Were Going to Fly in This Movie: Elvis Cinematographer Mandy Walker on Shooting the King

During his lifetime, Elvis Presley dominated popular culture. Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis” — starring Austin Butler as Presley and Tom Hanks as his manager Colonel Tom Parker — focuses on key incidents to illuminate the performer’s influence: Sun Records, the Army, his marriage, a string of movie musicals, the 1968 “Comeback Special,” and his Las Vegas residency all come back to life with the help of cinematographer Mandy Walker.

This is Walker’s fourth collaboration with Luhrmann, after Australia and two Chanel shorts; a native of Melbourne, she was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2021. Walker was the DP on the 2020 version of “Mulan,” and is currently shooting another animation-to-live-action adapation for Disney: “Snow White.” Walker spoke with IndieWire about “dress rehearsals” for The King, flying cameras, and whether or not she can say anything about “Snow White” yet.

IndieWire: Let’s start with how you work with Luhrmann.

Mandy Walker: Baz is very much a collaborator. He likes getting everyone together: me, the art department, costumes, makeup, everyone. He and [costume designer, production designer, and producer] Catherine Martin put together a look book of locations. Then I came in and we start talking about how to technically achieve what he wants.

I had a lot of prep on this movie, I think 16 weeks, and we went through everything meticulously together so there’s a harmony in the visual language.

How detailed does the prep get? Do you shot list and storyboard?

There were some sequences we storyboarded, but not all of them. What we did was spend a lot of time doing what I’m calling ‘dress rehearsals.’ As the sets are being built, Baz is rehearsing with the actors. We had the operators and grips come in, so by the time we’re ready to shoot, we know where the cameras are going to go. I know where the lighting has to be. We spend a lot of time working together so we can work more efficiently later.

Baz is really meticulous about transitions between sequences. They always tie together to form an emotional journey.

Mandy Walker on the set of “Elvis”

Ruby Bell

How did you approach shooting the movie’s different time periods?

I had lenses made to represent different periods. For the first part of his life I shot spherical, in what we called ‘black and white’ color that referenced photographers like Gordon Parks and Saul Leiter. It’s a desaturated look with pushed blacks. It was very specific to when Elvis is running around Tupelo, going to the Pentecostal church. We tested that LUT very early on, to see what colors would pop out in the costumes, in the magazine he was reading, the color of the walls.

By the time Elvis got to Hollywood, I had more depth of field, more color in the lighting, more contrast. Then in Las Vegas we used anamorphic lenses. I had them replace all the glass with old glass from the period. They had more aberrations, horizontal flares. They weren’t clinically perfect like modern lenses.

We also built a Petzval lens based on a projector lens from the 19th century. It focuses only in the center. The edges are quite extreme, so you feel like you’re in a vortex. We used that when Elvis collapses in the hallway, and for the dreams and drug experiences.

We did look-up tables for every sequence, and I had my DIT come on early to build those looks. We really stuck to them. I’d go to dailies every night to make sure the transitions from one period to the next were flowing nicely and not jumping. By the time we got to the final grading, the looks were already there.

You also tried to duplicate different film stocks.

For some sequences we used LiveGrain, which matches older film stocks. For the home footage sequences, for example. We started on 65mm for the spherical footage, so we were degrading it quite a bit to make it match.


Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

You’re using a moving camera throughout ‘Elvis.’ What went into that decision? How do you think it affects viewers?

The Elvis story is epic. He became the biggest rock ’n’ roll star, the biggest movie star of his time. So it was about how do we take the audience on this journey with him? It starts at the carnival, where the Colonel takes him up in a Ferris Wheel, like, ‘This is the start. We’re going to fly in this movie.’ And then the camera starts flying.

In a lot of films you hardly ever move the camera. When you do move it, it’s a very dramatic moment. This film is the opposite. We are on this huge, fantastic journey with Elvis, but when the drama gets serious, the camera really slows down.

