When audiences finally get to see the handiwork of the creative team behind Marvel’s Black Panther film—which hits the big screen in 2018—one of the things they’ll be introduced to is the African nation of Wakanda, the homeland of the titular hero. It’s a place of contrasts, with a tribal government and sophisticated technology based around a backdrop of classical African architecture.
What was required of the filmmakers to bring it to life was something increasingly intrinsic to high-profile film and TV projects these days that audiences don’t see. In the case of Black Panther, it was a meeting the filmmakers took with Daniel Bodony, an associate professor at the University of Illinois.
An expert in the dynamics of sound, Bodony helped the team think through ideas like how an energy dome and a sound cannon could be incorporated into the story. The filmmakers, explained Black Panther executive producer Nate Moore, wanted Bodony’s input because while any sci-fi production is necessarily an experiment in setting loose the creativity of its writers and director, the cinematic vision only takes you so far.
So the filmmakers did the same thing as the teams behind other still-to-come movies like Ghostbusters and Doctor Strange, as well as TV series like Daredevil, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and CBS’ forthcoming Star Trek, have done. They reached out to the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an L.A.-based nonprofit with a Rolodex of almost 3,000 scientists and technical experts on standby.
"Black Panther is interesting, because we’re building this nation of Wakanda, the most high-tech nation in the world, in our universe, that’s hidden in the heart of Africa," Moore told Co.Create. "And they have this mineral called vibranium, so a lot of their technology is based around sound.
"We wanted to find an expert on sound and acoustics, who could help us come up with different ways the technology can use sound, maybe that do things related to electricity or a force field. The Exchange is really important, because they have access to all kinds of people, not just scientists. It makes our lives easier and is one more weapon in the arsenal of making the movies feel as real as they can."
The Exchange hooked the Black Panther team up with Bodony, as well as with architect Priscilla Fraser for advice on how to present an epic, artistically credible tableau from which T’Challa—the Wakandan royal and Black Panther alter ego—emerges.
The organization is a program of the National Academy of Sciences and has been around since 2008. Its purpose and results are expansive—it has consulted on more than 1,300 projects—but making an overture to the organization is simple.
Its phone number is 844-NEED-SCI.
Rick Loverd, program director for the Exchange, says an interconnected series of events has turned the engineers, scientists, and academics in his stable into unlikely but increasingly influential industry consultants.
"We’re all living in the future now," Loverd says. "And there’s a certain impulse among Hollywood creators to want to know how to keep their storyline from feeling dusty by the time people are seeing it on their screens.
"I also think that within the science community, a lot of attitudes are changing about the importance of science communication and outreach. I know that from the top down at the National Academy of Sciences there remains a deep concern in how scientists are perceived and what it means to be a scientist in our culture in terms of diversity and gender equity and how scientists are portrayed."
Which is why his organization sees itself as more than just some kind of roving band of fact-checkers who swoop down from their perches in academia. It also brings substance and scientific heft to films and TV series its consultants get involved with.
Jeff Bell, an executive producer and co-showrunner for ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., said when the team was putting that show together, it realized early on that it would be bringing several different kinds of science-focused characters into the mix.
"We had a hacker, right out of the gate. We had a bunch of people with a STEM background, many were women and several were also diverse," he said. "That was important to all of us on the show, and I know that’s important to the Exchange—trying to break the stereotypes of what a scientist can look like.
"It was clear to me that we could be helpful having these nontypical characters. We told (the Exchange), ‘Here’s the situation. How can we make this plausible?’ So we started talking to people about different specialities."
It’s an ongoing process, he continued, and said Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has used almost a dozen consultants ("at least") to get there.
"We had a character in the first season who could seemingly teleport," Bell said. "So we talked to (Caltech researcher) Spiros Michalakis about quantum entanglement.
"The same season, our first year, the character Fitz nearly died. He had head trauma, and when he came back he was having a lot of issues. We talked to a neuroscientist who said there are these kinds of things you can do with his brain—it might be this, it might be that. And it allowed us to shape an arc to his character so that he wouldn’t be magically ‘fixed.’"
The Exchange hosts about 25 events a year, and it’s through those that Loverd says it’s starting to build up a network of people who’ve heard about the group and can tell colleagues in the industry about it. Those events, he said, could entail something like bringing a geneticist from Harvard to L.A. for a day, scheduling a round of meetings and then arranging for that guest to talk before a crowd on the future of genetics.
The Exchange’s events have also included things like its own version of "speed dating"—shuffling participants rapid-fire through different rooms for quick meets with scientists.
Loverd said the Exchange’s work with Marvel on 2011’s Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, typifies the best of the kind of back-and-forth that can happen between creators and representatives of the science community.
For that movie, he explained, the team at Marvel had an idea related to the famous "third law" from Arthur C. Clarke—namely, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." They wanted to present Thor and his people as having been seen as godlike when they came down to Earth long ago, when in fact they were an advanced race of people.
"The director and the team at Marvel were also interested in figuring out what technology Thor might have used to transport himself to Earth," Loverd said. "So we put them in front of Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, and Kevin Hand, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory."
Carroll suggested something called an Einstein-Rosen bridge. The Marvel team liked the idea—it’s more or less a wormhole—and it became the brightly illuminated, rainbow-like Bifrost Bridge characters are seen traversing in the film.
That also gave some new texture to the character of Jane, played by Natalie Portman in the movie.
In the original comics, Loverd said, her character is a nurse. During the discussions with Marvel, he said the team was pointing to that fact and wondering—other than through extreme happenstance—what possible reason could she have for being out in the middle of the desert (as she’s shown in the film)?
Carroll proposed that if she were instead a theoretical physicist studying Einstein-Rosen bridges and saw some sort of indicator or was getting a read that there might be one opening up, then she’d have every reason to be in a remote location like the desert to investigate.
That checked off a number of boxes—adding science to the film as well as subtly promoting diversity by presenting a physicist in the form of a young woman.
"One of the things that gets me out of bed in the morning is the idea I’m going to introduce the creator of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to a computer scientist who’s super-engaging, and they’ll go out and have a beer," Loverd said. "For us, the more we can engage Hollywood and incredible scientists and engineers and medical professionals, the more we can build that community out. And the more we’ll see characters who are both more realistic but also more relatable and inspiring."