When cinematographer Mandy Walker boarded Elvis, one of her principal goals was to make the camera “dance with” the King of Rock and Roll, as played by Austin Butler.
This vision on the part of the DP and filmmaker Baz Luhrmann dictated that the camera would often be right up in the actor’s face, as he performed scenes onstage. The pair, at the same time, knew they’d need to acquaint Butler with their process as early on as possible, such that behind-the-scenes goings-on would be almost invisible to him, and he could deliver his best work.
Accomplishing this required Walker to be on hand, with one camera or another, from the time of Butler’s first performance workshops.
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“I was there…looking at angles on him with my stills camera, running around and starting that discussion very early on,” she explained during a panel as part of Deadline’s Contenders Film: The Nominees event. “This is nine months or something before we went into prep, and then I went to a lot of his choreography rehearsals and was observing what he was doing.”
When Walker brought her colleagues — including dolly and crane grips, and camera operators — into the process, she had them learn the songs Butler would be performing in advance of the next stage of rehearsals.
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The notion of camera and actor as dance partners was made all the easier to realize by Butler, Walker recalls, given the command he demonstrated as far as his performance. “He is such a perfectionist. Once he had the song and the dance down, he was the same every time,” Walker said. “He was perfect in how he was moving, so we always knew, ‘Okay, he’s going to put his hand out in front of the light right now, or he’s going to slide this way, he’s going to go on his toes right now.’ So, we were always prepared for that.”
Walker landed her first Oscar nomination for her work on Elvis — becoming just the third woman in history to be recognized in the Cinematography category. In the Contenders panel she also touched on the need to precisely re-create real Elvis footage for what she terms “trainspotting” sequences, the visual styles she was juxtaposing on Elvis and how she navigated between them, her interest in shooting an action film going forward, and more.
Examining Presley’s life and music through the prism of his complicated relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis is nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Check out the panel video above.
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