From the Moon to Wakanda: How Production Designers Built Iconic Worlds Onscreen

6:30 AM 11/15/2018

by Carolyn Giardina

Artists on 'Black Panther,' 'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'First Man' and 'Mary Poppins Returns' put their expertise into a range of contemporary, period and fantasy looks (and an "upside-down" room that combined all three).

First Man Still_Production Design - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Universal Pictures; Courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures
  • 'Green Book'

    The New York apartment of classical pianist Don Shirley — played by Mahershala Ali in Universal's Green Book — reveals a lot about the character. "He's a bit of a puzzle. This set up his Afrocentric, Eurocentric worldview. The real Don Shirley was also a doctor of music and religion. We needed to make the apartment eclectic and amazing," production designer Tim Galvin says, revealing that it actually was staged on location in a viewing room of a New York funeral home. "Of course there was a giant Steinway piano — getting that in there wasn't so fun — but he lived in a glittery way, so there was a lot of crystal and mirror and polished surfaces that reflected the person that he was." The team also brought in artifacts and mementos — Russian nesting dolls, elephant tusks and an African throne. Adds Galvin, "A lot of this was really there. They came from the memory of Nick Vallelonga, one of the co-writers, who had visited Don Shirley."

  • 'First Man'

    "We have to fake the moon landing." That was the most complicated task for First Man production designer Nathan Crowley, who started with extensive research, including sifting through archival footage and photos at NASA. Director Damien Chazelle wanted to do as much as possible in camera, so when it came to creating the surface of the moon, Crowley needed to find a huge outdoor space — which he stumbled upon when he visited a quarry in the Atlanta area. It was the right size and, according to Crowley, the local crew were enormously helpful. "They cut rock and ground it down to this fine gray power," he explains. "And there were existing structures that they demolished for us." The production built an actual-size lunar module, around which the team "sculpted 5 acres of the terrain with this fine gray dust." The terrain was based on maps of the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969.

  • 'Crazy Rich Asians'

    The big event at the center of Warner Bros.' romantic comedy is the wedding of Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) and Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno) — which had to look both unique and obscenely expensive. It was filmed in the main hall of CHIJMES, a landmark in downtown Singapore that was once a Catholic convent. "The focal point of a Chinese moon gate was created for the altar area, surrounded by handmade wedding lanterns with proclamations of double happiness, fertility and prosperity, and declarations of family blessing on the wedding," says production designer Nelson Coates, who prepped by attending more than 35 Chinese and Singaporean weddings. "We worked with sculptures and lantern makers who have been building traditional lanterns their entire lives, as well as nurseries and landscape firms to get just the right plant material — four semitrucks full." During the wedding, a stream of water flowed down the aisle, which Coates says allowed "the bride to literally walk on water."

  • 'Mary Poppins Returns'

    To do as much in camera (live on set) as possible, the team from Disney's Mary Poppins Returns built an upside-down room, inspired by an artist's atelier, on a stage at Shepperton Studios in the U.K. It's the home and fix-it shop of Mary Poppins' cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), which "has hundreds and hundreds of pieces — musical instruments, clocks, furniture and paintings ­­­— that were built lightweight and hung upside down," says production designer John Myhre, calling it "the most challenging set I've worked on in my whole career." They needed not only to create a real room that was upside down, but also to find a way to get the actors coming through an upside-down door into this room. "We had them step down to the bottom of a shelf over the door, to the bottom of a fireplace mantel to an upside-down statue," says Myhre. All of the items had to be "fun and have great shapes. And we put quite a bit of color into it because we wanted to make the set as confusing as possible."

  • 'Black Panther'

    The palace and Golden City of the fictional African nation of Wakanda had to have the feeling of being a "complete" world, including streets filled with people and a transportation system. "We really wanted to make sure that we were always thinking about what impact the city had on its natural surroundings, and how it is integrated into the ecology and topography of its location in Wakanda," says production designer Hannah Beachler, who adds that the architecture of the late Zaha Hadid was a huge influence. "The way she used space and form is breathtaking."

    The main inspiration for the palace and much of the design language of Wakanda is the South African ruins of Mpumalanga, which is thought to be the oldest civilization known to man, dating back 100,000-plus years. "We looked to nature for the shapes of the buildings — for example, using the shape of the twisted horn of the eland as inspiration for a skyscraper," adds Beachler. "Wakanda is a technologically advanced society that still has a sense of its own historical, cultural past, one that has not been affected by Western standards."

    This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.