Geoffrey Baumann – Collaboration and the Making of “Black Panther”

by Graham Edwards

Geoffrey Baumann - VFX supervisor of Black Panther

With nearly 20 years under his belt as a visual effects supervisor, Geoffrey Baumann has worked on films ranging from The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 to Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Cinefex caught up with Geoffrey at VIEW Conference 2018, where he gave an in-depth presentation about his experiences as visual effects supervisor on Black Panther.

CINEFEX: Geoffrey, in your talk at VIEW Conference you stressed the importance of collaboration. How did that feature in the making of Black Panther?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Well, it was a collaboration between all the different departments. In preproduction, Ryan Meinerding at Marvel might hand off one of his design concepts to Ruth Carter in costume, and then our production designer Hannah Beachler would also put it on the walls in one of the sets. Hannah came up with the Wakandan alphabet, and that alphabet ended up on the Black Panther suit. All of that tied together the story that Ryan Coogler wanted to tell, subliminally and without any words.

CINEFEX: And the same thing carried through to postproduction?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Yes, another part of the collaboration was about sharing things with the visual effects houses. We gave them Hannah’s Wakandan design bible, plus a similar wealth of imagery for the costumes from Ruth, and Rachel Morrison, the DOP, had a look book too. Those things gave us all a common ground to start with. We had the guys at Perception guide the overall look of the tech in the film; Ryan responded well to their ideas, so we fed those in little packets to all the vendors.

CINEFEX: How did a typical day unfold for you as production visual effects supervisor during principal photography? Let’s take the waterfall fight as an example sequence.

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: We were shooting the waterfall, I think, around the middle of March 2017, in Atlanta. Our call times were between 7:00-8:00am, because we were shooting exterior and trying to maximize the sun. I would generally try to get to set between an hour and an hour and a half before call; not all the department heads were there at that time, so I would see them arriving, and as soon as Ryan arrived or Lisa Satriano, our first assistant director, we would have a walkthrough of what was expected for that day.

CINEFEX: Were you looking at specific technical issues at this stage?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: I would look at where the bluescreens were set up, knowing where we had ended the day before, just to catch anything that needed shifting. Because once the machine starts moving, with all that heavy equipment involved, if I wanted to lift a bluescreen to the other side of the set, that could take up to 30 minutes. But really, the first thing I’d be thinking about is, “What looks wrong?”

CINEFEX: So how long before you were ready to start shooting?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Well, on that waterfall set, it took a while to get all of the background in. We had extras up on the cliff, and the camera department had to make all their gear safe because we were shooting in water. Eventually, everyone would start converging on that pool of water, and I would start working with Lisa to get people off the set.

CINEFEX: Were you shooting continuous days?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Yeah, 10-hour days with a walking lunch, so the day was pretty much non-stop. There would be a pause every now and then for people to take a restroom break – that took a little time, because they were all attached for safety. Otherwise we would go until the light just wasn’t working any more. In the morning we were shooting towards the east, because Rachel was going for this backlit look, and we would slowly work our way around so by the end of the day we would be looking west.

CINEFEX: You said you started out looking for what was wrong on the set. Was that your focus through the whole of the day?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Yes – sort of unfortunately, because I also wanted to help Ryan push the creative story, to make things beautiful and right. But, nowadays, the visual effects department has somehow become the police for continuity on set, whether it’s wardrobe, or how wet someone is, or all the things you don’t want to see like parking cones and water bottles. Go back 20 years and if someone left their water bottle in the shot there’d be an announcement to the whole crew to clean up after yourselves. Now, I think there’s a perception that visual effects can clean things up easily, so that responsibility can get shirked a little bit.

CINEFEX: Is that also to do with the pace at which the shoot moves?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Yes, there’s a number of other factors, but the thing is I’m the last person in the train. Regardless of whether it’s wardrobe or props that made a mistake, it’s visual effects that has to fix it. So, I’d rather be watching on the day and flag things up, because it’s in my interest in a few months time when I’d really rather be focusing on waterfalls and set extensions, not cleaning up water bottles.

CINEFEX: What’s caused this shift in responsibility, do you think?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: It’s not that people don’t care any more, or departments don’t want ownership. I think it’s because the machine of moviemaking has become a little unwieldy at times. I think people want to help, but they don’t always know how. So I’ll keep running around picking up water bottles until the assistant directors start yelling at me, and I find that once people see me doing that, they start to pay attention and help as well. And that’s collaboration too, because if the grips see me out there straightening out the bluescreen, next time they’ll maybe think to do it themselves. And then, I get the key grip coming to me and saying things like, “Hey, I remember on tech-scout you said you’d need a 30×30 blue. Well, I’ve got that set up on the side for you.” People start being proactive, and that’s when the collaboration really is working. That’s what I enjoy, when it’s a crazy day and I didn’t have the time to look ahead, but I turn around and there’s someone with what I need already set up. There’s a partnership and a camaraderie that comes with that.

CINEFEX: At the other end of the schedule, when you’re in the last couple of weeks before delivery, are you basically up all day bouncing around the world from one cineSync review to another?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: That’s pretty much how it is! I mean, the Marvel team chase the best story, until the film is almost pulled out of their hands. I think it shows, and people appreciate that, but it can make my life kind of crazy, because the pieces are always shifting. I know it’s always for the better, so I always try to stay positive, and to keep the vendors positive too. During the last week on Black Panther, there were a handful of days where I would spend the night at the office, but in general we would get in around 8:00am and stay until 11:00pm, spending that whole time in the screening room doing cineSyncs.

CINEFEX: Which vendors were first on the list?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: We had vendors all over the world, so we would usually start at 8:00am with Germany. Actually, at this point I was working a lot with Method Studios up in Vancouver, so I would get things from them in the evening, look at their shots and give them notes which they would try to turn around by 1:00am or 2:00am the next day, so I could look at them again by 4:00am. Towards the end, we were also having two studio reviews a day with Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso and Lou D’Esposito – one mid or late morning, then another one at say 3:00pm. If things were really moving, we’d maybe have a third meeting at around 8:00-9:00pm.

CINEFEX: Because this is crunch time not just for you, but for the entire Marvel Studios team, right?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Right, and you’ve got to remember that at this point it wasn’t just Black Panther. They were also working on Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp was still going … they had all of these other projects that they were focusing on. We also had digital intermediate sessions going on at the same time. After the studio review we would often go straight to a DI session. I would generally try to get stuff updated for that at 6:00am, hopefully leaving enough time to get it to Technicolor so that we had all the latest and greatest in the DI. Otherwise you’re looking at visual effects that are one version up from what’s in the DI, which isn’t ideal.

CINEFEX: By now, you’re looking at shots that you’ve seen about a zillion times, and that you probably dream about. How do you keep your eyes fresh?

GEOFFREY BAUMANN: Well, at the very end it really becomes more about logistical management, and also about getting everything to be consistent, managing the quality as best I can, and making sure everything looks the same. I had a great supervisor and mentor who I worked with for years, Erik Nash, who always said that he’d rather have all the visual effects in his film at 80 percent than have most at 95 percent and then some much lower that just jump out at you. So, I would always push to get things as consistent as we could, and at the end of the day make sure that we tell the story. Because that’s what we need to do. And that’s all collaboration again, keeping all the lines of communication open between everyone. It’s stressful, but you just have to be up-front and honest, and then it works, because you’re finding solutions together.

View Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program of talks, workshops, panels and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

“Black Panther” image copyright © 2018 by MARVEL.