Like the scene where he realizes he can’t leave the Colonel. He’s locked in his hotel room in Vegas at night, he’s playing the piano. The camera’s very high, it comes down and finds him, and then it’s very, very slow. The lights go out, he walks around, the curtains close. It was all carefully planned, and then we shot against blue screen. All those exteriors were put in later.


Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

How difficult is it to shoot with blue screen, without a full visual context?

We sit with the visual effects department and work out the backgrounds. So I always knew what it would eventually be. Sometimes I’d pick a sky and ask Baz, ‘Is this the sky for this location?’

The scene near the end of the movie, when he’s in a car with Priscilla on the tarmac, about to leave on his plane, that was shot on blue screen. It’s not a location at all. There was no airplane, we just had two cars and that was it.

Can you talk about how you shot the concerts?

I remember an early discussion with Baz. ‘Mandy, we’re going to reproduce the Hilton showroom, and you’re going to do the lighting and camera positions, and they’re going to be exactly the same as [the 1970 concert documentary] “That’s the Way It Is.”’ I talked with the gaffer, and we were wondering, maybe we should get some concert lighting people in to design it. We came back to it the next day and we went, ‘What were we thinking? Of course we can do this.’ I love that about Baz, it’s always something new, something I haven’t done before. I had never done a musical, but I love the challenge.

Baz called the NBC 1968 ‘Comeback Special’ and the Vegas concert ‘trainspotting’ sequences. What we did was reproduce them in terms of lensing, camera positions, lighting. So for the Hilton showroom, we matched exactly the lighting changes and color. I searched everywhere to find old theatrical lights from the period. I used those in combination with modern lighting to show the connection between Elvis and Priscilla in the audience during the ‘Comeback Special,’ for example.


Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

For Vegas we had four cameras going and two cranes. I think we shot the actual stage performance for a week. But beforehand we walked around the set with our phones to test the angles we would shoot. By the time the real audience arrived we knew where we were going to be. We knew down to a T every lighting and backdrop change, every follow spot, because that footage exists.

You designed some majestic, sweeping shots, like one through Elvis’ VistaLiner motor home.

Baz got the art department to make a mock-up of the VistaLiner so we could plan, test different red cushions, different costumes and lights. The shot you’re talking about was a crane shot that starts at the back and pulls all the way through. So the goal was to build the VistaLiner around that one shot. We made sure the camera on a remote head would fit through the space, pan here, move there. It was all very heavily R&D’ed.


Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

You also have those crane shots through Memphis, filled with extras and period cars.

That was a situation where Baz actually storyboarded. Those shots were designed so that everything would work to camera, before we even built Beale Street. How Elvis was going to drive his car in, how he was going look up the window at Club Handy, how we’d go from one store to another and end up at Lansky’s. Beale Street was designed to be able to shoot like that.

You have an astonishing shot after the ‘Comeback Special’ where Elvis is describing the band he wants to use in Vegas. The camera swings by the Sweet Inspirations, the Imperials, a 30-piece orchestra.

That was a Steadicam shot we did in one go. We planned it, rehearsed it, had a diagram of where everyone was going to be. It changed a little for bit for the path of the Steadicam. But yeah, a 360-degree shot that ended on Elvis’ hand.

Baz didn’t have storyboards for that one, he just explained how he wanted to do it. Can I just say that it’s always fun working with him because he’s such a collaborator. He’ll work with the grips and the focus pullers and the camera operators, be really in tune with them. He’s like a conductor. He has these ideas and then he says, ;Okay everybody, we’re going to do this. And I want the camera to do that.’

Everybody feels really involved with him. He talks directly to them in a really generous way.

I also want to say how hard Austin worked. I’m still bedazzled by his performance. All my camera operators would be bopping and dancing, just having fun. Because we were at an Elvis concert, I mean it felt like you were really there.

Can you say anything about Disney’s ‘Snow White’?

[Laughs] No. Not yet. It’s fun though. It’s going to be beautiful.

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