‘Mulan’ Cinematographer Mandy Walker on That Battle Sequence, the Film’s Colors, and More

     September 7, 2020

If you want to succeed, it’s best to have a battle plan. Cinematographer Mandy Walker knows this full well having worked on films ranging from Shattered Glass to Australia to Hidden Figures, but she faced her biggest challenge when she signed on to tackle Disney’s epic live-action remake of Mulan. Luckily — despite a surprisingly short schedule, weeks of exteriors, and massive intricate action sequences — she and director Niki Caro formulated a plan that resulted in the most visually stunning Disney live-action remake yet.

Now available as a Premier Access title on Disney+, this new Mulan follows a fearless young woman (Yifei Liu) who masquerades as a man to serve in the Imperial Army and help fend off the Northern invaders.

Walker worked with Caro to create a visual language that put its titular hero literally at the center of the frame for much of the film while also building out a meticulous color palette and highly choreographed fight sequences – all captured in a gorgeous widescreen aspect ratio.

I recently got the chance to speak with Walker about her work on the film, and she discussed how the alternating intimacy and epic quality of films like Lawrence of Arabia served as an inspiration for their take on Mulan. She also talked about what inspiration she took from the animated movie, how she approached the massive battle sequences and maintained visual consistency through lengthy outdoor shoots, and her collaboration with Caro. Walker also discussed capturing some of the unique shots without motion-controlled cameras, and the film’s release on Disney+ as opposed to hitting theaters. I also tried my best to get her to talk about Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis movie, but alas she couldn’t say much.

Throughout the interview Walker was wonderfully insightful, and the her love for Mulan and the intense amount of effort and thought that was put into this movie are all abundantly clear. There’s a reason Walker is one of the best cinematographers working today.

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Photo by Ruby Bell

Check out the full interview below.

I’m curious how you first got involved in the project. Were you specifically looking for something that was of the scale of maybe something like a Disney movie or something like that?

MANDY WALKER: Well for start, I’d always been a big fan of Niki Caro, the director, and I’ve always wanted to do a film like this. I was so excited to be doing a battle film too, a Disney film, but also a battle film and martial arts and all those things excited me because I’d never done it before. And I just really loved the script. The first time I read the script and I understood that it was going to be a different movie from the animated one and after talking to Niki, I just got really excited about her vision.

I think that’s one of the things that struck people most is that while remakes like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King  feel pretty similar to the animated movies, this one from the get go felt very different. What were your guys’ conversations around the animated film? Did you look to recreate any moments or anything?

WALKER: Well, I think I probably shouldn’t just call it a battle film because the crux of the movie really is about this woman’s journey and discovering her inner power. And to do that, that she does become an elite warrior and stuff like that. But we definitely deferred to the animated film to start with because of storytelling. And it’s also a story that’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s a fable in Chinese culture, The Ballad of Mulan was a poem that was written hundreds of years ago. And so there’s been many iterations of it for them, whether it’s been movies or plays or songs or whatever. But I also was very conscious that the animated film was very popular and loved by so many people. So to watch that and see why, and then look at our project as a new entity, a new way of bringing Mulan to a wider audience, I suppose, rather than just for small children in terms of the animation. So I didn’t take any visual reference from the animated movie, because we also started from scratch in terms of making the visual language of our film.

What were those early conversations with Niki? What was the visual language that she had in her head from the very beginning? And did they kind of stay way up through production or did it kind of evolve?

WALKER: First of all, Niki and I went through script and just talked about story and how she sees the journey of the character. And then we started — I mean, she had a certain way she wanted to portray Mulan and one of them was a very important one to me, was she said, “I want Mulan to be the center of the movie.” I kind of took that on board straight away and we did put her in the center of the frame a lot of the time. And I went on to explore different lenses that would help enhance that.

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Image via Disney

I ended up getting a lens made that we called a portrait lens. It was based on a lens from the 1800 called Petzval. And what it does is, it focuses in the center, but the edges drop off in a very elegant, not totally crazy out of focus way, but they sort of push everything else right back and so the audience is just looking here. And then I developed another lens that we called the “chi lens” when she starts showing her really special powers, her chi, and it was based on an old gas lens where the edges have chromatic aberration, and they have a little specialness to them. So I was very conscious of how we saw her in the frame all the time. And then we went to China four times and I took a lot of photographs. We went to an Imperial City there and we looked at Chinese art and we looked at other Chinese martial arts films, and the films of Zhang Yimou and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Last Emperor and things like that.

We sort of gleaned little references or inspirations from that. But the other thing is, I take most of my cues from how the director wants to tell the story. For instance, Niki had also said to me that where Mulan lives should feel warm and she should feel the love and the closeness of her family and how hard it was for her to leave that. So I take that as a cue in terms of how we light it and it was always one light and it was very sort of intimate in terms of the framing. I get my cues from things like that, but the visual language we worked out in pre-production where we’d go through every scene and give it a look.

