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Tribute to the King

Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC reteams with director Baz Luhrmann to trace the personal trajectory and cultural impact of “the King of Rock and Roll” in the biopic Elvis.

It was June 2019 when director Baz Luhrmann first approached cinematographer Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC about collaborating on the new biopic Elvis. “I was extremely excited,” Walker recalls. “Baz showed me a reel he had put together to explain Elvis’ history and serve as a guide to the story he wanted tell. Elvis was ‘the King,’ and his experiences and rise to fame were larger than life.”

Walker and Luhrmann had previously teamed on the director’s epic 2008 feature Australia. The cinematographer describes their collaboration as “such a fulfilling relationship. He runs the set like a conductor and is constantly communicating with all departments. It’s a very rewarding experience for everyone. Baz makes us all feel involved and part of the process in a respectful and inclusive way.”

Principal photography for Elvis was based in Australia’s northeast state of Queensland and spanned approximately 20 weeks, with Austin Butler in the title role. Sourcing their lens package through Panavision Queensland, the filmmakers worked with Sphero 65 large-format optics — which Walker had previously employed on the features The Mountain Between Us and Mulan as well as T Series anamorphic lenses modified for a 1.85x squeeze factor. Walker recently connected with Panavision to share her experiences from the production.

Panavision: On past projects, you’ve often assembled a ‘look bible’ during prep. Was that part of the process for Elvis, and if so, what sort of imagery was included?

Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC: Baz and [production designer and costume designer] Catherine Martin always do extensive research very early on and start putting together a reference book with historical references and ideas for sets and costumes. When I started, we added more inspiration, working together to research movies, art and photographic reference that tied to Baz’s vision, and then I began exploring the technical aspects of how to express those ideas. We looked at documentary films, footage of Elvis’ concert performances, and many photographs depicting his life and these specific parts of American history. 

Very importantly, because there is documentary concert footage that exists, we would all study that meticulously when we had those scenes. The camera operators would watch to see how to match their shots and camera angles. We looked at the colors and design of the concert lighting. Even the dimmer-board operators were making the same lighting changes in time to the music. We spent weeks rehearsing and plotting the cameras and lighting for those scenes. 

What was your process with Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin and other key collaborators to define the creative use of color in the movie? 

Walker: We gleaned what we saw in the historical research, but we were also making a drama for cinema, so the storytelling of Elvis’ journey and relationship with Col. Tom Parker [Tom Hanks] was really what guided how we looked at creating the visual language. We wanted the color palette to relate to the specific time and place as well as to express Elvis’ emotional journey at those times in history. For instance, he came from a very poor neighborhood in Memphis, so for the beginning of his life, we wanted a desaturated palette, what we called ‘black-and-white color.’ Work from photographers such as Gordon Parks and Saul Leiter and images from Elvis’ own photos guided the look of that era. Then, the Hollywood years of the 1950s and 1960s are full of Kodachrome colors, and Vegas in the ’70s is full of glitz, contrast and saturated colors. We had different LUTs on set that represented each specific era.

It was important that the cinematography, art department, and costume and makeup were all on the same page. During preproduction, Baz is meticulous about shooting tests that bring together each and every aspect, so when it’s time to actually shoot the movie, we’re all in harmony. I also went into dailies every night to finesse and match the scenes from each era and the flow of each location to the next. 

What is it about the Sphero 65 lenses that drew you to use them again for Elvis

Walker: The nature of Elvis’ life is epic. Those lenses are great at showing wide, grand frames but also intimate close-ups with low depth of field. For the beginning of his life through the 1960s we used this format. Then, to show the transition of Elvis’ life when he went to Las Vegas, we went anamorphic, which helped delineate the historical time and place. One of the documentaries we had as a reference was That’s the Way It Is, and that film was shot anamorphic at the Hilton ballroom.

Baz and I visited [Panavision’s senior vice president of optical engineering and lens strategy] Dan Sasaki in Woodland Hills in August 2019 to start talking to him about the style of the movie and our visual language for depicting time within the history of Elvis’ life. Dan suggested the Spheros for the first part of the movie and the T Series for the 1970s, and he and his team then added characteristics to the lenses that enhanced the look we wanted — not too clean, and keeping a cinematic look as opposed to an electronic feel. Dan works in a way that is technical, but he can interpret the emotional feel you want in a lens.

Paul Jackson [managing director for Panavision Australia] was also part of our collaboration. He came in to meet with Baz and myself and talk about how we would liaise so the different lensing and cameras would flow perfectly for the schedule.

You also had a large-format Panavision Petzval lens. What qualities did it offer, and when would you use it?

Walker: We used it for special moments and to intensify the memories and dreamy qualities of the experience for the audience. This lens focuses your eyes to the center of the frame, like a vignette, and the background drops away.

As a subject, Elvis is obviously a larger-than-life persona. How did you approach bringing a sense of intimacy to the naturally epic story and grand canvas of Elvis’ life? 

Walker: As with all of Baz’s films, the drama and the characters are well-formed. I always checked in with him about the emotion of each scene and then worked out how to portray that through lighting, lensing and camera movement. Baz and I worked out the composition for each scene, and again, it pertained to the relevant period and style of the era — and sometimes it was just about the drama of the scene and where the focus should be in the frame.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.