The Real Science Hidden in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In Marvel’s Black Panther, the fictional
metal vibranium is a wonder material of epic proportions. It stores and releases large amounts of kinetic
energy, and cloaks the country from outsiders. While Vibranium doesn’t actually exist,
the inspiration for its design came straight from real scientific labs that are exploring:
acoustic levitation, ferrofluids, and cymatics. Behind this cinematic boundary between science
and science fiction, is a special effects team that makes the technology you see in
these Marvel films feel like it’s right on the cusp. We’re looking for ways to take what we already
know is plausible and achievable and take it just a little step further and have them
say, “Can’t wait until we have that technology.” The work we do for feature films is really
centered around designing the technology for these characters, mainly Marvel superheroes. We want everything to feel real, where’s it
going to be 5 years or 10 years, even 20 years from now, and then incorporating that thought
process into all of the designs. Technology is so present in entertainment
today that there’s a lot of tropes and almost cliches, enhance the map and glowing blue
holograms everywhere. I think the industry as a whole went through
a phase where the future is cyan, and that was great 20 years ago. We’re always trying to find a way to turn
those paradigms on their head a little bit or come up with some new unexpected solutions. For over ten years, this VFX team’s been
at the helm of title card sequences, displays, and full technology landscapes. Technology moves the narrative forward because
so many of their characters are built on the foundation of science. Tony Stark is an engineer and technology genius. Bruce Banner, scientist, physicist, doctor. Doctor Strange was a brain surgeon. So many of these characters come from the
lab. And the specific design that goes into a character’s
technology becomes another expression of their identity. Marvel has this unspoken technology innovation
food chain where each character’s in a different pecking order of technological coolness and
sophistication. For many years, there was no one who had better technology than Tony Stark. He was absolutely at the highest rung of that
latter. We’re very fortunate that Robert Downey Jr.
is for some reason surprisingly good at holding up a fake thing, and making motions and circling
things and making it seem real. That design was all driven by his performance, because he’s doing radial moves and he’s tapping. So we know all right, we need a radial element
over here because otherwise his spin is not going to work. So that’s how that design gets created. Nick Fury and SHIELD…when we see his tech,
it’s a lot more utilitarian, it’s a lot more militaristic, very purpose-driven. Then, Black Panther and Wakanda came along,
and all of a sudden that superseded Tony Stark, and we had to go beyond his technological
innovation. I have to mention the Wakanda Bible that we
were given, and that spelled so many things out about this civilization. We were really challenged with creating a
set of rules and guidelines of what could be plausible, what could be logical that will
govern the technology throughout the film. They’re this country that has intentionally
walled themselves off from the rest of the world. What does that technology look like if you’re
developing holograms, but you’re not influenced by the rest of the world’s technology to develop
holograms? What would you do differently? That movie is very much built on this innovation
of the element Vibranium. They wanted something that felt very natural
like you could just dig this up out of the ground and you would have this incredible
technology. And from those principles, then, we can start
building off of that. How does the Black Panther suit come on? How do the Kimoyo Beads work? How is Vibranium used as weaponry? How is it used as transportation? We’ll have our internal brainstorming sessions,
what we call this tech audit. So we’d try and figure out what technology
is working now that could snowball into this sort of future vibranium technology. We like to do what we call our sort of mild
to wild directions. Here’s the simplest, most basic version, and
here’s the version that should start making people a little bit nervous and scared. Because we know we always end up back down
sort of in the middle. To visualize vibranium, the team poured over
scientific papers and cutting edge research, like this acoustic levitation experiment from
the University of Tokyo. That’s how we got to these sand particles. We can have sand that can morph into different
shapes and do different things. And using that idea, we developed this idea
that the kimoyo beads themselves were just really densely packed vibranium sand. We looked at research in cymatics, and we
looked at visualizing sound waves. There’s a scene in the Royal Talon in the
beginning of the movie. He’s looking at this sand table, and the way
it forms and the way it dissipates is with cymatic patterns. To get the look and feel down, the team went
practical and made their very own sand table. We wanted to build a model that we could interact
with physically, and start to play with how does sand look if it’s in a car shape. We’d put screens underneath our sand table,
and show the light projecting up through the sand and finding out what that looks like. So we would know, if he’s reaching down to
pick something up, well what is he doing? Does he have to grab it? And if he grabs it, how does that affect the
interface and the interaction? Something that we learned early on is that
if you go too far beyond what is in our current technological climate, you will lose the audience. They will immediately call BS. Like, “This is bogus,” or, “Look at
this just lorem ipsum type here, this ones and zeroes that are just used as filler.” You have to treat it as if it’s real technology,
and put yourself in the minds of real technologists and making sure that everything serves a purpose.
Along with tethering the fictional technology to real science, the Black Panther filmmakers
also tapped the expertise of an acoustics expert. So there’s this science exchange run by the
national academies of sciences where a list of experts from certain fields that Hollywood
can ask if they need some advice. And my name was on this list as someone as
an expert in sound. It was quite clear that vibranium and sound
had a very tight relationship. We talked about sound as a weapon…these
are things that exist now. Those are not that far in the future. You can use sound to acoustically cloak an
object. if we remember that sound is a wave…any
time sound hits something, it bounces back. When you hear what bounces back, you can perceive
the sound is there. If you design an object so the sound doesn’t
bounce back, but instead goes around it, you can hide an object from being observed by
sound. You can make it invisible to things like sonar. You can also design materials to not make
sound. In the scene where Shuri gives the sneakers
that are silent. She would have had to design materials on
the soles that would have allowed the air to escape between the sneaker bottom on the
floor, and where the foam or whatever soft material he was walking on, didn’t make a
noise itself. Another sonic element in Wakanda’s universe? Transportation. It seemed that vibranium was something that
could provide power quietly. You have a train that sits on top of electromagnets,
those trains are incredibly quiet because there’s no moving parts. Now that’s a real life thing. But it would take an awful lot of technology
development to transform a maglev train into all the things that vibranium are used for
in the movie. The most useful boundary between science and
science fiction is, do I believe it? And, as someone who studies sound a lot I’m
pretty sensitive to oh that can’t possibly happen. The technology innovation that they showed
in the movie was of course very hard to see happening in the near term. But liberties that make the story compelling
are totally cool. I think it’s the way it should be done. And sometimes, pushing the boundaries of science
fiction in feature films can spur new technologies and materials that could be in our hands one
day. It’s this interesting thing we call the science
fiction feedback loop, where science fiction is created by writers or filmmakers based upon today’s current technological climate. An entire generation goes to see these films,
and that triggers this inspirational drive in innovators and inventors to want to take
what we just saw and make it real. And eventually, when technology catches up
and makes that real what was once science fiction, then it starts again; where those
science fiction thinkers, filmmakers, writers see, “Okay, so now this new technology is
here. What’s the next generation of this?” And it’s this endless cycle of inspire and
create, repeat.