Angie Davis
Feb 27 · 11 min read

CIM405.1 Case Study Analysis — The Creative Process of Hannah Beachler

Introduction

This case study unpacks the creative process of Oscar-winning production designer Hannah Beachler, in consideration of different creative modes of thinking and Teresa M. Amabile’s Componential Theory of Creativity, which identifies four components that influence creativity:

• Domain-relevant skills

• Creativity-relevant processes

• Task motivation

• The social environment (Amabile, 2012).

This study refers to the definition of creativity as “the production of ideas or outcomes that are both novel and appropriate to some goal,” (Amabile, 2012), and considers that “creativity requires a confluence of all components; creativity should be highest when an intrinsically motivated person with high domain expertise and high skill in creative thinking works in an environment high in supports for creativity,” (Amabile, 2012).

Beachler, who made history at the 91st Academy Awards in 2019 by becoming the first African-American female to be nominated for and win Best Production Design for her work on Oscar-nominated film Black Panther (Coogler, 2018), has spoken extensively on her creative process which demonstrates Amabile’s theory while also displaying a healthy mix of divergent and convergent models of thinking (Martin, 2015), and showcasing characteristics of creativity as outlined by Michael Dahlen (Dahlen, 2009), and the Five Stages of Creativity model shared by James Taylor (Taylor, 2019).

Beachler’s ability to adapt, take risks, work hard and trust on her acquired knowledge, combined with her passion for her work, form the backbone behind her success and breaking down industry expectations for an African-American female creative.

Approach and early stages of the creative process

Beachler’s work on a film begins early in the development stage; she is generally the next team member to come on board a project after the producer and director. Her preparation for her job interview for production designer of Black Panther is a prime example for unpacking her initial creative approach. When the opportunity came knocking from director Ryan Coogler, whom Beachler had worked with previously making Fruitvale Station (Coogler, 2013) and Creed (Coogler, 2015), she knew this would be a big opportunity and committed to giving her best. In a lecture with Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Beachler told students that with any project she has to first “feel” something about the script (if provided) or concept (GSD, 2018). With the Black Panther opportunity, Beachler knew that if she landed the job she would become the first female production designer ever hired by Marvel, and would be building the fictional Afro-futuristic country of Wakanda, seeing this as an opportunity to put African tradition and “black excellence” on the screen (GSD, 2018). Demonstrating one of the four components that influence creativity (Amabile, 2012), intrinsic task motivation, or passion, Beachler set to work, incorporating immediately two other components: her domain-relevant skills — what she’d learned from her previous film work — and creativity-relevant processes in this pre-interview phase.

Image by Marvel Studios, retreived from Collider

Marvel Studios budgeted US$200 million for Black Panther and thus extreme secrecy surrounded team hiring; no advanced script or guidelines were available when Beachler was first asked by Coogler to pitch for the job. Beachler personally invested US$12,000, hiring a concept illustrator and spending two weeks creating a 400-page pitch book and 4x8 foot mood board loaded with references, illustrations animations, a storyboard and 60 keyframes of how she envisioned Wakanda and its tribes (Moss, 2018). By overdelivering what may have been expected of her at this stage, Beachler successfully won over Coogler and the Marvel executives who quickly awarded her the job contract. Beachler’s stepped outside of the self-preservation mindset to trust in herself and her ideas, demonstrating the characteristics of creativity as outlined by Michael Dahlen in his book Creativity Unlimited: Thinking Inside the Box for Business Innovation (Dahlen, 2009). Beachler affirms these attributes in an audience address to Wright State performing arts students during a visit to campus in December 2017, stating: “You have to invest in yourself…I believed in the world I created. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities,” (Craw, 2018).

