the first movie was shot,” Durald Arkapaw adds. “The lenses we selected were modified and de-tuned by Dan Sasaki, Panavision’s VP of optical engineering, and they have so much character in them – they are very dreamy and have intricate aberrations. That helped tell the story Ryan was trying to tell, with grief sometimes feeling like a fog that comes over you.
“We had to give a lot of thought in prep to what sequences would be presented in IMAX format, and what lenses would be appropriate. What was nice about being able to use the 1.3 squeeze Anamorphic lenses is that we were able to keep that special Anamorphic texture throughout, so that when we went to IMAX, it didn’t bump too much. The aspect ratio jumps, but you still have similar lens quality and feeling to make it seem like it is of the same world, and that was really important.”
As far as lighting was concerned, Durald Arkapaw notes that she and her longtime gaffer Brian Bartolini “liked to use ARRI SkyPanels in soft boxes or space lights for overhead top soft light looks. It was important for us to create contrast and colour contrast in our scenes, even though we were shooting on very large sets. I am not a fan of broad and flat lighting. But when we wanted something punchier and harder, we had a really amazing rig that used CreamSource Vortex 8’s. What is so nice about those units is you can pixel-map them. Our lighting control programmer, Scottie Barnes, handled that. He has worked on something like 14 Marvel movies and is amazing.”
“We also had our wonderful fixtures foreman, Phil Abeyta, make us Cine 5 Light Pads to use when we needed something soft, but more local for close-ups. Those panels would be 4x4ft or 2x4ft and we put diffusion on them, like Depron sheets or snow Diffusion. We top-lit the actors by hanging those light panels on a Matthews Menace Arm above the actor’s head.”
The movie also includes extensive underwater sequences since an underwater kingdom lies at the centre of the story. Durald Arkapaw says those scenes were discussed in great detail during prep as a methodology was formed. A key goal for the underwater material was to paint “the same look” onto photography captured underwater, on a stage, and CG elements by immediately applying lens characteristics to raw CG renders to create what she calls “a much more photographic result.”
The production also shot every underwater scene twice, wet-for-wet, in a tank and then dry-for-wet on a stage.
“We lit the same set we had underwater on a stage based on the underwater footage, and then, later in post, a third test was added, and the visual effects’ team recreated the same shots again, feeding Weta Digital’s spectral water rendered with the turbidity and absorption parameters that we captured during the wet-for-wet shoot,” she elaborates.
“We filmed as much as possible underwater, but dialogue scenes had to be captured traditionally on a sound stage. We had 23 underwater unit days, with main unit shooting about five of those underwater days. It was a huge undertaking.”
She adds that her key grip, Guy Micheletti, used a 73ft Chapman Hydroscope and a 45ft Scorpio telescoping crane with an amphibious underwater head on it for certain underwater work, and to film action on huge exterior sets that were flooded as Talakon forces attempt to invade Wakanda. “Guy was fantastic in helping to execute some of our pivotal exterior action water sequences with the 73-ft Hydroscope,” she adds.
“We had a lot of sets where we would shoot above ground and then built tanks on them to go from dry land into water,” Durald Arkapaw continues. “One of our biggest exterior tanks was built on one of our biggest sets, and as the crane booms down, it telescopes into the water, giving us really great transitions.”
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever contains many other huge set pieces along the way that Durald Arkapaw says helped evolve her understanding of how best a cinematographer can collaborate with other departments, such as VFX. The movie features, for example, a huge car and helicopter chase scene over a bridge in Boston as Wakandan operatives attempt to get away from Talakon agents hot on their trail. Durald Arkapaw says the production both shot on the actual bridge location in Boston and re-created a 500-ft. portion of the bridge on a backlot in Atlanta, where much of the film was shot.
“That was a huge set-up for our rigging team,” she says. “We had asphalt and fixtures that are identical from the bridge on the backlot set. Production design did a great job spacing them to look exactly like the bridge. Everything around that was a greenscreen environment. And then, our second-unit VFX team did some array work on the actual bridge, where we used a Sony Venice three-camera rig – designed for this show by Team5 Aerial Systems of Burbank – that allowed us to capture the Boston night exterior skyline. Those plates were then composited into the final image. With the lighting and the grade work done in post, by colourist Tom Poole of Company 3, who also designed the primary filmic show LUT used on the project, we were able to get high-speed shots of a tumbling car and shoot a key fight sequence. The combination of real photography and VFX work on that sequence was amazing.”
The need to be so collaborative with the other departments on the film – what Durald Arkapaw calls “The Panther Family” – made the long hours and gruelling challenge of making an epic film like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever more than worth it, she says.
“There were so many amazing people involved, talented craftspeople in so many areas, plus we had an amazing leader in Ryan,” she says. “You spend a lot of time with those people – I think we shot around 130 days of principal photography – so, you want to feel like you are doing it for the greater good, creating something people will appreciate. Working with VFX and production design was therefore a great experience for me, a real collaboration to make sure everyone’s separate work joined together to sing. I mean, it really takes a village to make these kinds of movies, and that’s no joke.”