Geeking Science: Capturing Bubbles in CGI and other Black Matters

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Movie Poster from Internet Hive Mind

Photography has been a white person game for a long time. The film for photos and film was optimized for light skin. When computer special effects came around, CGI illumination of skin likewise concentrated on the melatonin levels found in the layers of Caucasian skin. CGI hair mimicked either clumped animal hair or straight Caucasian hair.

Time for change.

Quick background – really, lighting for film concentrated on making white people to look good. It’s hard to make someone look good when the tools aren’t even on your side. For example

“Shirley cards” used by film-makers to calibrate skin tones and light, only featured Caucasian models until well into the 70s (and only changed because of complaints from photographers trying to advertise chocolate or wood furniture).  (Latif, 2022)

During the creation of Shrek, animators discovered skin looked more real when created with layers of reflection.

If you shine a laser pointer on a wall you’ll see just a small spot of light. But shine it on your hand and you’ll see a blob of red light because the light is spread around,” said Stephen Marschner, a professor of computer graphics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.  (Onion, 2005)

To get skin to look real, the CGI character models needed layers to the outer shell replicating light interaction with skin. The programmers in the early oughts (00s) tapped research in the medical community studying skin for cancer and to find the difference between young and old skin to create their algorithms. (Secondary Rabbit Hole: The medical community used light refraction to study the difference between old and young skin, by analyzing “the skin between the thumb and the first finger of 400 Caucasian women ranging in age from 10 to 70.” (Onion) – and some of the discoveries are really cool and will impact makeup and health for decades to come. Note the studies used to create the algorithms were from Caucasian subjects.)

Change was needed when Wakanda Forever wanted to do underwater scenes with people of color, both Mexico-born and African heritage. Not only did they need to redo algorithms to account for different melatonin amounts in different levels of the CGI character model layers, but also deal with the underwater light diffusion.

Then the Wakanda Forever programmers had to start all over with the CGI algorithms for hair. Aquaman came first, and those movie makers said that the CGI effects for hair were tough. (Failes, 2018) Unlike Aquaman, Wakanda Forever did a lot of wet shooting and discovered something. Curly and kinky hair captures air – bubbles happen. Not only does kinky hair flow different underwater, but if reproducing people who recently went underwater, air bubbles need to be taken into account.

The science of filmmaking is worth geeking about, especially as inclusion and representation pushes technology boundaries, even in the CGI algorithms. If you are interested in photograph or filmmaking or CGI animation, I highly recommend diving down this rabbit hole.

Also check out a third rabbit hole on the hair styles for Wakanda Forever (Cummings, 2022)).


Alter, Ethan. “How the ‘Wakanda Forever’ visual effects team evolved the way Black skin and hair are digitally replicated onscreen.” 12/21/2022. – last viewed 12/27/2022.

Cummings, Faith. “The Story Behind the Stunning Array of Hair Looks in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Vogue. 11/21/2022. – last viewed 12/27/2022.

Failes, Ian. “In ‘Aquaman,’ Underwater CG Hair Was Surprisingly One of the Toughest Effect.” Cartoon Brew. 12/30/2018. – last viewed 12/27/2022.

Latif, Nadia. “It’s lit! How film finally learned to light black skin.” The Guardian. 9/21/2017. – last viewed 12/27/2022.

Onion, Amanda. “Shrek Animators, Dermatologists Share Beauty Secret.” ABCnews. 4/4/2005. – last viewed 12/27/2022.

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