Black Panther is only days away from breaking through the billion-dollar milestone at the global box office. Its financial success is a natural byproduct of the love people feel toward Marvel Studios’ 18th film. Much of that love has been directed toward the Dora Milaje, led by Okoye (Danai Gurira).
The Dora Milaje have long been a staple of Black Panther comics, but now they have become mainstream icons to the delight of many, including Anthony Francisco. A concept illustrator on Marvel Studios’ Visual Development team, Francisco designed the Dora Milaje that director Ryan Coogler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter brought to life in the film.
Francisco, who was not originally scheduled to work on Black Panther, got his opportunity to work on the film during a lull on another project he was on, a little film called Avengers: Infinity War. As Francisco tells me on the latest Marvel Studios News podcast, he is thrilled with the way people have responded to the film and specifically the Dora Milaje.
“I’m so happy and grateful. It’s been more well-received than I expected and they actually notice the design and co-concept artists that I’ve known for a while, they all like it and comment on the design, which makes me really happy. I put a lot of effort in trying to design a very strong woman warrior and making sure she’s sexy, but still just fierce and not scantily clad because that’s what we wanted to avoid.”
One of the most time-consuming parts of Francisco’s job as a concept artist is research. Hours and hours are spent finding references, inside and outside of the comics, to inspire the right design. It was an early idea for scarification that led Francisco to the final sleeves we see in the Dora Milaje costumes and they are pulled from native African sources, among others.
“[Okoye] is a warrior. There’s even a part where I remember we were doing the scarification because they’re warriors and certain type of scarification on the shoulders. Sometimes when I do design, I think about the budget of how they can make it, so you can have an expensive design. You have a design where it’s cheaper. And sometimes you have design where you are thoughtful of how they apply stuff [on the actor]. So if they had all the scarification on their arms and stuff, that would be hours at the makeup table.
“So I was thinking, ‘What if I could do something like that and have it on a sleeve?’ That was one of the ideas to make a sleeve with the markings on the sleeve. Then, little by little, it turned into a sleeve with weaving and then more of an African Masai tribe. Masai is the main influence, 80% of that. And I even looked at Malaysian or Borneo tribes where the women [wear] the long neck rings. Of course, that’s not practical to use the long neck rings, but it started off from there and, of course, some Filipino tribes.”
Francisco also sheds some light on the workflow for the Vis Dev team from creating the first concept, all the way to an approved design. There are times when he works directly with filmmakers, like Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, but Francisco also has Marvel Studios Head of Visual Development Ryan Meinerding, who relays notes from the filmmakers to the illustrators. When he did meet with Coogler, however, Francisco was pumped.
“The cool thing about working in visual development is we get to work on some of the projects before the cast or most of the crew is even on board. And the script is still being developed because we already have the characters from the comic books and Ryan Meinerding would come and give reference on that. Like the Dora Milaje, there’s a couple of comic book pages we would look at. Of course, we could search our own references online. For this, it was really awesome because what’s cool about Ryan [Meinerding] is he trusts his teammates to deliver on the design and he gives you enough time to work on it. For this one, he allowed me to go in the direction I was trying to pitch.
“I did meet Ryan Coogler a little later and he also explained what he wanted, but Ryan [Meinerding] was mainly relaying all the information he’s gotten from the meetings they have. But talking to Ryan Coogler, it’s also good, like an energy boost. You just go ‘Ah yeah! I’m gonna do it for this guy. He’s a cool guy and I want to do my best for him.’
“And plus, it was very important to me because it’s my first female character I was doing and I wanted to do a really good job on it.
“After I do the first pitch, then the discussion opens and then there’s changes and there’s little things that they could add on. Overall, that’s kind of the process, so it comes back to me and I change this stuff. ‘Ok let’s try red. Let’s try this. Let’s try more African patterns and even more tribal.’ And I had versions of that, even with white striping and more multi-colored, so I also had versions of that. They ended up landing on my initial yellow and, you know, feeling like lionesses hunting.”
The response to the Dora Milaje is all the evidence needed to show Francisco did more than a good on the design. I asked if he’d seen some of the girls that were dressed up and dancing as the Dora Milaje. He has and it means a lot to see kids finding new heroes and wearing costumes he designed.
“It feels great. Multiple people sent me the video and said ‘Hey look, your stuff is iconic! It’s cosplay already!’ That feels really good. It felt like a big accomplishment for me that I got to design something that hopefully will keep on going and be classic, you know?”
I asked Francisco what it felt like in the Marvel Studios office while they were making Black Panther. Obviously, they never could have predicted a response of this magnitude, but Francisco says they were aware of how much this movie could mean to an underserved audience, and everyone else that would see the film.
“I think that’s maybe why I worked that design as hard as [I could]. I put a lot of energy into it because it felt like it was going to be an important film. The first time I watched it, I really liked it a lot, but I was also still critiquing my own work and how this could be better and that. But the second time I watched it, I think it was more emotional for me because then I could just focus on not the craft anymore, just the storytelling and everything and it reflects a lot of social [issues] and life and community, to go about bringing kindness in the world. There’s so much symbolism in the movie. It even gets deeper. I feel like this is the kind of movie that gets better as you watch it.
“But we didn’t expect it would do this much in the box office. It’s exceeded expectations.”
Francisco also credits Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige for having the “Midas Touch” as a key ingredient to the studio’s continued success. Next up for the Dora Milaje is a battle in Avengers: Infinity War and Francisco is excited to see Okoye fight alongside some of the most famous faces in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“I was happy to see that, too, when I saw her running [in the Infinity War trailer], I was like ‘Ah yeah, she’s in there!’ Black Panther wasn’t out yet when they had the trailer came out. That’s gonna be another big, crazy show. I can’t wait to see it because I don’t know what’s going on…”
Francisco is kidding about not knowing what’s going on, but he isn’t sharing either. He will share, however, what it feels like to be part of the MCU by being on the team that figures out how to take these characters from page to screen.
“It’s an awesome feeling. It guess it hits me even more because since I was 5, I’ve been into Marvel characters- Incredible Hulk, the X-Men. And when I was in sixth grade, I started collecting comic books and it was mostly Marvel. When you’re younger, it’s like ‘Why don’t they make movies of these?’ And you realize maybe they weren’t capable with special effects and then now we can actually do it, so it’s like ‘Wow!’ It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
That sounds about right. You can hear plenty more from Anthony Francisco on episode 64 of the Marvel Studios News podcast. Make sure you follow him on Twitter and Instagram where he often shares his incredible work!
#doramilaje costume is in the marvel lobby!! They usually bring in the costumes of the movies that are about to come out. It's great seeing it up close! Check out my #conceptdesign for this costume on my last post! Can't wait for the film to drop! I almost lost my balance in the end of the video tho, ooops!
Black Panther is in theaters now and still making all the money. Go see it, again!