The Australian Cinematographer Behind Disney’s Epic Live-Action ‘Mulan’

From New Zealand director Niki Caro MNZM (Whale Rider), and Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker ACS ASC (Hidden Figures), a young Chinese maiden (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father and fight for her country in Disney’s live-action epic Mulan.

Interview by Claire Marsh.

Liu Yifei is Hua Mulan in Mulan - DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC
Liu Yifei is Hua Mulan in Mulan – DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC

AC – Firstly, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. Can you tell me a little about the story of Mulan?

MW – Well, basically, the Emperor of China (Jet Li) declares war and every family has to send one man or boy to fight. Mulan’s (Liu Yifei) father volunteers to go but his legs were injured in the last war and the family knows that he’s not going to fair too well going into battle like that. Mulan dresses up in his armour and joins the army as a male. It’s through Mulan’s training that she realises she’s an elite warrior. Mulan is enlisted as part of a group of highly-trained forces and is sent off to fight.

AC – What attracted you to this project?

MW – My daughter loved the original Disney film when she was growing up. I’d seen the animation a number of times. I’d always wanted to work with director Niki Caro because I love her films. I always thought she was a very interesting filmmaker and loved that she has strong female characters in her films. When I found out that I had an interview with her I was so excited. Then I loved the script; so it was sort of a win-win for me when I got the job. It was great.

AC – How did that relationship go, with director Niki Caro?

MW – It was fantastic. During pre-production we took a few trips to China together. We also looked at reference films and studied Chinese art and photography as we were working out the visual language of the film. It was very collaborative. We realised pretty quickly that we were on the same page, which was fantastic. Our director was very organised and a very quick thinker. I think I’m the same, so when we were on set together, I felt there was a real synchronicity with our decision-making.

I think one of the most important things that the director said to me at the beginning of filming was that Mulan is the centre of the film. I always had that in the back of my mind. Whenever we talked about coverage or the choreography of the fight scenes I was always thinking that the camera had to be with her. We were lucky that Liu Yifei did many of her own stunt sequences, which meant that we could concentrate on her face. It’s not like when there’s a stunt person doing it. We could have really long lenses and focus on her face. Niki Caro is a great collaborator, so with every department the visual language was consistent and we were all very organised as a team.

Filming 'Mulan' on location, director Niki Caro at centre - PHOTO Walt Disney Pictures
Filming ‘Mulan’ on location, director Niki Caro at centre – PHOTO Walt Disney Pictures

AC – I’m interested by the fact that you were drawing from Chinese art and design. Can you tell me how much that influenced the look of the film? 

MW – I think a lot because even though we went for an original visual language, you can kind of glean the essence of things that we had in our references. Like when we went into the Imperial City, the real Imperial City in China, we found the architecture to be very symmetrical. So it lends itself to having somebody in the centre of the frame. The composition of a lot of Chinese art follows that same style. We had it in the back of our minds, but we also wanted to find something new.

During pre-production we also looked at films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962, cinematography by Freddie Young OBE BSC), and we watched a lot of Chinese martial art films because Mulan is an epic battle film.

I chose to shoot on a 65mm ARRI Alexa Digital because it’s the perfect tool for seeing big, epic landscape shots. It’s also a very intimate camera because it has a lower depth-of-field than shooting 35mm. When you’re on a close up you can drop the focus right off and be very intimate with the character. It’s pretty amazing that camera. I know that when they first developed it, the camera was thought to be mainly used for visual effects, or to do big exteriors. What you realise while working with it is that it beautifully photographs peoples faces.

I also had lenses custom made by Dan Sasaki at Panavision Woodland Hills. We had a portrait lens using glass based on a Petzval lens made in the United Kingdom that was from the 1800s which focuses on the centre of the lens, but then it drops off quite dramatically to the edges. When we wanted the audience to concentrate very much on her face we would use that lens, and then other people behind her would drop off and it really focused on her.

AC – Having only seen the trailer, one of the first things that struck me was the vibrancy of the colour pallet. Can you tell me a little about working with Grant Major (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and the production design team?

MW – As well as being a version of the Chinese fable that is set in ancient times it also is a Disney movie and has an aesthetic that we decided was beautiful as well as historical.

We all worked really closely together to create the visual language; all the elements of what’s in the frame and how we see the characters. For instance, Mulan lives in a Fujian Tulou, which are ancient rural villages, built in the round. One important thing, which the director said right at the beginning, was that these Tulous shouldn’t feel old or antique; that their tools and clothes should reflect their present time. It shouldn’t be brown and grey and old looking. Also, the colour red was chosen for Mulan as her signature colour. That’s a very important part of the colour palette of the film.

