‘The Woman King’ VFX Supe Sara Bennett Details the True Story’s Meticulously Researched Visuals

If you thought that the Dora Milaje of Wakanda did not have a real-life counterpart, then the recently released feature The Woman King directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood will prove otherwise. The historical drama tells the intriguing story of how General Nanisca (Viola Davis) saved the 19th century African kingdom of Dahomey with an all-female warrior unit known as the Agojie.

Sara Bennett
Sara Bennett (photo c/o S. Bennett & Milk VFX)

The film’s impressive visual effects work is led by Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Sara Bennett (Ex Machina, Annihilation, TV’s Sherlock) who previously teamed up with the director on The Old Guard.

“I really enjoyed collaborating with Gina,” says Bennett. “This was our second time working together, so we already had a relationship going into this, and her understanding of visual effects from working together on The Old Guard made it a much more intuitive process. The trust is there and understanding what she likes and dislikes makes it an easier navigation from the start. Gina was clear what she wanted from VFX and how we get there using practical and augmented environments to achieve the scope the film needed.”

An incredible amount of imagery and historical facts about the Agojie were gathered by production designer Akin McKenzie and his research assistant Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene. “We travelled to Ghana to gather LiDAR and photogrammetry of Cape Coast Castle, which was one of many forts used to enslave Africans for trade with the Europeans; it’s a harrowing place,” notes Bennett. “This is what we see throughout the movie.”

The Woman King
The Woman King – “Oyo Battle”

Stunning Stunt Previs

Most scenes had storyboards with the exception of battle sequences, which relied upon stunt previs. “The stunt team was led by Danny Hernandez, who we worked with on The Old Guard; he has this incredible energy on set which is very infectious. We were all ready to dive in and join the battle scenes with our cast! We did some previs and concept work for visual effects to help plan some scenes ahead of the shoot, these included previs for when Nawi [Thuso Mbedu] and Nanisca jump from the fort wall.”

Around 800 visual effects shots were created over a period of 26 weeks. “With such a short post schedule that had no wiggle room and with shot counts growing during post, we quickly realized we needed extra help to get through all the work,” explains Bennett. “We had already booked in our vendors ahead of the shoot, Milk VFX being the main vendor alongside EGG in Dublin and Host, which came on board as our inhouse team. We then brought in additional vendors as we started to see the amount of work coming out of the director’s cut. We had extra help from Untold Studios, Jellyfish, Nexodus, Instinctual and a few extra inhouse people.”

The Woman King
The Woman King – “Oyo Battle”

The Milk VFX team, led by VFX supervisor Andy Morley and CG supervisor Dimitris Lekanis had to modify their pipeline. “We had to go outside the pipeline utilizing USD inside Houdini for the environment and CG layout on the Dahomey and Oyo battle sequences,” recalls Morely. “This gave us the possibility to approach almost everything on an asset basis, where the selection of the model destruction and timing informs the effects placement in a similar way, making the communication between departments a much more streamlined process”.

Creating the kingdom of Dahomey and the fierce battles were some of the VFX team’s major tasks. “We had to make sure we kept the realism and not take away from the beautiful sets and locations we were shooting in,” states Bennett. “The biggest challenge was the weather. We shot in and around Cape Town and the wind is crazy. We had scenes that needed fire and smoke which we had planned for as being special effects with some visual effects enhancements when we are in the action. But there were days where the special effects team led by Cordell McQueen couldn’t add them for health and safety reasons. We quickly realized we would have to allow for additional work to sell these scenes and match continuity between what was feasible to shoot with on the day versus not being able to have any fire on other days.”

The Woman King
The Woman King – “Final Battle”

Digital doubles were produced for the Oyo battle for any wide and mid shots to sell the panic and scope of the Oyo army. “We scanned many of the extras working with a team from Clear Angle and then Milk VFX created our digital double army for the final battle,” remarks Bennett. “During the recess, we worked closely with the art department, stunts and special effects to figure out the layout and build for this scene as it was important to figure out what area visual effects would cover. We had it broken down into three fields in this huge landscape.”

Bennett further elaborates, “Field one was where the main fighting happened between the Agojie and Dahomey men versus the Oyo army. Field two was the art department partial set build. And field three, we called the visual effects field. The work involved building out the CG Oyo encampment based on the art department build. We gathered LiDAR for all three fields and took photogrammetry of the practical build.”

The special effects team used smoke and fires within the practical set but had to be quite careful with where we used practical fire due to the prominent winds and the heat. “We enhanced these close-up battle scenes with fire and smoke using shot elements gathered with Cordell and his team at the end of the shoot,” he notes.

The Woman King
The Woman King – “Palm Forest”

Battling the Elements

Fantastic locations were found throughout South Africa. However, the weather was less accommodating. “The biggest issue for us was the wind factor and putting up greenscreens in that environment is tricky,” notes Bennett. “We did have a huge amount of setup for the palm forest scene as we had to create a forest of palm trees behind a set build that would have required a lot of roto work. We also used them for outside of our palace doors to create our marketplace and extended palace. We couldn’t set anything up for the Oyo battle scenes as it just would have been impractical for this environment — so for this, we did have to do extensive roto work within this.”

The directorial brief was not to go crazy with the blood and gore. “Obviously, we added where it was needed for realism without it being overly gratuitous; it was just enough to make everything feel grounded. We were also restricted by the [PG-13] rating of the film,” says Bennett.

The Woman King
The Woman King – “Ships outside the Fort”

In a controlled environment some partial props were set on fire. “That gave us an incredible library for all our compositors to use in conjunction with any created CG to enhance multiple scenes throughout the film; this worked really well in the final scenes where we had to add a lot of additional fires for the final fort scenes. I’m looking forward to seeing the Oyo battle and all the fire work we added in the final scenes on the big screen with friends and family — and some popcorn!”

The Woman King is now playing in theaters nationwide through Sony Pictures Entertainment. The film will continue to open in international territories through October.



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