As outlined above, Bleacher began her creative process on Black Panther with divergent thinking. To analyze this concept further, consider the eight elements of divergent thinking:

  • Complexity — The capacity to conceptualize difficult, multifaceted, many-layered or intricate products or ideas;
  • Curiosity — The personality characteristic of displaying probing behaviours, searching, asking questions, learning to get more knowledge/information about something, and of being able to go deeper into ideas;
  • Elaboration — The skill of adding to, building off of or embellishing a product or an idea;
  • Flexibility — The capability of creating varied perceptions or categories wherefrom come to a range of different ideas pertaining to the same thing or problem;
  • Fluency — The skill of engendering many ideas so as to have an increase in the number of potential solutions or associated products;
  • Imagination — The capability of dreaming up, inventing, or to think, to see, to conceptualize novel products or ideas, to be original;
  • Originality — The skill of coming up with fresh, unusual, unique, extremely different or completely new products or ideas;
  • Risk-taking — The readiness to be courageous, daring, adventuresome — take risks or experiment with new things so as to stand apart (Martin, 2015).

Talking to Fast Company, Beachler dispelled potential myths about her creative process, referring to one of the elements of divergent thinking as her non-exclusive secret weapon: “There’s no unique tool that I use, other than my imagination,” (Wilson, 2018).

Source: Fast Company

In fact, the freedom granted to Beachler in the initial stages of pre-production on Black Panther enabled her to dive into the research and development with a heavier focus on divergent thinking elements. In a podcast interview with Ben Consoli, Beachler likened the opportunity to Christmas, revealing how Marvel producer Victoria Alonso encouraged her to let her mind go, not worry about parameters, and “we’ll pull back later,” (Consoli, 2016). Marvel’s support and the collaborative spirit that went into this production produced a creativity-encouraging and healthy social environment, the fourth component in Amabile’s theory, in which Beachler could thrive and deliver her absolute creative best. Indeed, in her Oscar’s acceptance speech, Beachler acknowledged her gratitude to director Ryan Coogler who largely influenced this positive social environment, stating “I stand here with agency and self-worth because of Ryan Coogler — who not only made me a better designer, a better storyteller, a better person. I stand here because of this man who offered me a different perspective on life. Who offered me a safe space. Who is patient and gave me air, humanity, and brotherhood,” (Bradley, 2019).

Beachler speaks of production design in the frame of story design, a matter of emotion and not simply the hammer and nail (GSD, 2018). Beachler went to South Africa to begin eight months of research for Black Panther, expanding into Nigeria, Lagos, Nairobi and Kenya, where she immersed herself with the people, culture, the land, and tasked herself with the goal of getting a feel for what she and Coogler wanted the tone to be for Wakanda (GSD, 2018). The daughter of an architect father and fashion designer mother, Beachler’s upbringing influences her creative process, and in designing Wakanda, she spoke of having her father’s voice in the back of her mind saying, “you need to know what the land looks like Hannah, before you can build anything,” (GSD, 2018). Beachler took thousands of pictures, and consulted a broad spectrum of specialists, from architects and futurists to anthropology and geology experts, biologists, nanotechnologists and even land specialists to understand every aspect about Africa, she demonstrates who influential the collaborative social environment is in her process (GSD, 2018).

After identifying the tone and following her initial macro approach to the project, Beachler’s next step on Black Panther was to “really poke around into the details, ” (Reed, 2018). She filtered down her extensive research to build a new, detailed 500-page ‘Wakanda Bible’, outlining every aspect of Wakanda as well as including designs for all sets on the film (GSD, 2018), then set to work managing an art team of hundreds in multiple locations around the world. Here, Beachler demonstrated a shift toward convergent thinking, which Martin defines as “a problem-solving technique involving the bringing together different ideas from different participants or fields to determine a single best solution to a lucidly defined problem (Martin, 2015). Beachler’s entire process hereby also demonstrates the Five Stages of Creativity model shared by James Taylor:

