There’s a scene in “Black Panther” in which injured CIA agent Everett Ross wakes up in Wakanda, the secretive African nation that’s home to the most advanced technology on Earth. As the camera spins around him, a suddenly healed Ross slowly comes to grips with this hidden reality. As an outsider, Ross is the audience’s surrogate; his awe is our own.
Much of the Wakandan tech was brought to life by the New York City-based design firm Perception. Envisioning sleek futurism that’s rooted in real-world theory, Perception works extensively with Marvel Studios, among other companies. Along the way, they’ve carved out “an extremely unique niche that truly bridges the gap between science fiction and science fact.”
Ahead of this week’s wildly anticipated “Avengers: Endgame,” here’s a look at the company that powers much of the tech in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU.
Perception vs. Reality
Befitting a cinematic universe that launched with a story about an inventor and his suit of armor, technology has always prominently figured into the MCU. From Tony Stark’s superpowered suits in “Iron Man” to the Quantum Locator in last summer’s “Ant-Man and The Wasp,” technology plays a crucial supporting role in many Marvel movies.
Beginning with 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” a lot of that tech has been brought to life by Perception. Co-founded by Jeremy Lasky and Danny Gonzalez in 2001, Perception has “completed over 1000 design and vfx projects for clients around the world,” according to their website.
Their work designing the technological interfaces and gadgets in the MCU speaks for itself. However, what sets the company apart is their emphasis on science-fiction thinking, which frees them to “envision new paradigms, strategies and possibilities for their inventions.”
“We talk a lot about the science-fiction feedback loop, where science-fiction inspires science fact–it’s this endless cycle of inspire, create, and repeat,” Laskey told Fast Company last year.
Iron Man of the Hour
As Laskey notes in a YouTube interview with Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, one of the most compelling aspects of the MCU is “how the mythology of the characters extends into their tech.” No character better embodies this than Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, the billionaire war profiteer turned heroic Avenger.
Perception first came in the fold of Marvel with their work on “Iron Man 2.” They were initially hired to provide the promotional video and graphics for the Stark Expo. However, Perception also gave Marvel some designs for Stark’s smartphone, which was described as “like an iPhone, but with transparent glass.”
Marvel loved it. In the end, Perception delivered “over 125 shots, including the concepting, design and animation of various futuristic interface elements, numerous mock broadcast packages, and a tremendous amount of detailed compositing work,” on “Iron Man 2.” Just as importantly, their partnership with Marvel was off and running.
Since then, Perception has done work on a variety of Marvel movies, including “Black Panther,” the second and third “Captain America” movies, “Thor: Ragnarok,” and “Ant-Man and The Wasp.” The latter is the latest of the Film UI Design Case Studies that Perception posts to their website. These case studies provide a fascinating, comprehensive look into the company’s design process.
For example, on “Thor: The Dark World,” Perception was tasked with creating the graphics on the homemade tech devices designed by Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. As a “genius on a budget,” Perception designed the three devices “as if she built them with spare Radio Shack parts and technology she created in her lab.”
Compare that to the advanced tech featured in “Black Panther.” Like “Iron Man,” Wakandan tech—powered by the rare and versatile (and fictional) metal Vibranium—is integral to the characters themselves. And having designed Stark Industries tech, Perception knew they had to create something even more sophisticated than what came before; simple holograms wouldn’t do.
Perception and Marvel came up with the idea of Vibranium Sand, which can be used to create volumetric visuals. As fantastical as it is, this concept is still rooted in real world research conducted by the University of Tokyo.
Perception ultimately had a hand in many of “Black Panther’s” most memorable elements, including the Black Panther suit, the car chase scene and the Kimoyo Beads.
Beyond their work designing MCU tech, Perception has also worked on many Marvel title sequences, including “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Infinity War.” In fact, Perception worked on the rebrand of the Marvel Studios logo itself.
To audiences, the title sequences are simply a cool intermission before Marvel’s fabled post-credits scenes. However, to Perception, it’s a subtle way to reiterate the film’s tone and story before sending the audience home.
Consider the credits for “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” According to Laskey, the filmmakers approached Perception with, “the idea that this title sequence should feel like a high school art class project—a little rough around the edges, a wide variety of mixed media, but with tremendous heart and energy.”
Perception submitted a series of mockups, from claymation to vibrant murals to surrealism. Marvel liked them all. This presented a new challenge of integrating the styles while creating something cohesive.
Perfectly soundtracked to the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” the final version captures the playfulness and exuberance of “Homecoming” itself. Faithfulness to the tone of the film is one of the hallmarks of Perception’s work on title sequences, be it the neon-shaded goofiness of “Thor: Ragnarok“ or the intermingled architecture of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
More Than Marvel
While Perception’s partnership with Marvel may be their highest profile work, it’s by no means their only achievement. Perception has worked with Marvel’s rival superhero studio DC on “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” among other films. They’ve also provided technology services to everyone from automotive and aerospace firms to mobile operating systems and smart TVs.
But perhaps their greatest contribution has been furthering the aforementioned science-fiction feedback loop. Consulting with companies like IBM and Visa, Perception has helped inform the big picture thinking that serves as a blueprint for the future.
That, as much as anything they’ve done for the MCU, could be the company’s legacy. While audiences may marvel at their MCU tech, Perception is also working to make today’s fantasy tomorrow’s reality.