This article featured in CW010, (July/August) edition of Cinematography World
LONG LIVE THE KING
By Ron Prince
It’s a fair bet that many people of a certain age will know where they were on August 16th, 1977, when Elvis Presley shuffled off this mortal coil, such was the breadth of his undeniable influence on popular culture around the world during the ‘50s, ‘60’s and ‘70s.
Simply-titled Elvis, and shot by Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker AM ACS ASC, director Baz Luhrmann’s exuberant, foot-tapping biopic of the veritable king of rock ‘n’ roll, stars Austin Butler as Presley, and tells Elvis’s cradle-to-grave story from the perspective of his manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, honing-in on key moments that made, and eventually put paid to, the legend.
Elvis premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival to rapturous applause, and received positive reviews from critics, with praise for Butler’s performance and the mounting of the musical sequences.
For Walker, whose other big-screen credits include Jane Got A Gun (2015), Hidden Figures (2016) and Mulan (2020), Elvis represents her second feature-length collaboration with Luhrmann, following Australia (2008), although she had also filmed a brace of short films for Chanel No.5 perfume with the director.
“Elvis himself was an iconic figure and shooting a biopic about his life and times was exciting to me”
“From all of my previous experiences with him, I can truly say that Baz is an incredible and meticulous collaborator,” says Walker, who became a Member of the Order Of Australia (AM) in the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honours, and who was shooting Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action version of Snow White (2023) in the UK at the time of the interview.
“Elvis himself was, and remains, an iconic figure in history and music, so the thought of shooting a biopic about his life and times was exciting to me,” she reveals. “Baz likes getting everyone together early-on – all of the different heads of departments – to share his vision and ideas, and to receive their creative and practical input, and Elvis was no different.
“My first meeting with Baz was in July 2019. He had been working on this project for ten years. He had done a lot of research and even lived at Elvis’ Graceland mansion for a year. Together with his wife, Catherine Martin, the costume/production designer and a producer on the film, plus the make-up and other heads, he had assembled a superb look book of historical and suitably-evocative stills images, documentary film and archive TV footage – Elvis on-stage, his Las Vegas and Hollywood years, and private photos of Elvis in downtime with his friends and family.
“That reference proved very helpful to me, not only in setting the scene for the multitude of visual looks that would be needed across the time span of the film, but also in harmoniously stitching together the emotional journey from scene-to-scene that Baz envisioned.”
The sweep across those different eras involves recreating Elvis’ time at Sun Records and in the US army, his marriage, his string of movie musicals, the 1968 NBC ‘Comeback Special’, and his Las Vegas residency at the Hilton Hotel.
Walker had 16 weeks of prep on the film. As the elaborate sets began to take shape – on stages at Village Roadshow Studios, Gold Coast, Queensland, plus backlots about 30-minutes drive away – and the January 2020 physical production date loomed ever-closer, Walker’s focus became more intensified on what was needed, both aesthetically and technically, as regards the cinematography.
“Along with my camera operators, gaffer and grips, I started to spend more and more time attending rehearsals with the cast,” she explains. “This meant that by the time we were ready to shoot, we had plotted where the cameras, lighting and lighting transitions needed to be, and we could work really efficiently.”
During prep, Walker immersed herself in additional inspirational imagery, such as the photography of Saul Leiter and Gordon Parks, to support the visual story arc. She also consulted with to Dan Sasaki at Panavision, LA on her camera and lens package.
“I had already decide to shoot on ARRI Alexa 65, in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, to convey the epic grandeur of the story, after all Elvis was ‘The King’, and to use shallow depth-of-field for the more intimate moments in his private life,” Walker confides.
“I spoke to Dan about the emotional journey through the film. Dan is both clever and sensitive, and came up with various lens options. After testing, which included rigorous scrutiny of the colour and texture of the costumes in different lighting scenarios, we ended-up choosing Sphero 65 lenses for the first part of Elvis’ life, and T-series Anamorphics, for his Las Vegas and later years, which Dan adapted to bring greater saturation, contrast and more vivid flares to the image, which really matched those times.”
