'Black Panther' to 'Roma': 5 Production Designers Reveal How They Put Wakanda, 1970s Mexico City and More on the Map

9:00 AM 2/11/2019

by Carolyn Giardina

Oscar-nominated pros on 'First Man,' 'The Favourite' and 'Mary Poppins Returns' also open up about key sets they created and how they made them look authentic.

'Black Panther'
'Black Panther'
Courtesy of Marvel

  • 'Roma'

    Alfonso Cuaron/Netflix

    A scene in which the family walks to a local movie theater included a crossing of Insurgentes Avenue in Mexico City (pictured below). The actual avenue is just blocks from where director Alfonso Cuaron lived as a child, but the look of the neighborhood has changed dramatically since the early '70s, the time period of the Netflix film. They looked at locations on other roads but didn't find what they needed, and so it was decided that a set would be created from scratch. "We built the set in an empty lot: asphalt, tram rails, sidewalks, all the facades of the buildings and shops, the cinema, vehicles, signs and cables," explains production designer Eugenio Caballero. "The set was two blocks long (more than 200 meters) by 20 feet high. All the interiors of the numerous shops were fully dressed, and we had almost 300 vehicles circulating. We completed the set digitally, adding background depth and the upper floors of the buildings following a precise design provided by the Mexican art department."

     
  • 'The Favourite'

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    Queen Anne's (Olivia Colman) bedroom — and many locations in the 18th century England-set The Favourite — were filmed at Hatfield House, a vast estate often used for films that was built in 1611 in the U.K.

    "We took over that room, emptied it and turned it into the bedroom," explains production designer Fiona Crombie, adding that there were already some tapestries on the walls, and her team added more. They also dressed Queen Anne's room with drapes, chandeliers and furniture including a custom-built bed.

    "It was a small film and a small budget, so the challenge was how to create the most exquisite bedroom — the ultimate in luxury and privilege," says Crombie, who is nominated for her first Academy Award. "But also she's trapped in that room, she doesn't have mobility and she's a small figure in the space. And so we didn't want to put in too much furniture, and we deliberately left the floor bare — we didn't want it to feel too comfortable."

     

  • 'First Man'

    Courtesy of Universal Studios

    "For me, 'immersive in-camera' filmmaking translates to, 'We do everything for real until we can't,' " says First Man production designer Nathan Crowley.

    In the Universal film, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his fellow astronauts prepare for their trips to space by using a multi-axis trainer. The apparatus was used by NASA in the 1960s during the Gemini training program to simulate the astronauts spinning out of control in a zero-gravity environment.

    For the film, it was researched and built as a full practical working machine in an Atlanta warehouse.

    Says Crowley, who earned his fifth Academy Award nomination with the Damien Chazelle-helmed biopic: "The machine was 30 feet in diameter with a retractable walkway that allowed access for astronauts to climb in and out of the cockpit seat between spins."

  • 'Black Panther'

    Courtesy of Marvel

    M'Baku's throne room was a set built onstage in Atlanta using 300 birch logs, with pointed ends, suspended from rope. In the Disney superhero film, this wall-less room is in the mountainous Jabariland (with mountains inspired by Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda and Sentinel Mountains in South Africa), just north of Wakanda's capital, Golden City. "Because the city of Jabari is located on the side of a mountain, I wanted a way for M'Baku to be able see the entire city as well as be seen by the entire city," says production designer Hannah Beachler. "So his throne room protrudes out from the side of the mountain, beyond any other building, and feels like it's floating over the city. The throne room itself is simple, streamlined."

    In the story, the Jabari Tribe is known for its master carpentry; they reject vibranium, the metal that is embraced by the rest of the country, so they build with wood, explains Beachler. "We used a Japanese technique, Shou Sugi Ban, to burn the wood in the entrance of the throne room. Once burnt, the wood that grows at the base of the mountain and is used only by the Jabari has the same properties as vibranium. This was a completely different design language from the rest of Wakanda because of the Jabari tradition of woodworking, carpentry and engineering as well as the fact that they were isolated from the rest of the country."

  • 'Mary Poppins Returns'

    Jay Maidment/Disney

    For the "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" song-and-dance number in Disney's Mary Poppins sequel, the production team constructed an abandoned park with five different levels, a greenhouse, a three-tiered fountain and a bridge decorated with 25 hybrid electric-gas lamplights, explains production designer John Myhre.

    The scene involves dozens of dancers and even BMX riders weaving through the complicated dance number. Built at the U.K.'s Shepperton Studios with a sprung floor that makes it easier on dancers' knees, "the inspiration was Middle Temple in London with its famed cobblestone streets, archways and tunnels."

    Of the overall approach to the ambitious musical sequel, Myhre (who earned his sixth nomination for Mary Poppins Returns) adds that Marshall wanted to make this film "real and grittier … instead of just a beautiful storybook London. So we shot on some locations throughout London to give the film a more grounded sense of realism as well as on soundstages at Shepperton."

     

    This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.