1. Preparation — the idea that you are immersing yourself in the domain;

2. Incubation — when all the information that you have gathered in the PREPARATION stage really goes back;

3. Insight — the idea of the ‘Aha’ moment, the ‘Eureka’ moment;

4. Evaluation — which requires self-criticism and reflection;

5. Elaboration — the 99% perspiration stage, where you are actually doing the work (Taylor, 2019).

Overcoming challenges

Budget constraints pose challenges for any film production, and production design is no exemption. While Beachler oversaw a US$30million art budget for Black Panther, her earlier work on Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016) was not awarded the same windfall. In fact, Moonlight was dubbed the lowest-budget film to ever win an Oscar; it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2017 (Wood, 2017). Beachler told Ben Consoli on his podcast that when challenged with a small budget you have to “step up to the challenge to figure out how to make it happen with what you have, which oftentimes can become a little more creative than what you expected, or you go someplace that you wouldn’t have thought because you were not capable of throwing money at it,” (Consoli, 2016). Beachler’s cognitive style and personality characteristics as emphasized in Amabile’s component of creativity-relevant processes have aided her throughout her career to overcome challenges and take new perspectives on problems that arise throughout the creative process.

In explaining the differences in workflow between a smaller project and one like Black Panther, Beachler explains that you still have “the same challenges on any film when it comes to budget, but the workflow and how we go about getting everything together is pretty much the same, just on a gigantic level,” (Consoli, 2016). Again, Beachler relies on her domain-relevant skills and creativity-relevant processes, such as looking at problems with an adjusted mindset and a goal of getting the job done without compromising quality, no matter the cost.

On a big-budgeted production like Black Panther, Beachler said it was important for her tackle the workload and scope of the project one day at a time, with Coogler helping to guide her “through the process,”(“HANNAH BEACHLER Production Designer of BLACK PANTHER talks about working with RYAN COOGLER & MARVEL,” 2018). Despite being overwhelmed and at times intimidated, Beachler advises “you have to move forward at all times,” (Consoli, 2016). In contrast, with less money on Moonlight, Beachler explained: “I had to roll up my sleeves a little bit and get in there. We did a lot of work, but it was a labour of love all the way through,” (Consoli, 2016).

Budgets are not the only challenges that Beachler faces in her production work. On Creed (Coogler, 2015), she had the added pressure of millions of Rocky (Avildsen, 1976) fans as Creed would be an extension of the Rocky franchise. Beachler first sat down to watch all four original films, then in considering that Creed was intended to both respect the original stories and be able to stand alone as its own film, Beachler decided to dropped “Easter eggs” all throughout the sets, including props used in the originals that she retrieved from storage, (Consoli, 2016). This demonstrates again Beachler’s domain-relevant skills, such as her intelligence and expertise in her field, and her intrinsic motivation to satisfying the Rocky fans.

Beachler’s early days of production were also challenging. Following a small Horror Film project, Beachler took on whatever work she could, trying to learn as much as possible, despite talent agents rejecting her portfolio (Thompson, 2018). Despite not always knowing where her next meal would come from, Beachler turned the tables around, following the advice of Wynn Thomas who urged her to “pick yourself up and continue,” (Thompson, 2018). Beachler kept pitching herself to agents and three weeks later landed the job as production designer on Fruitvale Station (Thompson, 2018). Beachler demonstrated resilience and passion for her work, a common thread that she displays throughout every project she works on.

Challenging creative industry expectations

Beachler studied fashion design initially but realized it wasn’t in her heart, switching to film production and started out making friend’s music videos (Consoli, 2016). After a lecturer dismissed her films but complimented her art decoration skills, she refocussed to set design, immersing herself in research and broadening her knowledge in the field (Consoli, 2016). This career switch demonstrated her ability to take risks and be rebellious, and by combining her previously acquired knowledge of art through her fashion studies and parent’s influence with her self-learned knowledge of production design, Beachler became well-informed on what to rebel against, evidence of the paradoxical characteristics of creative people (Dahlen, 2009).

On Black Panther, Beachler overcame industry expectations to become the first woman production designer on a Marvel production, an honourable feat achieved by Beachler’s trust in her creative process and the highly supportive environment created by Coogler and the Marvel team. Subsequently, Beachler has been able to completely shift industry expectations, evident in her Oscar win as a female production designer, and by becoming the first African-American production designer to be nominated, and awarded, this prestigious accolade.

