‘Elvis’ Cinematographer Mandy Walker on Reinventing Rock ‘N Roll History
Shot by only the third female Director of Photography to ever be nominated for an Oscar—Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC—Warner Bros. acclaimed 2022 biopic Elvis was directed by Baz Luhrmann and stars Austin Butler, who gives an invigorating and transcendent performance as the titular rock icon. In-between gifting the world such priceless hits as “Love Me Tender,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” the superstar singer lived a tumultuous life that continues to fascinate the public decades after his death.
Told from the POV of Presley’s manager and occasional archenemy, carnival huckster “Colonel” Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, in a gonzo performance), the Moulin Rogue filmmaker’s chronicle of the “King of Rock n’ Roll” is a thunderous, emotional, and enthralling visual—and melodic—feast, brought to kinetic life by Walker’s active and experimental camerawork. We recently chatted with Walker about her work on the film and the strategy that went into creating the arresting visuals of the Oscar-nominated, decades-spanning musical odyssey.
With features like Hidden Figures, Australia, and Disney’s Mulan on her resume, Walker had dreamed of becoming a cinematographer since she was 13 years old. Between her love of still photography and art and passion for storytelling, filmmaking was the natural choice for the Victoria native, a Spirit Award Best Cinematography nominee for 2003’s Shattered Glass.
Though she mostly works on large studio productions these days, the proud Film Independent Member’s first 12 projects were all indies—which is another reason she was more than happy to chat with us about the exhilarating journey towards her first Oscar nomination.
For her fourth collaboration with Lurhmann, Walker started by customizing the lenses needed to put the audience into the various milieux of Presley’s storied life. Since the film takes us through the late 1940s—when Presley was merely a 10-year-old growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi—through Presley’s premature death in 1977, one might assume that the grainier quality of film would be more consistent with the look and feel of the period.
“Baz and I had a brief conversation about whether we should shoot on film. But because the story goes through so many different iterations of looks, we decided that digital would give us a better base,” she recalls of the earliest discussions on the project, back in the summer of 2019.
Both Walker and Luhrmann preferred the flexibility offered by digital, as she elaborated on why she went with the Arri Alexa 65. “Because we’re making the film for a modern audience, it would give us more freedom in terms of color, and we could shoot for a longer time. We wanted to shoot on 65mm, which is great for epic landscapes in nature. Elvis’s life is epic, so why not go big and bold and show his world that way?” Aside from epic widescreen shots, the Alexa 65 is also great for close-ups, she said, because of its shallow depth of field.
Throughout the film, archival footage of Presley is often showcased side-by-side against Butler’s recreation of a specific event or moment. “For some of the images, we would put on the grain of 35mm, some 16mm, and others Super 8. We felt like we have more control [with digital]. And on the portions of the story where we cut to real archival footage, we could match it. I felt that digital gave us that level of control and flexibility.”
Walker’s team first started by combing through all the footage available throughout Presley’s life, including home movie footage from the 1940s and 1950s; home movies from his Hollywood period; the 1968 NBC comeback special; and finally, his 1970s Vegas period. The specifications needed for this film were so precise that some of the lenses were custom-made by Panavision after talking to Dan Sasaki, the SVP of optical engineering and lens strategy at the company.
For the first part of Elvis’ life, modern lenses would be too clinically perfect and crisp for that period. So, they shot spherical with the Panavision 65 Sphero Lenses, which gave them images that are not too clean and not overly saturated. “Some of the glass literally came from the Lawrence of Arabia 65mm lenses, so they are older in style. Even though it’s a spherical lens, they had a graininess to them.”
When it came to Presley’s Vegas residency period, Walker chose the anamorphic route with the T-Series anamorphic lenses with 11:1 and 3:1 zoom—now coined as the “Elvis” lenses—which Sasaki has designed specifically for the production. To achieve the vintage imagery of the ‘60s and ‘70s, she got Panavision to “de-tune” them to take them back to how the lenses would have been at that time. “I had Dan put all the iterations back into them, the aberrations that would have been in the ’70s lenses. So the edges drop off a little bit and the focus is in the center of the lens. And that’s how we used to frame Austin, putting him in the center.”
Another alteration that Walker requested was to add more color to the anamorphic lens flares to reflect the multicolored hues of the Las Vegas scene. “I got him to put some color back into those flares. It felt a little bit more Vegas—there was magenta, green, and blue in the colors of the flares that we were getting from those lenses.”
