When “Black Panther” production designer Hannah Beachler was given the task of bringing the fictional land of Wakanda to life, she essentially agreed to build an entire society.
Beachler says she began by looking at the big picture — mapping out the topography of a sub-Saharan country located along water. She then took elements from the real world to envision what this society would look like after being struck by a meteorite. “You just keep getting more detailed and more pinpointed in where you want everything to be because you’re really building a whole civilization,” she explains. “Bridges, districts, transportation, what people do, their food — it was everything.”
Unlike much of the real continent of Africa, Wakanda was never colonized; its cities include different tribes and traditions, and Beachler incorporated all these African elements into a futuristic environment to show how advanced the nation’s people are. “That’s why you feel history, but there’s the technology on top of that,” she says.
That led to the film’s theme of Afrofuturism, which Beachler describes as a kind of temporal mix. “It’s really about picking elements from the past and evolving them into a future — into a science fiction — and sort of reclaiming certain traditions,” she says, adding that the theme was also fused into the costumes designed by Ruth E. Carter. Working on the set of “Black Panther” reunited Beachler with the film’s director, Ryan Coogler. The pair worked together on “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station.”
After struggling to finalize a location for Gorilla City, the home for villains in the Marvel comics where the “Black Panther” story began, Beachler and Coogler traveled to South Africa to find inspiration. It was fall, she remembers, and the region’s mountains had warm, grassy plains at their base. But higher up it began to snow, which is why Gorilla City has such a cold climate in the film. “People don’t usually associate Africa or African terrain of any country with snow,” she says. “It added another texture to the nation.”
Another challenging set, Beachler recalls, was the throne room of M’Baku. She says she needed to find a way to make the space feel both intimidating and open. To accomplish this, she included severe, sharp angles. “That was the hardest” look to achieve, she admits.
Previous Marvel movies also played a role in the design. Beachler says a key takeaway from watching other MCU films is how everything looks massive. “Sometimes you lose an intimacy or emotional attachment to places that don’t necessarily offer you information about the scene or the character,” she says. She challenged herself to prevent that by making the spaces feel grounded.
“Everything was big!” she laughs. “As the production designer, I’m not complaining about that either, because it was tons of fun to build all that stuff, but it needed to feel tangible and tactile.”