When creating the world of a comic book movie where do you start? That is the job of the production designer. They are the ones who create almost everything you see on screen. They take an idea and turn it into a reality, a physical set where actors can work and directors can create their film. We sat down with Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler at San Diego Comic Con to talk about her favorite sets, biggest challenges, and what she wants people to know about her job.
It’s a huge responsibility any time you are bringing a comic book property to life. “You want to make sure you’re getting it right. For me, building this world I had to look at it in two ways: I had to start from scratch as if it didn’t exist and I had to always remember that it does exist in people’s minds,” Beachler says. Her goal was to create a world that is unique and yet feels familiar to Black Panther comic readers.
Creating the World of Wakanda
Beachler said that the most important thing in creating the world of Black Panther was developing a history of Wakanda- one that goes far beyond the film. She wrote her own 400 page book detailing, “everything about Wakanda from what the streets look like to the civil wars they’ve had to how wartime has affected the city, who lived in the city, when they lived in the city.” This informed how Wakanda was laid out. “All those questions needed answers so I could understand why this road is here. Because when we build stuff in cities there’s a reason,” she explains.
Everything is planned down to the smallest detail. Things the average viewer may not even notice in a film a production designer thinks about. This includes the architecture. For inspiration Beachler, “looked at different (African) tribes in the same area where we set Wakanda.”
“If you look at the buildings themselves there’s something very different about them…We took 4th Century buildings from Africa and made them skyscrapers. If you look at some of the skyscrapers even in the trailer, you’ll notice they all have rondavel tops. The rondavels in Africa- they’re the huts with the grass tops. All of the skyscrapers have grass tops…That’s part of bringing in the traditions of Africa, the culture of Africa.”
Beachler wanted the fictional nation to reflect the history of the African continent as well as celebrating their own technological advancements.
Set (De) Construction
Beachler says almost all the sets are practical too. “That’s really exciting because it’s not usually that way anymore. They really were into this idea of building and having things be tactile and tangible and real. Not only for the actors, but for the beauty of it.” And the production designer can’t wait for fans to see the finished product.
“I can tell you (one of) my favorite looking sets is the casino. They obviously fight in it so the whole thing gets destroyed. It was so much fun to build this two story, fabulous set and then just watch it get annihilated. I remember Ryan (Coogler) coming in before they shot to see the finished set. He was walking around and looked at me and he goes, ‘Is this too nice? We’re gonna be breaking stuff!’ And I’m like, ‘That’s why it’s so nice!'”
Beachler’s favorite set was the Vibranium Mines. Wakanda is rich in the nearly indestructible metal that makes up everything from Captain America’s shield to Vision’s body. It’s the reason people like the mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) have ventured to Wakanda.
“The Vibranium Mine, that one was super special. I put my heart and soul into that one and I hope people recognize it. It felt like this is where I’m different as a designer. This is how I make this tentpole movie different because I treated it- even though it’s a giant space- differently. And I hope people notice it.”
Keeping Fans Guessing
Beachler also teases that fans don’t know what’s coming in Black Panther. “Everything I’ve read about what people thought was going on in that trailer is completely wrong. We didn’t give anything away. And I’m excited people are getting it wrong just because it leaves the surprise. Keep speculating!”
We can’t wait to see the film and be immersed in the history and culture of Wakanda. Films like Black Panther require hundreds of harding working people behind the scenes. It’s important to remember and appreciate artists like Beachler when enjoying these films.
For her part, Beachler wants people to know that production designers are really involved in every aspect of making a movie.”I’m not taking claim to choreographing stunts or actors acting or where the camera is put or the lighting…But everything else is production design. I find myself saying to people all the time…I’m a production designer, (I) do everything.”
Black Panther comes to theaters February 16th, 2018.