The Afrofuturist sets of Marvel’s 2018 blockbuster Black Panther, with their blend of modernist forms and traditional African motifs, were the brainchild of Hannah Beachler, the production designer behind Miami’s sun-drenched underside in Moonlight and the working-class Philadelphia of Creed. She also helped develop Beyoncé’s Southern Gothic look for the visual album Lemonade. For Beachler, every project is a distinct creative challenge. “There’s no unique tool that I use, other than my imagination,” she says.
Fast Company: Wakanda, the hidden African utopia in Black Panther, is a fantasy, but it also feels real and textured. How did you approach that?
Hannah Beachler: We were representing Pan-Africa. All the cultures came together to create a Wakanda aesthetic. I always do research, but the Wakanda [set design] “bible” that we used took me months to put together. I think the final version was 515 pages, covering the 187 sets on the film. Every time someone asks me about a particular item, I can recite the thought behind it.
FC: One of the most stunning sets is the throne room for the character of M’Baku, who lives on a snow-capped African mountain. What went into that? It’s one of my favorite sets: simple, eloquent, and beautiful.
HB: People have asked me about the walls [made of hanging birch logs]. There’s meaning in the birch log itself. It grows in the north; it grows in the cold. And birch is what Native Americans gave to the first [European] settlers when they came, as a sort of peace offering, because birch symbolizes ancient wisdom and truth. We sharpened the birch at the end–weaponizing that truth. It’s protecting yourself, and your ancestry, from those who come to take it.
FC: Black Panther was a big-budget action movie, but you’ve worked on several indie films about poverty. How does the process compare?
HB: For Moonlight, we didn’t have a lot of money, so I did simple stuff. I knew we had to see [the main character’s] mom’s drug habit getting worse. I thought, You know what she would do? She’d look around her house and see what she could sell. The next step was things just slowly disappearing from the house. Any electronic that could get her $5, $2, $1, it went out of that set gradually. The thing that a lot of people noticed was when the TV was gone.
Hannah Beachler is No. 22 on the 2018 Most Creative People in Business list. Check out all 100 people here.