Cinematographer Mandy Walker Behind Making of “Elvis” Film
The great Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS, visited Filmmakers Academy to sit down with Brendan Sweeney for the latest edition of Finding the Frame. Mandy discusses her career trajectory as a director of photography and her cinematic approach to the movie Elvis.
Mandy was nominated for her work on Elvis by the American Society of Cinematographers, BAFTA, and the Academy Awards. She also just broke the ceiling at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts as the first woman to win Best Cinematography.
WATCH FINDING THE FRAME WITH MANDY WALKER, ASC, ACS
THE ORIGINS OF MANDY WALKER, ASC, ACS
From an early age, Mandy knew she wanted to be a filmmaker. More specifically, a cinematographer. She was first inspired by her mother who enjoyed art and painting, regularly exposing Mandy to art galleries. In high school, her father built her a dark room in a shed for her photography. And from there, her interest transformed into a calling.
Starting at her high school TV station, Mandy was told “we don’t have girls on the camera here.” She didn’t understand what they meant so she continued to pursue her dream unperturbed. Later, while taking a cinema critique class in college, she told the professor that she wanted to be a cinematographer but didn’t know how to get into the film industry. The professor had a friend making a feature film and helped her get a job as a runner.
Mandy soon after left college at 18 to focus on set jobs as a runner and 3rd AD for feature films. While working on set, she asked the camera teams if she could watch how they worked and talk to them about it. In the meantime, she practiced her craft with documentaries and music videos on the weekends for nothing. From there, she eventually became a loader, focus puller, and operator. Then, she began shooting her own projects over the next few years.
Ultimately, starting as an assistant and learning how production functioned and how DPs worked was essential to Mandy’s early education.
As a teenager, Mandy’s father took her to the State Film Center where she was introduced to foreign language films. These new and wondrous films impacted the way Mandy saw cinema and the nature of cinematography. Not only did she absorb filmmaking of other places and cultures, but this experience opened her worldview and motivated her interest in cinematography.
One film in particular that inspired Mandy was The Spirit of the Beehive and how director Victor Erice created such beautiful lighting with such little money. She remembers feeling as if she were in a beehive while watching it in the theater. The films of Wim Wenders and Robby Müller like Paris, Texas were also huge influences when Mandy was developing her eye.
REACHING THE NEXT LEVEL
As mentioned earlier, Mandy really learned the craft by shooting documentaries and music videos any chance she could. She also shot projects for film school friends in her spare time. This is the time when she could try new things and master the fundamentals of cinematography.
While filming the documentary As the Mirror Burns in Vietnam, Mandy was thoroughly tested to expose the film correctly without any visual reference throughout the entire production. It was 1990 and still over a decade before the digital age. It was a small crew — meaning only a cinematographer, director, producer, and sound recordist. No room for camera assistants. All Mandy had were two little redheads (800-watt tungsten lights) in a suitcase. So, she had to work with a lot of natural light and had no dailies the whole five weeks she was in production.
With no reference for how she was doing, she exposed by thinking of the image and trusting her gut. All she had to go by were a few tests she ran before production. On the film stock, she saw where the subject would be blown out and how dark the shadows were. When she arrived back home and saw the results, she was pleasantly surprised.
“I get exposure now,” she chuckles.
To this day, Mandy approaches digital as she would film. When she first learned to expose, she did so with the Ansel Adams Zone System. So, that’s how she looks at an image, creating three dimensions with color tones, lenses, and other photography tricks.
A FILM APPROACH TO DIGITAL FILMMAKING
Mandy Walker was not one of the early adopters of the digital revolution, because she wanted to stick with the best tools and cinematic procedures. It was after those cinematographers who pioneered the digital medium when Mandy hopped on, first with commercials and then with features.
“I didn’t want to be part of the experimentation of the early part of it where I thought, ‘Well, this doesn’t look as good as film so why am I using it?’ And to me, I didn’t want to do that…. So I didn’t want to use it until I felt that it was in a place where it could do the right job for the movie and not compromise.”
—Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS
What Mandy appreciates about digital is how she can see the image on set with “fantastic monitors.” Now, she can watch with the director and get granular with the imagery. The image you see is the image that you’ll get, and that wasn’t always possible with film.
What Mandy learned about film in a time when Australia didn’t have color timing in their dailies was discipline and understanding limitations. She only had one light workprint (meaning if she normally overexposed by two-thirds of a stop and then brought it down for dailies). So, if she got the exposure wrong, there was nobody adjusting it. Whereas, in the U.S., most feature films had color time dailies. So, if she made a mistake stateside, she saw it right away.
In contrast, Mandy is very happy shooting in a digital format. According to Mandy, there are many things you can do to make your visuals stand out from the last film you saw. To create a different feel, cinematographers used to shoot different film stocks, push and pull the negative, and cross processing with a negative. It was a more physical process than it is today with digital.
WATCH THE FULL INTERVIEW
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