For instance, as opposed to her home life, on the battlefield we made it really quite stark. We picked a location that had no color, it was gray and light brown. And then we talked about costume and we had her in red, so she was going to pop out. Things like that were very meticulously organized. And through that collaboration of myself, Niki, the costume designer, art department, makeup, everything was all, I mean, that was a great thing about working with Niki is she gets everybody on the same page. That’s why I think it sort of has, the look of the movie is very consistent and very strong.

It toes this really interesting line where it’s not as fantastical as the other remakes. It is a proper battle film. The battle scenes feel real, but you also have this wire work and then there’s a little bit of theatricality with the shot composition and the colors really popping. And that’s a hard line to toe to not make it feel like you’re stepping into a different movie once you get on the battlefield.

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Disney’s MULAN..Mulan (Yifei Liu) ..Photo: Jasin Boland..© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

WALKER: Yeah. I totally agree with you. And so another thing that we looked at was, we wanted the battle sequences not to be like just a crashing of guys falling on the ground and stunt performers. Nikki had said, “I want it to be very elegant.” And also the thing that I always like — again had in the back of my mind of the audience is with her during all of this — because Yifei is amazing and did most of her stunts, we didn’t have a double doing a lot of stuff, so I could focus all my cameras on her. And we would go to the fight rehearsals and the battle scenes and the martial arts, and we’d work out a way of the camera moving with her and her moves. So I had cranes and heads that would be able to do particular moves with her. So we followed her with the camera, the camera’s kind of doing a dance with her, I suppose, and taking the audience with her in a really elegant way, rather than just having violence and action in front of the camera. That was our objective.

There are a lot of tilts as well. Did you use a motion control camera for some of the shots as well?

WALKER: No. It was all rehearsed and done with just fantastic operating and I had a really good crew. But we would rehearse and plan these things quite meticulously. Most of the time a lot of the shots were done with, we had a Scorpio, a telescopic crane, and we had a remote head called an Oculus that does four axis. So you have someone really great on the operating the head. They can go with the actors with the action. And it’s interesting, you talk about that, because one of the first times we do it in the movie is the introduction of Bori Khan, and when he rides in with the shadow warriors and he jumps up onto the garrison and we wanted to make it like, okay, the world turns and here we go. This guy is really formidable and he also has an amazing talent and able to run up the walls and these guys, making them even more scary, I suppose, that they have these abilities.

Everything that we did in this movie, Niki said, I just still wanted the audience to feel like it’s grounded in reality. We know that Mulan has this incredible talent and power and inner power and strength and her martial arts abilities, but we still want the audience to feel like it’s real. Like she’s not a superhero. There’s no lightning bolts coming out of her hand. So all these sequences we tried to do as much as we can in camera and ground them in reality in terms of location. So we built locations on the backlot in New Zealand after going to study the locations in China. We really rebuilt them in New Zealand, but we had as much set as we could. So it’s not just a green screen world. She also wanted to do that for the actors too, to feel like they’re really in this environment. So, a lot of it is in camera, which was our mission to do that as much as possible.

That really stands out as well. I mean, some of the most expensive movies you see now, it’s like, “Oh, they were in a warehouse in Burbank,” or something like that. So to see those exteriors, but also on a movie this big, I’m sure you had a lot of days outside, so that’s challenging for you to keep the light consistent from shot to shot. How was that for you with all the exterior shots?

WALKER: Yeah, well, that is a difficult thing to do because our battle sequence where it starts with the armies facing off and leads all the way to the avalanche, we were like three weeks in that location. We took the whole company, like 300 people, to this tiny little valley and everyone was staying all in these little villages and stuff, but it was worth being in that place. If we had rain, we had a little tent sequence to do in a shed, so we’d go and do that. So that’s how we dealt with it. We had little ways of working around it to a certain extent. But the other thing that I did technically is I always I overexpose the digital images a little bit to create less of a contrast. So when the sun comes out, then I’ve got a way to sort of balance out the cloud and the sun a little bit more evenly.

The other thing that we did we made it a geothermal area, so there was mist, which made it even more scary for her because she couldn’t see some things or things were obscured. I use things like that to kind of blend it all together so that it would be seamless in terms of the feeling of it.

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Image via Disney

You’ve done a number of different kinds of films but this is one of your biggest, with action sequences made up of a bunch of different short shots. Were those battle scenes a big challenge for you on this one since they take so long to piece together?

WALKER: It did take time. And I think we just made sure we planned really well and we had a military unit that were training the soldiers and the cast for months beforehand. Niki and I would go out and watch them and we’d kind of think of ideas. And then we also put a lot of the more complex parts of the battle sequence we did in pre-visualization. So we would do boards and put them into a sequence and watch how they ran, and then we’d do storyboards for some of the simpler ones where we have to, for instance, if Yifei was flying off the horse, we would have to do that in series of shots. So we may have to have had green screen for one shot or put the background in later, because it was a very controlled move.

So we were just really meticulous. And honestly, the battle sequence that you see in the movie is pretty much what we designed. I mean, Nikki had it in her head, even before I started, she’d started kind of planning the beats and the moments and already had ideas. So we developed and just it really was just being super organized. We didn’t go one day over on this movie and it wasn’t a long schedule. It was only 74 days. So yeah, we knew we didn’t have a lot of time and we had to be meticulous in our organization and we’re on 10-hour days too, so it was like, we got given that as a challenge as well. And I remember sitting down and going, are we going to get this done? We’re not going to be beaten by this and the restrictions that we had or the weather or whatever.

