Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC center frames a mythical tale
MARCH 23 2020
Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC brings a unique perspective to her work. After the success of Hidden Figures, a period piece that garnered three Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Walker turned her eye to The Mountains Between Us, a wilderness adventure directed by Hany Abu-Assad.
That film was her first foray on the large-format ARRI ALEXA 65 camera, a tool she chose again for her most recent project, a live-action version of Disney’s Mulan. Walker is known for shooting film when appropriate – Hidden Figures was shot on 35 mm emulsion – but she says that the A65 was the right choice for Mulan’s epic, mythic tale. The story follows a fearless young woman who disguises herself as a male warrior in the Chinese army in order to save her father from fighting.
We looked at other versions of this tale, including the original poem, Walker says. But we wanted a fresh look at the story for a more modern, wide-ranging audience. The first thing the director, Niki Caro, said to me was that the film is centered around the character of Mulan. It's her story, the story of a young woman discovering her power and strength. At the same time, it's an epic tale with sweeping landscapes and vast battles.
"IT WORKED REALLY SMOOTHLY, AND THAT'S THE WAY IT SHOULD BE. IF ANYTHING, YOU GET MORE RUNNING TIME BEFORE CHANGING CARDS THAN YOU'D HAVE WITH FILM MAGAZINES."
On The Mountains Between Us, in the snow in British Columbia, the ALEXA 65 performed so beautifully, she says. It looks incredible on the big landscape shots, but it's also a very intimate camera because of the lower depth of field. When you're close to a character, it has the most beautiful portraiture look. That's why I love it.
Lenses were chosen with similar priorities in mind. For wider shots, Walker used Panavision Sphero 65 glass, but for closer portrait shots of Mulan, she asked Dan Sasaki of Panavision to create a custom 85 mm lens based on Petzval Portrait lenses, developed in the mid-1800s for use with daguerreotype exposure and considered to be the first lens designed for photography. Its distinctive character includes significant field curvature and astigmatism, but the images are rendered sharp in the center. It gives the effect pulling the subject out of the frame without using extremely shallow depth of field.
"Chinese architecture is often based on symmetry," says Walker. "And Chinese art and painting is often composed with central framing, which all influenced our decision to center Mulan in the frame. I also had a lens built, based on a gaussian lens, that worked with the 65 mm sensor and a 2.39 extraction. We used that for special moments when Mulan is showing her elite warrior skills. It's a radial effect with chromatic aberration, which centers her and de-emphasizes everything else."
The additional picture information captured by the ALEXA 65 sensor didn’t slow down the production – in fact, Walker could control the dailies process even more carefully. DIT Chris Rudkin used the CODEX Vault XL with the ALEXA 65 to keep the data wrangling invisible to Walker. "The digital workflow didn't affect me at all," says the cinematographer. "It worked really smoothly, and that's the way it should be. If anything, you get more running time before changing cards than you'd have with film magazines."
"We would break the footage in the middle of the day so the dailies colorist could start on what we'd been doing during the day and view by the time we wrapped. That was a big help. We could check everything, including what second unit were doing in real time in China on Moxion, which was helpful when we were working in remote locations on the South Island in New Zealand. I like to see things at higher resolution, and we had PIX, which is good for checking continuity when you're on-set, and making sure that second unit is on the right track. And the studio and all the department heads were on PIX, too – it's a good way for everyone to be on the same page."
As she does with film, Walker's practice is to overexpose by about 2/3 of a stop. When shooting digital, she brings the image back down in the CDL. "When I get into the DI, I have information in the shadows," she says. "As long as I'm protecting the highlights, I'm allowing for more information."
"That helps the visual effects collaboration, too," she says. "Niki and I worked closely with VFX supervisor Sean Andrew Faden on background plates, reference plates, and the mapping of our lenses. We did a look bible, which was a reference for VFX as well as for Natasha Leonnet, the DI colorist. It all goes back to the relationships – you have to be on the same page to work and collaborate together."
"AND WE HAD PIX, WHICH IS GOOD FOR CHECKING CONTINUITY WHEN YOU'RE ON-SET, AND MAKING SURE THAT SECOND UNIT IS ON THE RIGHT TRACK."
"Still, shots were always done in-camera when possible. Yifei Liu, who plays Mulan, is very talented and did most of her own stunts," says Walker. "Instead of trying to avoid the stunt person's face, we would put three cameras on her to make sure the audience can see her face in key moments. I think you feel that when you're watching the film. After the initial shock of digital's invasion of filmmaking over the past 25 years, is mature technology finally swinging image control back towards the director of photography?"
"When the DI first came in, people would say, Well, I don't need to worry about cutting that shadow or balancing the background – I'll do that in post," says Walker. "I try to be very disciplined on the set and not leave things until later, especially on a film like this, because it looks more realistic. Also, I need the time in DI to refine the color and contrast rather than making fixes. These days, I'm starting from a much simpler LUT. I suppose that attitude comes from film – I know if I have a very simple LUT and a consistent base, I can adjust it from there and I'm not getting too complex in the color space. I try to only put basic changes in the CDL on-set, and then it transfers to the dailies. It's a simpler move than applying it to a complex LUT that doesn't always transfer for every lighting situation and can become twisted."
Walker is currently prepping her next project, which will be directed by Baz Luhrmann and is about the life of Elvis Presley. She plans to capture on CODEX using the ARRI ALEXA 65.
Mulan's theater release has been postponed worldwide due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Director: Niki Caro
DP: Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC
DIT: Chris Rudkin
Camera Rental: ARRI Rental
VFX supervisor: Sean Andrew Faden
Digital Intermediate: Natasha Leonnet
Camera: ARRI ALEXA 65
Lenses: Panavision Sphero 65, Panavision Custom 85
Resolution: 6560 x 3100 Open Gate