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Exclusive: Designing Wakanda and the Amazing Sets of Black Panther

Michael Maher

Production designer Hannah Beachler takes us behind the scenes of Marvel’s Black Panther. See how she designed the afrofuturistic look of the film.

Cover image courtesy Disney / Marvel Studios. Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy.

I had the pleasure to chat with Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler. If you don’t recognize her name, you’ve still likely seen her work. Her previous projects include Moonlight, Creed, Fruitvale Station, and Beyonce’s Lemonade.

As someone who doesn’t know nearly enough about the workflow of a production designer, I talked to Hannah about creating a world from scratch, her team’s creative process, and the overall progression of her career. Here’s what I learned.

Left: Paarl Rock in South Africa. Photo Credit: Hannah Beachler. Right: Black Panther San Diego Comic Con poster via Marvel Studios.

Michael Maher: Ok, so I’m super excited. I’ve seen a lot of the films you’ve worked on over the years, and I love everything you’ve done with Ryan Coogler, Moonlight looked amazing, and I’m incredibly excited for Black Panther. It looks so beautiful and stunning. I wanted to pick your brain about it, ask about your workflow, and learn about how all this came together.

Before we dive into that, can you offer some insight to our readers? How did you start your career as a production designer? What is it that lead you into this role on Black Panther?

Hannah Beachler: I was set decorating on a smaller film, and the director said to me, “You know, you should do production design.” and I previously had never thought of it. I had always aspired to be a set decorator like Nancy Haigh (Oscar-winning set decorator and frequent Coen brothers collaborator). So that was always the drive.

Hannah Beachler on the research trip at Table Mountain in Capetown, South Africa. Photo Credit: Ilt Jones.

I never really thought about production design. A couple years later, I was still set decorating, and I noticed I was decorating more as a storyteller. So I woke up one day and said, “You know what, I’m gonna try production design.” I could tell a story through the environment for an entire film on all levels. And that’s how I decided to go that direction. Then it was about finding people who would hire me for that, and I got onto a few horror films. Those were the first things I did as a production designer.

MM: Man, everyone starts in horror. Only way to earn your street cred.

HB: [laughs] So true.

Hannah Beachler at Blyde Canyon in South Africa. Photo Credit: Ilt Jones.

MM: Tell me about your work on Black Panther. I know you were sent on research trips to South Africa and Korea, right?

HB: Well the first place we went was South Africa, and I went ahead of everybody. It was me and the location manager, Ilt Jones, and my assistant Marley [Mountcastle]. We were there two weeks ahead of everybody, and we went up and down the coast of South Africa. I was taking pictures of everything from the second we hit the ground.

We flew 18 hours, landed, dropped our luggage off, and went out right away to Table Mountain. Went up there, then down into the gorge. I was taking pictures of all the rocks and plant life, you know just the entire environment around me. I did that all up the coast.

South African research trip Capetown. Photo Credit: Hannah Beachler.

We had a team of people that traveled with us — they were telling us about the history of everywhere we went, the history of the flora and fauna, what was indigenous to the area. So I was looking at everything, researching everything, because it all got put into the design and design language of Wakanda.

It was really great to be that close to it, and touch it. To talk to the locals and hear their stories, and understand the different tribes, and understand the history and what the people have gone through beyond what I read and research on my own. It was integral to the design. You can’t really capture what it is on film or in a picture. You have to see it.

The landscapes are humongous — you lose a sense of perspective immediately, which puts you in a different frame of mind. All of that lends itself to the feeling we wanted to put into the nation we were building.

Set Decorator Jay Hart and Production Designer Hannah Beachler on Korean casino set. Photo Credit: Alex McCarroll.

Korea was awesome. I love South Korea so much. It was another culture-rich tradition, so a lot of that trip was learning about their history.

We were in the fish market, and that’s were we started with the idea of the casino. Off of that was a place called Gangster Alley, which is where all the ships were. It was sort of the harbor, and it helped give us an international feel to bring in a very traditional side of what South Korea is. And then we also have the very beautiful side of South Korea with what we all know with the vertical signs and lit-up signs.

The trips were amazing, and I learned so much, and so much of it was put into the design.

Set of Black Panther. Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy.

