‘Black Adam’ VFX Supe Bill Westenhofer on Creating a New Big Screen Antihero

***This article originally appeared in the January ’23 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 326)***

A passion project long in development for action star Dwayne Johnson, Black Adam follows the adventures of a DC Comics antihero — a slave in ancient Egypt, who is granted the powers of the Wizard Shazam. The movie, which was released in October, passed the $352 million mark at the global box office only after a month in theaters.

Johnson was reunited with filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise) to make the blockbuster adventure. The project also used the talents of VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer (Life of Pi) who worked on the movie for three years. About 2,700 of 3,500 visual effects shots appear in the film’s final cut: Wētā FX worked on the third act; Digital Domain looked after the mine sequence where Black Adam tries to rescue Amon Tomaz; Scanline VFX did some of the fly-by chase and Black Adam fighting the tanks and armies in the desert, Effetti Digitali Italiani produced a flashback sequence, while UPP and Rodeo FX extended the impressive sets for the movie.

Black Adam
Black Adam

Previz Wizards

Bill Westenhofer
Bill Westenhofer

While the production was shut down a couple of times during the pandemic, the previz kept on being produced by visualization company Day for Night. “We used Unreal Engine and the DP [Lawrence Sher] sat through the previz process with us, helped to pick cameras and set the lighting,” notes Westenhofer. “We went so far with the previz before we even got to set that it could be used as a lighting guide. If you look at the sequences as they are in the film and at the original previz, for the most part they are one to one.”

On Instagram, Johnson posted a series of shots of him sitting inside a specialized lighting rig called ‘The Egg’ for 10 hours to create the slave Teth-Adam before he gets transformed into Black Adam. “We had a body double there for the performance and then Dwayne’s head gets put on top of that,” he says. “To do that there were arrays of cameras and little markers that he has to look at while he’s doing the shot so that Lola VFX can have the head match the movement of the double.”

A different methodology was implemented for the flying shots of Black Adam. “A lot of the shots were not filmed with greenscreen but by a process called volume capture, which was handled by Eyeline (a division of Scanline),” explains Westenhofer. “Dwayne is lying on a bed surrounded by a wall that is about eight and a half feet in diameter. There’s a mix of about 80 cameras and then little LED panels around for lights. Then we can run the scene through the LED walls to get interactive light on him while these cameras capture his face. You have a fully 3D model with projected photography. You can have him flying through the scene and the camera can do whatever it wants. A lot of that stuff was during the fly-by chase sequence.”

In one of the trailer shots, Black Adam punches a wing of a fighter jet, causing it to crash. “You can say, ‘He’s super strong, so this thing should weigh nothing to him,’” says Westenhofer, “but you want to make sure it feels hard enough. Otherwise, if you make it feel effortless, instead of making him super strong the object feels light. There needs to be enough resistance.”

Black Adam
Noah Centineo as Atom Smasher in ‘Black Adam’

In the movie, the militant leader of Intergang, Ishmael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari), calls upon the six most powerful demons in Hell to transform himself into the supervillain Sabbac. “Sabbac is a full CG character,” reveals Westenhofer. “Marwan did his own motion capture and it was based on his own facial and some of his body performance. For some of the bigger things we had a stunt performer doing motion capture in the volume. Sabbac generates heat, so we had smoke that comes off of his body. He has a lot of similar powers to Black Adam, just with fire instead of lightning.”

The film’s depiction of lightning was inspired by several films. “There is a process where the lightning bolt is seeking out the path of least resistance and travels far less than the speed of light,” says the VFX supervisor. “You can actually see it traversing through the sky. We incorporated some of that in the slow-motion scenes. The glow on the chest of Black Adam was something that we did a lot of playing around with. We wanted to reference Shazam but made it more internal to his body.”

Black Adam
Aldis Hodge as Hawk Man in ‘Black Adam’

Special effects also assisted with the nine-feet-long wings of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge). “The special effects team built a backpack that Aldis could wear [made] with lightweight carbon fiber tubes,” recalls Westenhofer. “It had fasteners so you could pose the wing in a different shape. We only used that for camera lineups, since all the wings in the film are CGI. A lot of work was done at the beginning to make sure we were happy with how he should take off and land, and if we were going to do wirework, that the action we got from it worked with the animation at the end.”

Also featured in the film’s plotline is Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who has the ability to teleport. “The signature look we developed was a refractive crystalline structure,” says Westenhofer. “We used the ankh as a key element in the design of his powers. Magic is always tricky because it can be anything which makes it a search to try to figure out what you want. By making the magic refractive it ties in with the lighting of the scene rather than slapping it down on top.”

Among the film’s colorful cast of characters is Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who can literally alter the size of his body. “It’s always better to make a size change on the move,” says the visual effects master. “You’ll find that Atom Smasher doesn’t stand still and grow. As Atom Smasher runs, every step he takes you see him get a little bit bigger. When Atom Smasher shrinks down in camera, he does it while stepping over an object. Those kinds of things feel more natural.”

Black Adam
Quintessa Swindell as Cyclone in ‘Black Adam’

Colorful Trails

For Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), Jaume Collet-Serra did not want to have a traditional character who stands and summons the wind. “Cyclone moves through the space and pulls the wind in her wake,” explains Westenhofer. “Production designer Tom Meyer found this reference of ballet dancers motion captured and rendered with a lingering trail of their movements. As Cyclone starts to speed up, her costume extends a little bit and there is this colorful energy of purples and greens that flows from it. This goes with her more whimsical character. She is generating a tornado, much like what happens when you stick a spoon in a glass of water and start spinning faster.”

About 70 percent of Cyclone’s effects are full CG. “For closeups, we did have Quintessa on a wire and bluescreen with a high-speed camera spinning around as much as we could before making her sick!” says Westenhofer. “Her effects are my favorite of the film.”

Black Adam
Black Adam

Spoiler Warning!

Of course, we have to talk about that big cameo that pops up in the credit sequence! “We did a previs of Superman walking up to Dwayne for the end credits,” says the VFX supe. “At the time we shot a body double wearing the Man of Steel costume from the chest down. And that was what it was going to be until late in the game when I was told that we had gotten approval through Warner Bros. to go with Henry Cavill. He was in London on a soundstage with the crew and Jaume and I were down in Los Angeles in our screening room. We had a simulcast of the camera view and a Zoom session going so we could talk to Henry. We had Henry follow the cadence of the shot so we could swap him into the other plate.”

Westenhofer says in addition to the thrill of creating cutting-edge VFX, the real joy comes from witnessing the reaction of audiences to the film. He says, “The most fun is seeing people react to the stuff that you’ve worked on for the first time, and to have them cheer and laugh when they’re supposed to.”

Black Adam is currently playing in theaters all over the world. The film will debut on HBO Max on Friday, December 16.

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