Conclusion

Beachler indeed demonstrates the four theories of creativity in her creative process, meeting Amabile’s theory that “requires a confluence of all components; creativity should be highest when an intrinsically motivated person with high domain expertise and high skill in creative thinking works in an environment high in supports for creativity” (Amabile, 2012). Likewise, her process displays characteristics of creative people (Dahlen, 2009) such as trusting in herself and her ideas to deliver her best. Her creative process similarly reflects the Five Stages of Creativity model shared by James Taylor (Taylor, 2019). Beachler has holistically overcome challenges throughout her creative career, broken through and completely shifted industry expectations, and as a result, has strengthened her creative process for future projects.

References

Amabile, T. M. (2012). Componential Theory of Creativity

Avildsen, J. G. (Writer). (1976). Rocky. In I. W. R. Chartoff (Producer). USA: United Artists.

Bradley, L. (2019). Oscars 2019: Black Panther’s Hannah Beachler Makes History with Production Design Win. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/02/oscars-2019-black-panther-hannah-beachler-production-design-win

B. Consoli (Producer). (2016). Film Production Design (with Hannah Beachler) [Retrieved from https://gocreativeshow.com/film-production-design-with-hannah-beachler-gcs106/

Coogler, R. (Writer). (2013). Fruitvale Station. In N. Y. Bongiovi (Producer). USA: The Weinstein Company.

Coogler, R. (Writer). (2015). Creed. In S. Stallone (Producer). USA: Warner Bros.

Coogler, R. (Writer). (2018). Black Panther. In M. Studios (Producer): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Craw, N. L. (2018). Take me to Wakanda. Retrieved from https://webapp2.wright.edu/web1/newsroom/2018/09/13/take-me-to-wakanda/

Dahlen, M. (2009). Creativity Unlimited: Thinking Inside the Box for Business Innovation: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

GSD, H. (Producer). (2018). Rouse Visiting Artist Lecture: Hannah Beachler with Jacqueline Stewart. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAYzDzeZuG8&t=1237s

HANNAH BEACHLER Production Designer of BLACK PANTHER talks about working with RYAN COOGLER & MARVEL. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WQK-E6s9o8

Jenkins, B. (Writer). (2016). Moonlight. In D. G. Adele Romanski, Jeremy Kleiner (Producer): A24.

Martin. (2015). Idea Generation: Divergent vs. Convergent Thinking. Retrieved from Martin

Moss, M. (2018). Meet the Wright State graduate who helped create ‘Black Panther’. Retrieved from https://www.daytondailynews.com/lifestyles/meet-the-wright-state-graduate-who-helped-create-black-panther/lx54Nx2ujJwXC53xXvE3zN/

Reed, T. (2018). Round Table Discussion With Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter & Production Designer Hannah Beachler From Black Panther. Retrieved from http://www.talkingwithtami.com/round-table-discussion-costume-designer-ruth-e-carter-production-designer-hannah-beachler-black-panther

Taylor, J. (2019). The Five Stages of the Creative Process. Retrieved from https://www.jamestaylor.me/creative-process-five-stages/

Thompson, J. (2018). Meet Hannah Beachler, The Production Designer Who Created The Dope Scenery in ‘Black Panther’ Retrieved from https://www.essence.com/celebrity/hannah-beachler-production-designer-black-panther-career/

Wilson, M. (2018). From “Moonlight” to Wakanda: production designer Hannah Beachler’s playbook. Fast Company.

Wood, J. M. (2017). Moonlight Is the Lowest Budget Film to Ever Win a Best Picture Oscar. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/92768/moonlight-lowest-budget-film-ever-win-best-picture-oscar

Angie Davis

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Angie is an authentic documentary and VR director and consultant, cultivating compassion, the catalyst for change.