While post-production is a technical process, it’s one that director Ryan Coogler guides first by emotion, according to members of the editing, sound and visual effects teams on Marvel’s Black Panther, speaking at NAB 2018 in Las Vegas. So far, the movie has racked up $1.29 billion in global box office receipts to become the tenth top-grossing movie of all time and the third-highest domestically, recently surpassing Titanic, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
“Ryan wants everyone to tell their own story,” said Michael P. Shawver, picture editor, who has been working with Coogler since they were both at University of Southern California (USC) Film School together. “The number-one thing Ryan looks for in his team is trust. He wants the audience to feel a certain way when they’re coming and a certain way when they get through.”
With the knowledge that evoking those emotions is the overall goal, the team can go about their work.
For example, when Coogler brought an early cut of his movie, Creed, to the sound producers at Skywalker Sound, “he invited everyone who was going to do the sound to come for a playback. We all sat around and discussed it. Everyone felt a part of that project before a single sound had been cut,” said Steve Boedekker, sound designer/supervisor and re-recording mixer at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, Calif., who noted that sort of collaboration isn’t commonly found in most directors’ processes.
It’s a similar experience on the visual effects side” “we figure out what story Ryan wants to tell. We can assist in that process and help them solve problems. We look at a scene and think about how we can solve problems with visual effects,” said Geoffrey Baumann, visual effects supervisor.
For example, in one of the film’s opening scenes, T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), the king of Wakanda and the Black Panther, confronts his brother (Sterling K. Brown). Early showings of the movie revealed that audiences didn’t understand who T’Chaka was, so the visual effects team changed some things to make his identity more clear. They added more grey to his hair so he looked older, and they added different effects to his costume so it looked different than his son’s.
“Ryan trusts his crew very much, and he also trusts the audience,” said Shawver. “He holds ‘friends and family’ screenings to see what they think. People were confused about who T’Chaka was. It’s a death wish if the audience is asking those kinds of questions in the first 10 minutes of a movie so we played around with different versions.”
The three men detailed Coogler’s collaborative approach after the session showed a scene from the film, in which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is going to his coronation to be named king. The scene starts out as a ceremony, held at a beautiful multi-layered waterfall with his closest friends, family and military advisors looking on, but it quickly turns into a battle for his life.
That scene had to work on many different levels. Besides telling the story and moving the plot forward, it also had to create audience sympathy for the main character as he fights, nearly naked, for his crown.
“It was an opportunity to win the audience over by making them care for the main character,” said Shawver. “We’re really going through the lens of Ryan’s vision and his emotional standpoint.”
An important way to let the audience know the true stakes of this situation was by frequently cutting back to the reaction of those in the audience who loved T’Challa – his mother (Angela Bassett), his sister (Letitia Wright), his general (Danai Gurira) and his ex-girlfriend (Lupita Nyong’o).
“A fight is cool but it doesn’t really feel right or emotional or an experience you just went through unless you show the reactions of the people who love the people fighting,” said Shawver. “We cut to his mom, his sister, his general, his ex – to capture their feelings. It also keeps them involved.”
The visual effects team worked to keep the scene feeling grounded in African heritage and culture, said Baumann.
“One aspect of Ryan was that it was important to him to stay true to African heritage and culture. We found real-life examples of things we wanted to represent or recreate. We studied an existing tribe in Africa and looked at how that sort of celebration would take place for them.”
And then on the sound side, the team had to balance many different elements – from the sounds of the fight itself, to the sound of the waterfall in the background, to the crowd reaction and finally, the music.
“This scene in particular offered two big challenges,” said Boedekker. “We needed to support what these guys were doing and get that sense of scale and danger to the falls without having the sound of the falls be too annoying. We really wanted to convey this sense of ‘let’s get ready to rumble.’”
That collaborative process is part of why Coogler’s movies – Fruitvale Station, Creed and now Black Panther – have been increasingly successful: “Ryan’s specific vision allows everyone from top execs to production assistants to do their best creative work,” says Shawver. “That’s why his movies are so relatable.”