A scene from 'Mulan' - DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC
A scene from ‘Mulan’ – DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC

AC – It’s a very important colour in Chinese culture too, isn’t it?

MW – It is, yes. It’s a very important colour. The way we approached colour represented that. In Mulan’s village, for example, there was much more colour and I went that way with the lighting as well. It’s very warm and inviting. Then obviously we’d get to a battle sequence and what we did was use hardly any colour. We dressed the opposing army in grey and brown so that Mulan would pop out in her red outfit. We chose a location that was very bland in colour as well, so that the audience would really be concentrating on her.

We also spent a lot of time working with stunt people and the choreographers because the director had said she didn’t want it to be a ‘generic fighting sequence’. She wanted it to be elegant and controlled, especially Mulan’s fight sequence. When we would watch the stunts, we would think of camera moves and think of ways to capture how she moves through the air. She’s not a superhero, she doesn’t do anything supernatural, but she has abilities that most people don’t have. She has what’s called ‘Qi’, which is like an inner force.

I haven’t done a battle movie before, so we looked at lots of battle scenes and I really looked at the cinematography. I thought it shouldn’t look like a boring mishmash, it should be something that feels like she has elegant control. I did that with the cameras as well, so that the movement of the camera and the framing is very specific to the action.

AC – The way you’re describing it makes me envision a dance between yourself and the action. 

MW – That’s exactly right. It’s very interesting that you picked that up, because that’s exactly what we did. A lot of the time the camera was on a Scorpio Telescopic Crane with an Oculus head, which has multiple axis. We were able to spin around Mulan and dance with her exactly like that. A lot of her shots are filmed from the crane, and there was some Steadicam, cable-cam and Russian arm tracking vehicle. We were hardly ever hand-held. Generally we were on rigs that followed the action because it allowed us greater control over movement.

Actually, a lot of shots were designed in pre-visualisation. There were so many stunts involved, and the horse sequences were so complicated, that we had to plan it out in advance because we needed specific equipment in order to get those shots with seperate elements. Then a lot of our photography we tried to be ‘in camera’, so it wasn’t about having just green screen everywhere.

We would have as much set as we possibly could. It would be green screen extensions or skies but we limited it so that the actors felt like they were part of the environment. They weren’t acting just on green. And because we didn’t shoot in China; we only really shot scenic there; we shot the rest of it in New Zealand.

Jason Scott Lee as Bori Khan in a scene from 'Mulan' - DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC
Jason Scott Lee as Bori Khan in a scene from ‘Mulan’ – DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC

AC – Oh wow, really?

MW – Yes, so everything with actors we did in New Zealand. We captured the desert and the landscapes in China with a few helicopter shots, then we built the Imperial Palace including all the rooms and the courtyard on a backlot. They were outside and they were real.

AC – It sounds like an epic feat. How long were you shooting for? What did your shooting schedule look like?

MW – It was actually pretty quick for a big action film. We had seventy-four days scheduled and we came in on time. We were so organised. And we had to be. The director and I were very aware that this was the first time a film set this big had been run by women; female director, female cinematographer, female first assistant director and a female lead. We were very cognisant of everybody watching us for that reason. We were very determined to make it work and we did.

From the very beginning I wanted the director to feel like she had the set. Most of the lighting is outside the set and that’s also how I would light locations. We had a huge throne room set and I would pre-rig the lighting from 360-degrees. Everything’s on a dimmer board. We would look one way and shoot, then by the time we turned the camera around I would already have turned the light around. It was very quick and efficient.

When we were in the Fujian Tulou, the exterior set for Mulan’s village, I had three very big 60ft x 40ft charcoal diffusion frames and we could shoot in any weather, at any time of day. I kept it pretty much in the shade, so that we would never be waiting for light and we never had to suddenly bring out lamps to match to sun when we lost it.

I had a great crew. I was working with Shaun Conway, who’s my gaffer, and has been my gaffer on many films. I think we started working together twenty-five years ago. We have a very close relationship and have developed our own shorthand. Once I explained to Conway the visual language and style he could really get in there and make it happen. He has a really good eye and is clever making his own lights and planning for quick turn arounds.

AC – It’s invaluable to have a gaffer who knows what you need, and can do it. 

MW – Yes, exactly, so you’re not having to micromanage. We also had at least two cameras on everything, and for some of the battle sequences we had five cameras. For the big scenes, the battle scenes, where we had sixty horses and a hundred soldiers, we had a military battle AD unit that worked with all the extras and actors in military manoeuvres and martial arts so that when it came time to rehearse they were ready to go. They knew, before they arrived on set, how to move together, walk together. They knew all the action. During their rehearsals the director and I would walk around and find angles because, again, you can only do so much in pre-visualisation.