Walker also had to ensure that the lenses would work perfectly for the scenes on Beale Street in downtown Memphis, the home of Blues music and an early and considerable influence in Presley’s rhythmic style. She tested them with lighting and Butler in full makeup and costume until the lenses felt right for the period. “When you got to Beale Street in the ‘50s, the color palette was very controlled and specific. We had a sense of how we wanted to represent what Memphis was like at that time, and some of our references for the color palette came from still photography from Gordon Parks and Saul Leiter.”
There were four performance-oriented sequences in the film: the 1956 Louisiana Hayride tour, the 1956 Russwood Park concert, the 1968 “Comeback Special” on NBC and the residency period at the International Hilton in Las Vegas. While there were hardly any references for the Hayride save for a few still photographs, Walker was able to rely on still photographer Alfred Wertheimer’s images for the 1956 Russwood Park charity performance.
Even 46 years after his death, many people still have distinct memories of watching Elvis perform, whether it be on television or in concert at the time or through flashes of news archival footage and documentaries in later years. With his performances clearly seared into our collective psyche, Walker had the added challenge of matching them shot-for-shot in the film, which Luhrmann coined as “trainspotting.”
To help Walker nail down these trainspotting shots, she relied on the documentary film by Denis Sanders, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which follows the beginning of the singer’s Vegas run in August 1970. “All the lighting, art direction, and everything on stage were replicated from that footage. We were meticulous in plotting where our cameras were going to have to go and used the same lenses, and even followed some of the same zoom shots that they had done to replicate the coverage. We had to work out when the lighting would dim, when the backdrop would change, and the colors to set up a whole concert lighting system that matched it.”
In addition to navigating the archival and concert footage portions of the film, Walker also had to blend these with dramatic tension and pacing in the rest of the story so that the audience didn’t feel like they were experiencing two distinct worlds within the same story. “There was a very specific way of covering the drama of the storytelling so that the audience would be watching the concert and feeling the drama at the same time, without feeling like there was a jump.”
For the parts of the story dealing with Presley’s drug addiction and some of the flashback sequences, Walker needed a way to create the dreamlike feeling or otherworldly look. Examples of these sequences include when Elvis collapses in the hallway at the International Hilton in Las Vegas and when Parker relays the story while he is on morphine in the hospital.
“We prefer to do as much as we can in-camera [as opposed to using special effects] so that it feels more organic, so we went with the Petzval lenses. It is developed from old glass that comes from projector lenses from the late 1800s. We had the 55mm and 110mm,” she reveals of the anamorphic and spherical versions of Petzval lenses that Sasaki had tailor-made.
Particularly for the scenes where Presley is in a drug-induced state, “It makes you feel like all the edges are closing in on you. It creates a vignette or a vortex, where all the outside goes out of focus and the only focus is on the center of the lens. It puts you in another world, like you’re in an unstable environment.”
Said Walker: “When the drama gets very serious and quiet, it’s more about the dialogue, the camera stops moving or slows down and the lighting changes to focus on the faces. We want the audience to feel what’s happening to him in that moment.”
By contrast, when it came to covering Presley’s rapid rise in the 1950s music scene and other chaotic times in his life, the cameras had to move swiftly to telegraph the frenetic visual energy onto the screen. Take for example a crucial moment early in the film: when Parker plunges his hooks deep into the vulnerable 19-year-old. At a carnival, Parker takes Presley up on the Ferris Wheel for a long conversation to convince him to leave the record producer who had discovered him, Sun Records’ Sam Phillips (Josh McConville), so that he (Parker) can represent him exclusively for a new contract with RCA Records.
Elvis: “I’ve always wanted to fly. Fast. Faster than the speed of light to the Rock of Eternity. My favorite comic hero, Captain Marvel Jr., he flies.”
Colonel Parker: “What about you, Mr. Presley? Are you ready to fly?”
Elvis: “Yes, sir. I’m ready. I’m ready to fly.”
With that, the camera swoops away from the Ferris Wheel and into the various negotiations that would at once propel Presley’s rapid rise to fame but also engulf him into a rollercoaster of success, betrayal, despair, and heartbreak. “The camera starts flying to show the whirlwind adventure that was about to happen to him,” said Walker, pointing to scenes of kinetic concerts, frantic fans, a whirlwind romance with Priscilla Presley, and Elvis’s nonstop touring schedule. “It was a wild ride. So, the camera takes you on that wild ride.”
Mandy Walker recently made history as the first woman to win the Feature Film competition at the American Society of Cinematographers “ASC” Awards on March 5, 2023. She is also nominated in the upcoming 95th Academy Awards on March 12th.
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