As she had done previously on Mulan, Walker also commissioned an antique Petzval lens to frame certain sequences, such as Parker’s drug experiences and Elvis’s collapse in the corridor at the Hilton Hotel, because “the edges are quite extreme, and the focus is in the dead centre, so you feel like you’re in a vortex.”
A further consideration was how the different eras would be treated across the story arc.
“Working with my DIT, I created a whole series of LUTs for the different periods of Elvis’ life. At every location during production, Baz and I went into the DIT tent to make sure those looks were exactly right. Then, every evening, I watched the dailies with my dailies colourist, Kim Rene Bjørge, to check that our different scenes matched and flowed into one another, as we were not shooting in chronological order.”
Principal photography on Elvis began on January 28, 2020, but came to an abrupt halt in March following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Filming resumed at the end of October 2020 and wrapped 91 shooting days after it originally began, in March 2021.
“I stayed in Australia, with my husband and daughter, and we hunkered down,” says Walker, “but I was able to use the downtime do more research, and kept chatting with Baz. Despite the hiatus, we picked-up again where we left off, and continued with most of our crew.”
Jason Ellson operated A-camera/Steadicam, assisted by Luke Thomas on focus. Jay Torta was on B-camera, supported by Ron Coe on focus. The key grip was Greg Tidman, with Shawn Conway working as gaffer.
At Luhrmann’s request to bring dramatic energy and emotion to the camera, Walker says she employed the broad range of handheld, Steadicam, dolly and cranes to keep the camera moving.
“Looking back to archive footage, which Baz called our ‘trainspotting’ sequences, we even went as far as reproducing moments such as Elvis’s ‘Comeback Special’ and Las Vegas concerts in terms of camera positions and lighting,” she says.
“For Las Vegas we had four cameras and two cranes, and shot the stage performance for a week. For the sweeping shot through Elvis’ VistaLiner motorhome, the art department created an identical mock-up to enable the crane to pull right through the vehicle, with a remote head so the camera could pan around here and there.
“Shooting the concerts was such a special experience for everyone. Baz is like a conductor, at any one moment he might be with the grips and the crane team, beside the camera operators and focus pullers, or with the lighting crews, giving them visual cues. Everyone really became super-involved in the storytelling. We all knew of the songs, the timings and rhythms of the moves, and often I’d find people bopping and dancing around to the music.”
Walker says she is most proud of the set replicating the concert hall at the Las Vegas Hilton, where Elvis had his residency.
“The set itself was absolutely enormous, and we had he challenge of recreating a full-on concert lighting set-up of that time,” she says. “I discussed this in-depth with Shawn, my gaffer, and we initially considered bringing in a professional concert lighting team. But, in the end, we decided to do it ourselves, using old school directional Parcans and Fesnels, combined with ARRI Orbiters, along with other LEDs to supplement to general ambiance, which we could control off the dimmer board.”
The DI grade was conducted at a purpose-built facility for the movie on the Gold Coast, with Walker joining Lurhmann remotely from a grading theatre at Warner Bros. in LA.
“The film that Baz tells you he’s making, is the one he actually makes,” asserts Walker. “Because of the meticulous attention to detail during production, the many looks from our sets and scenes transferred perfectly from our dailies into post.
“Baz creates a special atmosphere, and everybody feels really involved with him and the filmmaking process”
“Apart from integrating various VFX set extensions and bluescreen shots, or stripping-in a slightly different sky, there was not a lot to be done as regards the images themselves, although we add a little LiveGrain for texture here and there.”
Oscar’s buzz seems to start earlier and earlier these days, and there are already expectations from some of Walker being tipped for a statuette, the thought of which makes her chuckle and remark, “Good on them!”
“I had never done a musical, but I loved the challenge. Making Elvis was a very special experience, mainly because of Baz. He creates a special atmosphere, and everybody feels really involved with him and the filmmaking process. It’s a generous way to make movies.”