I had really good people on my crew. I tried to involve people collaboratively so they would never feel like they were just being bossed around or didn’t have a creative input. I include them in pre-production so they’re aware of the visual language of the movie. The director and I would talk to them everyday about what she wanted the scene to be saying story wise and the approach we should take. We were so happy and our crew were so enthusiastic.

Filming 'Mulan' on location, Jason Scott Lee at centre - PHOTO Walt Disney Pictures
Filming ‘Mulan’ on location, Jason Scott Lee at centre – PHOTO Walt Disney Pictures

AC – What do you think was the most challenging aspect of shooting Mulan?

MW – The most important aspect of my job is helping the director tell the story to an audience. If I understand the story, and understand the images I have to tell that particular story, that’s the challenge I enjoy most.

I think for me the most time consuming and logistical part of this film was the battle sequences. I mean every time I do a movie I choose a film that interests me story wise. And the fight sequences were one of the aspects of this particular project that were exciting because I’d never done anything like it before, so I found that a great challenge.

It was also about working out how to do things that serviced the director’s vision. I always kept that in the back of my mind. Being efficient, not going over budget, and getting the right people for the job. It’s the juggling of all the parts of my job that I actually love.

AC – How involved were you with the edit, and the grade?

MW – One of the most important aspects of cinematography, now more than ever, is working with visual effects. I always try to set up a relationship with that department very early on in pre-production. They have to understand what I’m trying to achieve and what the director wants in every scene so that people don’t go off on their own tangent. Because that can happen with visual effects. I kept that relationship going throughout post-production, even while I’m working on other things.

What I would do afterwards is pop in and see what they’re doing, or they would do things like send me examples that they wanted to put behind a certain scene that was shot to be at dusk and I would say, well that one suits the lighting more than anything, that was more of a reference that I showed everyone when I went to light it. That type of thing.

We did a final grade pass for the director’s cut of Mulan. I went in and balanced things, and the director did ask to change the look of certain scenes after editing as it sometimes changes the timeline, or sometimes a director wants a slightly different feel after seeing how things sit together. A cinematographer has to keep the production flowing. We came back and did some additional photography, but not a lot. We added a couple of little scenes with a couple of changes of dialogue.

I worked with Natasha Leonnet, who is a colourist at Efilm, who I’ve worked with on quite a few films like Hidden Figures (2016) and The Mountain Between Us (2017). We did what’s called a ‘look bible’ where we go through the movie and pick a couple of shots from each scene and do a grade on them, and then the director would come in to have a look and give us feedback.

Then I went to start work on Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Untitled Elvis’ project, at that time in early pre-production. As I am based up in Queensland, what we did was each weekend for four weeks was to stream the digital intermediate (DI) image and sound from Efilm Hollywood through TVips to me in a DI suite at Cutting Edge on the Gold Coast. It’s a secure internet connection that is full-resolution and in real-time. I could watch what they were doing in the edit suite while we’re talking on Skype.

Throughout each week the colourist would have gone through some scenes and I would go in on the weekends and spend a day making adjustments. Then the director would be watching on the same system at Disney, in between when she was sound mixing, and we got to grade the film like that. I actually still got to be very involved even though I was on the other side of the world, which is amazing. The technology we have now is absolutely incredible; you would not have been able to do this ten years ago. It’s not like I’m looking at some bad internet version on my computer, or a DVD or something, I’m actually watching, in real time, pretty close to full-resolution, what they are doing in the DI suite in Los Angeles.

Liu Yifei plays Hua Mulan in 'Mulan' - DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC
Liu Yifei plays Hua Mulan in ‘Mulan’ – DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC

AC – Do you have a favourite scene or sequence? Or has something from the film stayed with you?

MW – Yes, I do. The fight sequences with Mulan are some of my favourites from any movie I’ve ever done. The film is also very emotional and I get emotional when I watch it.

For example, the final twenty minutes of the movie, even though there was no spectacular visual fighting or exciting camera moves or anything going on, it’s still a very dramatic part of the movie. That sequence really resonates with me. To me, it means that we did shoot Mulan the right way. Storytelling is important. My job is not just about moving the camera for the sake of moving the camera or lighting something in a way that is visually showing off. Sometimes it’s not moving the camera, or it’s about picking the right lens for the right moment, or picking the right depth-of-field, or picking the right lighting situation so as not to take the audience out of the scene but enhance the right emotion. It may be a simple scene, photographically, but it’s one of the most emotional in the movie. I’m proud that we shot Mulan to express the journey of the main character.