MM: Given that this is a Marvel comic book film, and with the success of Guardians and Thor: Ragnarok, it’s opened up the ability to use more color. That mixed with the afrofuturistic style; tell me about working with the colors in Black Panther.

HB: You know, textiles were the main export of many of the nations in Africa. That was destroyed during the Transatlantic slave trade, but the textiles are still so rich in color. I remember as we were driving in, you would see women walking along the sides of the road and they’d have these skirts that came down a little bit below their knee, and they would have these socks pulled up over their knees. They were just so colorful, it was the most awesome thing. Every time I saw it, I was like, “Oh My God! I love that.”

So the textiles are colorful, the buildings are colorful, everything is colorful. So I knew that was gonna be a part of it. Then looking at the [Jack] Kirby stuff, there was a lot of color in this Thor work, and even in the Black Panther comics at the time.

Wakanda design art as seen in the Black Panther Page to Screen Featurette via Marvel Studios.

We were gonna put all of that out there, you know, bring in the rich architecture. A lot of the architecture has designs, shapes, and colors that all have meaning. Senegalese buildings that have big, bold pinks, purples, and greens — and others with stripes that come down the columns.

We went crazy with it, and there was a color story. There is definitely a color story, and as I watched it in the premiere, I was like, “Yeah you can definitely feel that color story with the characters.”

As far as the stuff in the environments, we wanted to bring in that traditional beautiful color you see, and so many of the tribes are so colorful. They paint their faces, and they use nature to embellish them. It’s very beautiful. The Taron tribe and Dogon tribe are the tribes we used for the Jabari. They are master craftsmen with wood, and that’s something we took to use for the Jabari. And then the costumes, Ruth [E. Carter] did fabulous. They are so beautiful and vibrant.

Black Panther mask as seen in the Black Panther trailer via Marvel Studios.

MM: I’m not too familiar with a production designer’s actual workflow. You go on these trips, and you take all these photos, but then what do you do with all of that? Does your team build mood boards, or start illustrations, what is the production design process?

HB: Well I had a great team. There is a team of illustrators — about seven I believe. And then a team of set designers, doing all the drafting and making our illustrations into practical sets. Then I have a supervising art director, six art directors — and each art director has a set that they run with a coordinator and a foreman. That’s a lot about building schedules and materials. Everything that you see, as far as finishes and such, I picked all those finishes. You know, how everything looked.

Production design art as seen in the Black Panther Page to Screen Featurette, via Marvel Studios.

When I’m traveling, it’s hard work. When we were in South Africa, I still had the team in [Los Angeles]. So as I’m taking pictures, my assistant was sending everything back to L.A.

So we would scout for 12 or 13 hours, then I’d come back at the end of the day. By that time, it’s their morning. So we would have a meeting for an hour and a half to go over everything that was in their work for the day. So we still had some illustrations and concepts that we had to get done. So I would send back sketches and notes, revisions to all the illustrations and everything going on on the other sets.

Part of the research trips for me was finding the look for Warrior Falls, and that came from Oribi Gorge. As I was taking pictures of the rocks at Oribi Gorge, I was sending them back to the art director, Alex McCarroll, so he could start modeling that rock. I think he was using Maya, Photoshop, and Illustrator. Some of the illustrators were painters; some would use Photoshop and Illustrator; some worked in 3D.

Warrior Falls as seen in the Black Panther trailer via Marvel Studios.

So, I’d be working all night, then get up the next morning and scout all day to take pictures and notes. Marley would be getting stuff in from the team as well as changes from the day before. She and I would go over everything and make all my notes and changes, then send more color concepts to them.

I wanted to go into this color for the rock. We were up on Golden Gate [Highlands National Park] on this rock that had these beautiful black streaks in them. I really wanted to see that black in our Warrior Falls.

Warrior Falls as seen in the Black Panther trailer via Marvel Studios.

That trip, on top of 26 hotels and 17 airports, was pretty much 18-hour days every day. I still had the team in L.A. doing research and development, and I still had to keep all that stuff going so we could get it to the set designers and have them start drafting those. And as things were changing, we constantly had to update.

When Ryan [Coogler] arrived, we were having meetings as we were flying from one location to another. As I was getting notes from him, I was giving them to my assistant, and she was getting everything back to everybody in L.A. to make changes. On something like this, you can’t ever stop.

Michael B. Jordan as seen in the Black Panther trailer via Marvel Studios.