We just made sure that we were organized and communicated properly to people, so everybody understood what was going on. And when we had five cameras running, that we’d have shots for everybody. And of course, we adjust. You have a plan and then you adjust to things that happen too, where there’s something special happened and you’d tell someone to grab that or whatever. But yeah, we were just super organized.

It’s almost like having a plan works!

WALKER: (Laughs) Having a plan works, yeah. And like I said, that’s why to me, I found it really exciting, because I hadn’t done that kind of shooting before. I did a lot of research of a lot of other films that were like that. And we then went and designed our own version that fit more with the story, because it’s about Mulan and her abilities and how we were going to put that in, rather than following two armies all the time. It was centered on her. But like I said, because she could do a lot of her stunts herself, I could focus these super long lenses on a face and get the hair going through and she’s moving through the frame and special things like that. When you have a double doing it, you’re doing the opposite and you’re avoiding their face in the camera. But with her, she was doing it herself and she was so elegant in the way she moves. It just worked. Everything just worked really well.

It’s really beautiful. What aspect ratio is that?

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Image via Disney

WALKER: We shot 65mm spherical. So we shot a 2.35:1 frame size aspect ratio, but we didn’t shoot with anamorphic lenses. Most of the film is shot with these Pharaoh 65 that were the lenses based on the lenses from Lawrence of Arabia. So another kind of out of the box reference to us, was looking at an epic movie that had wide landscapes, but intimacy. I don’t know if you remember in that film, there’s a lot of really tight, intimate shots in that film and then you go big wide expanse. And so that’s one of the reasons that we really liked that format, because it does serve itself for that, because you can shoot a big landscape, but then when you shoot somebody’s face, you can drop the focus right off and you can feel very intimate with them and it works really well.

It’s really striking. Was there any pushback from Disney at all on that? It felt a little unique. 

WALKER: Yeah, no, there wasn’t. I really feel like they were so supportive of Niki right from the start and her vision. And she’s really great at explaining her ideas. She’s very clear and whatever she said in those early meetings, she delivered that. So, they were always behind her and had her back and trusted her. And as we were going along, they were loving what she was doing. So I think it’s great to be able to do that.

There’s also this eye-popping color throughout the film. I was wondering if you could talk about the use of color in the movie.

WALKER: I mean, it’s a Disney movie, so we didn’t want to go and make something with the color palette of Gladiator. The ancient kind of gray and brown and rusty sort of feeling. And a point that I remember Niki made really early on to the art department is that these people live in a building that’s old, but they would have had new things. They would have had new-ish curtains and pottery that was all really nicely done. It’s not like they’ve got their pots out of Pompei or whatever. So we had a license to enhance that. And so when you go to Mulan’s home, it is very colorful to have that feeling. And then as opposed to, you see Bori Khan and the shadow warriors and his army, they live in a yert that is brown and gray and dirty, and sort of has a juxtaposition, a different world. The baddies don’t have the color and the love that is in her environment.

And then red is a very important color to the Chinese. It does represent very positive aspects, love and passion and things like that. So that’s why we put Mulan in red. So she still represented that feeling. Then when we got to the Imperial City in the throne room, I wanted it to be glowing and for the gold to glow. Therefore, the way that I lit it and the colors I used and the shafts of light, it’s black and gold. So again, it’s another world, it’s like the opulence of that room. So everything had a different color palette and then yellow came into that and orange. It was very strict in terms of color palette.

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Image via Disney

I’m happy that people will get a chance to see it, but having seen it now, it’s a disappointment that I had to watch it at home. At least here in the States, we couldn’t see it in the theater.

WALKER: I know, I think it’s just one of those things that we’re all up against with this pandemic that everything’s different. But I’m just so glad people are going to be able to see it after all this time. And I was saying the other day, I just want it to be something that brings joy to people that are at home that can’t go to the cinema or are too afraid to go to the cinema, that they’re going to have this beautiful movie at last.

I’m hoping maybe next summer, some of these movies that didn’t get theatrical releases this year will get kind of a big re-release.

WALKER: I hope so too. I’m not sure if that would happen, but that would be great.

I have to ask about the Elvis movie. I’m a huge fan of Baz’s work. What can you tease about that one? Because I mean, Baz Luhrmann doing Elvis Presley just sounds incredible.

WALKER: Oh look, I can’t tell you very much because we’re right in pre-production, we’ve just started back at work. We went into hiatus and we have a fabulous cast. I love working with Baz and Catherine Martin and it’s such fun and it’s going to be gorgeous. I can just tell you that it’s going to be amazing. From what we’ve been doing so far, it’s very special.

It’s a little disappointing that Baz makes us wait so long between films.

WALKER: I know. Well he spends a lot of time researching. By the time I come on, he’s done so much work and him and Catherine Martin have done lots and lots. I mean, I think this movie he’s been working on it for 10 years or something.

Mulan is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+ as a “Premier Access” title.

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