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Interview: Cinematographer Mandy Walker on Re-Teaming with Baz Luhrmann to Craft the Visual Look of ‘Elvis’

*Warning: the following interview may contain plot spoilers for Elvis*

Elvis marks cinematographer Mandy Walker’s second feature film and fourth overall collaboration with director Baz Luhrmann after working with him on Australia and on a few Chanel No. 5 promotional short films. In collaborating with Luhrmann for a biopic centering around the King of Rock n’ Roll, the logistical aspect was bigger, since the film was spanning three different time periods: 

“When I first spoke to Baz about [Elvis], he had been working on the film for 10 years. And so he had gathered a lot of research material and references that already existed. That was basically a start for me to explore how we were going to represent his life visually to an audience. And, in that sense, it was quite a bigger challenge for me than in Australia.”

The visual look of Elvis is vastly different from any musical biopic in recent memory, and in trying to distinguish the film’s look from other biopics made on the King and other films as a whole, Walker said that the process started with crafting sequences that Baz calls “Trainspotting”:

“These are concerts that exist and that people can access online. And we were going to reproduce those exactly. So we had to find out the period lighting, study the films to work out exactly where the cameras were, and what lenses they were on. And then I was accessing, old theater and TV lights from all over Australia to be able to put together what was going to be in camera to augment our lighting. 

Aside from the concert sequences, there’s also the integration of drama into the music, and even in each of the performances, there’s a relationship between the colonel [Tom Hanks] watching Elvis [Austin Butler] and Priscilla [Olivia DeJonge], and the connections between the characters. There were also challenges in representing each of the periods to an audience so that they would understand the places where he came from. 

For instance, in Tupelo, where he grew up, so you see 10-year-old Elvis running to the Pentecostal tent. And so I was looking at a lot of photographers of that time, and the same for the Beale Street sequences. Between myself, the art department, the costumes, the makeup, the hair, and the lighting, we wanted to get to a place that was all in harmony. 

We did lots of testing on where all the elements are in front of the camera so that there is a real vision through a very strong visual language, that translates for each of the sequences that make the film, but that can also take an audience from one end to the other.”

Mandy Walker also worked with editors Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond for the film’s photography to be in perfect synchronization with its numerous (and elaborate) transitions: 

“There’s an integration of archival footage in the movie as well, in some of the sequences and the split-screen elements to the film. We did those in prep. Baz would put together a sequence and then we knew that there was a frame over here where we had to have Elvis on this side of the frame. We planned these very meticulously and, all of my camera operators were there for our rehearsal. We had dress rehearsals and we’d look at all the angles and film them on our little Artemis and put them together with an editorial look at it and investigate. So then we go back to meticulously plan and rehearse each of those sequences.”

One of the film’s most impressive sequences, from a purely visual standpoint, is when Elvis sings “Trouble” and the film alternates between black and white photography and the concert in color. Walker revealed that the black and white scenes were shot for the movie, on the Alexa 65 with the image being degraded so it could replicate the look of a black and white 16mm film afterward: 

“One of the references for that sequence was a still photographer called [Alfred] Wertheimer, who spent years traveling with Elvis and documented certain period of his life., while also taking some 16mm black and white footage. So we replicated the still photos and the black and white footage and then turned our footage into those images. We did a lot of tests for that as well and ended up also working with VFX to degrade the image because we shot on Alexa 65 into a 16mm replication. We also used live grain as well throughout the film, which would help integrate some of the archival footage and some of the montages as well so they would fit in our sequences.”

Another sequence where the imagery takes center stage is when Elvis gets introduced at the Hayride and thrusts his pelvis, which has a particular effect on audience members. Walker described the process of shooting the sequence as important to convey the impact Elvis had on the audience and Colonel Parker as well: 

“I had four cameras going for that concert sequence and you could hear me on the comms, saying “Okay, down to the trousers! Down to the trousers, now!” Stuff like that was pretty funny, actually. But, again, because we were very well-rehearsed, we started asking ourselves about conveying the experience of Elvis’ first performance? We wanted to show the impact of that first performance on the audience, and on the Colonel, which was really important.”

In that sequence, and in other scenes as well, Elvis frequently uses slow motion. Walker explained that the use of slow-motion was conveyed to express excitement and broaden the film’s visual palette: 

“The camera moves a lot during the musical sequences, the high drama, the movement of time, and the chaotic period of his life. And then when the camera stops moving, that’s when the drama is heavy. It’s the opposite of what you do in a lot of movies, where you’re very still, and then you move the camera for a dramatic moment. So when we’re flying around and moving and then balancing fast moves with slow motion, we’re creating an extreme visual language to express that excitement. And then we slow down with lighting, and sometimes also with tiny, slow pushes, and small elements of slow motion to create a heaviness of drama. For instance, when you get further into the movie when Elvis decides that he can’t leave the Colonel or that he’s trapped in his hotel room,  it’s very slow, and it’s very tight, and it’s very intimate.”

On shooting the “Suspicious Minds” scene, which alternates between Colonel Parker singing a contract with the International Hotel behind Elvis’ back while he sings his heart out, Walker said that this was her personal favorite sequence to shoot because she was able to accomplish things she was never able to do before: 

“I remember when I sat with my gaffer, while in pre-production and we said, “Okay, so maybe we should get in some theatrical lighting design people to work out the demo board,  the colors, and all the lights we need to order.” And I had never done anything like that before, but it’s part of the drama of the film, through the lighting of the characters, and I knew exactly how to accomplish it. We spent a couple of weeks setting it up and getting the right lights after getting hold of some theatrical lights, which we then augmented with modern lighting. For instance, we had old rock and roll lights that we put gels in. 

But then we had ARRI Orbiters, which are a newer version of a light where you can change the color because it’s LED. That was a little more user-friendly for us because we could pan it around remotely. So we had moving lights that we could prepare around remotely, but the ARRI Orbiters were giving us a stronger light and more color options. And then we lit the backdrop with LED lights, where we can control the color space a bit better, rather than having to juggle all of them. So it was kind of like a mishmash of all of those things that would take quite a bit of planning to get it right.”

Elvis is now playing in theatres everywhere. 

[Quotes were edited for length and clarity.]

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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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