AC – Looking back on those initial conversations with Niki Caro, do you think you succeeded with what you were hoping to achieve? 

MW – Yes. And more.

I always feel like the process of pre-production is exciting, working out how you’re going to shoot a particular film. It’s a development. First, I sit down with the director and go through the script and just talk about the story. I really want to understand the story they want to tell and learn the way they want to tell it, and how best to support them in that. While my job is very technical, we don’t talk technicalities at that stage. First and foremost I’m an artist and that’s a very important part of my job. I have to work with interpreting and expressing through visual language, the director’s vision. I have to understand the emotion in a scene and what’s going on with the character to be able to translate that to an audience. Once I understand the emotional message and the artistic images we are going for, then I can work out the technical way of achieving this.

I always go to Panavision and talk to the amazing Dan Sasaki, who is the lens guru at Woodland Hills who develops the lenses for me for each project. I could say to him, for instance, that I want this landscape to look like a particular painting and he interprets that in his ideas for lens building. Some of the lenses he developed for Mulan are painterly, epic landscape lenses. I don’t know how he does his magic; but he can do things with glass and coatings and moving the elements to create a look. Sasaki, for instance, mentioned to me that there was glass used in the 1800s that was designed for stills portraiture . And then he’d develop our lenses from scratch. It’s a combination of the artistic elements, the technical elements and the organisation.

AC – It’s alchemy. 

MW – That’s right, exactly. A very important part of my job is to be a General who is in charge of my crew and many units. Sometimes its up to two-hundred people working in my department. I have to organise, communicate and collaborate with them. There are all these elements that you’re juggling together to get what the director wants. It’s not just making pretty pictures, which is something I tell my students. I tell them, a cinematographer’s job is not just making a cool camera move or simply thinking about interesting lighting. It’s storytelling and how to get there. It’s having people come with you, who want to be with you, and who want to go on a journey with you.

Liu Yifei is Mulan, in 'Mulan' - DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC
Liu Yifei is Mulan, in ‘Mulan’ – DOP Mandy Walker ACS ASC

AC – I’m wondering if the ending of Mulan changed much from the original, given the shifts we’ve seen in contemporary society as a result of things like the #metoo movement?

MW – I think Mulan is a feminist story because it’s about a woman finding out that she has special powers, and that she has an inner strength. I think the lesson of this film is that all women have this potential. That it’s something inside you that you have to discover for yourself. To discover your confidence and passion, and be brave, loyal and true.

AC – You don’t have to give the game away. 

MW – I cant [laughs]. But let me just say, from the outset the director had said, I want to make a film about a female warrior, and that’s what she did. We used to talk about ourselves on set and say, that in making this film we’re warriors (laughs). All women should be able to know they have that potential power.

AC – It’s a fantastic message, and not just within the story of Mulan, but in the story of making of the film. It’s incredibly impressive and really inspiring. 

MW – Thank you. That’s what I hope. It’s why I want people to know that this is the first time a film of this caliber was made with all women at the top. Women who are running the set and running it well. We were really organised because we knew what we wanted and we were confidant. We were warriors.

AC – Absolutely. All credit to you. I can’t wait to see the film. 

MW – I’m very very proud of it.

AC – You’re currently working on Elvis?

MW – We were pre-production but are now in hiatus like many projects

AC – Can you tell me a little about what drew you to that story? 

MW – Well, again I loved the script and story and what’s important to me is collaborating with a director that I respect and who is a visionary, like Baz Luhrmann. I worked with him on Australia (2008) and also a couple of small films for luxury brand Chanel. When I met with him about Elvis he told me he’s been working on this for ten years or more. I got to read the script and I jumped at the chance because I love working with him. He’s a great collaborator. It’s another exciting but different project. I like to do different things and l like challenges. And I haven’t done a musical before.

It’s also a film about an iconic person and to me that’s really interesting. I suppose when I did Hidden Figures, digging in to the real life stories of those women was a big part of my job and I’ve started doing that now with Elvis Presley. Because the director and Catherine Martin, his wife and collaborator, have done so much initial research, right now I’m working out how we are going to approach actually putting that vision cinematographically onto the screen.

It’s been a very busy, exciting few months. It’s going to be really great once we are back up and running.  There are really good people working on Elvis so I’m having a ball. To go from one great project to another, I’m really lucky. Working on Mulan was a really amazing experience and I’m very proud of what we did.

AC – You can’t ask for more than that, can you?

MW – No, you really can’t.

Mandy Walker ACS ASC is one of Australia’s most acclaimed and in-demand cinematographers having worked on a number of feature films including Love Serenade (1996), winner of the Cannes Camera d’Or.

Claire Marsh is a director and script developer based in Melbourne. 

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