As we were seeing things, I’d see textures and take a picture of them, and then send them back with notes like “I love this texture for the Hall of Kings” or “Can we put these masks in the Hall of Kings or recreate them somehow?”.

Wakanda as seen in the Black Panther trailer via Marvel Studios.

Maybe the roads into town look like a dirt road, but there’s some vibranium that the cars can maglev on. So I’d sketch it up and share that with Ryan, and he’d say, “Yeah, that’s awesome.”

I took pictures of the Sentinel, which is were we wanted the Jabari to live, and while we were there, they were snowcapped. So I had the illustrator start dropping in buildings into the mountainside and add more snow. The snow is more packed, and less loose. So it’s not moving across the top of the mountain. We changed where the mountain was a couple of times, and we wound up doing some plates in Uganda.

South African research trip at Sentinel Mountains. Photo Credit: Hannah Beachler.

So that’s sorta how the workflow goes. It was nonstop. The guys would tease me because every morning I would have all these meetings. So I would say “West Wing me.” and we would just walk through the hall and they were putting stuff in front of me, “This. That. Yes. No. Ok. Next. What?”

MM: Where there any set pieces that changed drastically after your travels?

HB: The one that changed drastically after traveling was Warrior Falls. It changed a couple of times, but when I got to Oribi Gorge and looked up at the cliffside and rocks, it was so unique-looking.

Hannah Beachler and filmmakers on South African research trip at Lake Eland in Oribi Gorge. Photo Credit: Hannah Beachler.

Everything was on the horizontal. The rock was shaled, and it looked like it was stacked. You could just see shapes in it, and then you’d see where some of the shapes were in the architecture in the immediate area. That was really cool.

Warrior Falls as seen in the Black Panther trailer via Marvel Studios.

MM: Is there a particular set piece that you’re extra proud of?

HB: My favorite set was Shuri’s lab. That was the most technological set. I also loved Hall of Kings. I loved them all, but Shuri’s was probably my favorite because it was so high-tech. The fun of that was finding how to keep the story, history, and ancestry that would be indigenous to Wakanda into this high-tech space.

We had a great artist that does murals. His stuff is in the afro-punk festival, and he’s local to Atlanta. He came out and painted the core piece in that set. It’s beautiful. I was really pleased with that set.

Shuri’s Lab as seen in the Black Panther trailer via Marvel Studios.

MM: What was it like making a magazine cover for Empire? I noticed you managed to sneak yourself in.

HB: Hahaha, it was a lot of fun. I did a couple of different ones, and that was the one they went with. They wanted a mood board of what would be in my office. Honestly, my office is just covered in pictures. So I thought, what if I made this collage that had to do with everything. It was fun to go through all the photos again. I wanted to have this feel of afrofuturism, and this overall feeling of what I thought Panther was.

It turned out fantastic. I actually have it here right next to me, and yeah, this is pretty cool.

Left: Black Panther cover via Empire Magazine. Right: Hannah Beachler on set Photo Credit: Ilt Jones.

MM: Anything else you’d like to share about what you are up to these days?

HB: Look out at the Oscars. Dee Rees, Rachel Morrison, and I get a little something that will be on the Oscars that was a ton of fun. Plus, Rachel got herself an Oscar nomination [Best Cinematography — Mudbound] , and we’re all very proud of her. Super awesome.

I was saying something to someone the other day, it’s just wild thinking back [to Fruitvale Station] at Sundance. I found a picture of the three of us; Rachel, Ryan, and I on Fruitvale. Then, now, to look at the picture of us that we took right after they called picture wrap on Black Panther, seeing how we are all doing really well and staying true to ourselves, which I think is such an important thing.

We’re telling stories unapologetically. Telling the stories we want to tell, and when we step out of our box and do a tentpole movie, it’s still a movie with a message. You can make this type of film and say something. Change minds, lift people up through this work, and still bring edge and fun and humor and sadness and thoughtfulness too it. It’s been great to see.

Ryan Coogler, Hannah Beachler, and Rachel Morrison on set. Photo Credit: 1st AD Lisa Satriano.

Special thanks to Hannah Beachler for her time. Black Panther hits theaters on February 16th. 

Interested in more filmmaking interviews? Check out our previous conversations.

Looking for more information on production design? Check out these articles.

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