Featured Image: L: Hannah Beachler, R: Ruth E Carter
From Dr Lucy Donaldson, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews.
Visual design: celebrating costume and production designers Ruth E Carter and Hannah Beachler
Around awards season is a great time to look ‘below the line’ (an industry term which sorts filmmaking personnel according to where their salaries come from, but also indicates an apparent creative hierarchy: ‘above’ are the actors, director, producers, screenwriters, casting; and ‘below’ is everyone else). While there is certainly lots of attention paid to the main awards categories which honour those above the line – acting, directing, best film – there are lots of people who are honoured in awards ceremonies, many of whom don’t so often get interviewed or written about. However, if they are nominated or win in their category, there tends to be a flurry of material which highlights their contributions and is well worth diving into. Variety magazine is a particularly good source for this, as they have lots of Oscar coverage and have a whole section focusing on ‘Artisans’, by which they mean editors, cinematographers, sound designers, visual effects artists, costume and production designers, hair and make-up artists.
Three years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka the Oscars) recognised the work of two designers, Ruth E Carter and Hannah Beachler, both of whom were the first black women to win in their fields. Their work on Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) demonstrates the power of design in creating a fully-formed world, the scale of the fantasy of Wakanda highlighting their skills and vision (this recent article highlights the prevalence of period and fantasy films in nominations for costume design, asking if there should be a separate category for contemporary design).
This playlist celebrates their work by presenting a series of online videos where Carter and Beachler talk about their contributions to Black Panther and how they view their work. The value of hearing designers define their work, how it progresses and their collaborations with other members of the filmmaking team, offer an enormous insight into the creativity and detail of their work, as well as how much it considers feel and mood, for both the audience and their colleagues (especially actors).
Ruth E Carter, costume designer
Ruth E Carter has worked in the industry for over 30 years and is a frequent collaborator of Spike Lee, beginning with School Daze in 1988 and including Do the Right Thing, Mo Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award), Clockers, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Chi-Raq. She was nominated for another Oscar for her work on Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997) and an Emmy for Roots (History, 2016). Her recent credits include Selma (Ava Duvernay, 2014), Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019) and Coming 2 America (Craig Brewer, 2021).
Notable for an introduction which highlights the costume designer as an artist (in an industry which certainly uses distinctions between arts and craft): Ruth E Carter wins an Oscar for Best Costume Design
On Black Panther:
Carter talks to Vanity Fair about the costumes in Black Panther Carter begins with the importance of paring her designs down and subtlety, in order to understand the composition of the whole. She talks about getting into design by accident, after training to be an actor, as well as the evolution of design, from drawing illustrations to digital work and 3D printing and rendering. She then focuses on the process of costume design in Black Panther.
Notes on a scene: T’Challa’s arrival in Wakanda and the River Falls meeting Carter talks through the design of each character’s costumes, where the design ideas came from including which regions of Africa they were inspired by, how they inform characters’ backgrounds and roles in Wakanda. She also talks about how they were made (including 3D printing). She highlights the significance of intersections of technology and culture in the costumes.
On her creative process:
Costumer designer as storyteller, researcher, anthropologist: Carter’s process from the point of getting the script to creating characters, including her favourite costume from Black Panther – the bodyguards of the king.
In a short video produced by the Academy, Carter talks about creativity, the challenges of being fresh and original, and how she fosters creativity in her work. She talks about the costume designer as storyteller and painter – the importance of colour in her first script read, and the details that come from subsequent read throughs. She highlights the importance of research – especially books and magazines – and then the creation of costume boards which map out each character, combining illustrations, research and swatches. She describes how much she values the process of fittings and working with actors. Collaboration is the key to costume design for her.
An episode of Strong Black Legends by Netflix, in which she discusses what being nominated for Black Panther means to her and honouring Africa. She talks about her first film, School Daze, and how she was influenced by her own experience at an HBCU as well as working with Spike Lee and what an enriching experience that is.
Hannah Beachler, production designer
Hannah Beachler has been working as a production designer since the mid-2000s Her collaboration with Ryan Coogler started on Fruitvale Station (2013) and she has worked with Don Cheadle (Miles Ahead, 2015), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, 2016), Todd Haynes (Dark Waters, 2019) and Beyoncé (Lemonade, 2016, and Black is King, 2020). She received Emmy and Arts Guild nominations for her work on Lemonade and Black is King, and many more for Black Panther.
As with Carter, the introduction to the awards features an emphasis on production designers as artists, and Hannah Beachler emphasises the importance of her collaboration with Ryan Coogler in her speech as she wins the Oscar for Best Production Design.
On Black Panther:
On working with Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios Here she addresses the challenge of working on a large scale, but that her previous collaborations with Coogler informed their shared approach to think about the intimacy of the story, as well as the support from Marvel in exercising her creative freedom. She talks about her favourite sets, Shuri’s lab and the Casino, emphasising the feel of the space, and the difficulties she encountered in designing M’Baku’s throne room.
In this Black Panther Q&A Beachler addresses moving from indie movies to big blockbuster productions, in particular the challenge of wanting to build sets rather than use visual effects. She also talks about building a backstory in order to design an entire civilisation and wanting to counter the dominant narrative and stereotypes of black representation. The interview also touches on the under-representation of minorities in guilds and Beachler gives her advice to people following in her footsteps, highlighting the importance of drive and endurance, as well as learning on set.
Set breakdown of the Throne Room Beachler gives a detailed account of the design of M’Baku’s throne room, including the specifics of materials, shape and colour. She highlights the reference and inspiration taken from the Dogon, a Malian tribe who work with wood, and the symbolic use of birch by Native Americans.
On her process as a production designer:
Designing Moonlight on a budget Here Beachler talks about the collaboration with director and cinematographer, and for Moonlight, the importance of figuring out the colour story for each chapter – with such a small budget, the main design approach was in colour control.
Beachler has also given longer talks concerning her process and approach:
Rouse visiting artist lecture (with Professor Jacqueline Stewart) which focuses on design as a process of world-building.
Design Masterclass with Ontario Directors Guild of Canada which covers her start in set decorating and learning on the job, as well as most substantially her work on Black Panther.
An interview for Google concerning designing for inclusion Here Beachler talks about the power of visibility and the importance of inspiring the new generation. She also talks about collaborating with Ruth Carter on Black Panther, and in particular their shared work on the representation of powerful women in the film. She also discusses the intersection of culture and technology, and her desire to keep organic materials in the film.
A longer interview for the Black Film Space Podcast an organisation which is dedicated to enhancing the skillsets of black filmmakers and creating a community