Plenty of music biopics are content to shoot their subjects’ iconic concerts straightforwardly, as though extended, by-the-numbers recreations of tour dates are what audiences expect and want to see. “Elvis” rejects that approach. From the way it zests the rock-and-roll king’s catalogue to its live-wire cinematography, Baz Luhrmann’s maximalist, jewel-toned vision reintroduces Elvis Presley to modern audiences through a kaleidoscopic experience that emulates the novelty which electrified ‘50s-era crowds.
SEE Mandy Walker (‘Elvis’ cinematographer) on working with Baz Luhrmann: ‘There couldn’t be a more perfect person to make this film’ [Exclusive Video Interview]
Cinematographer Mandy Walker currently occupies eighth place in Gold Derby’s combined odds for Best Cinematography. Undoubtedly boosted by her recent bids from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) and BAFTA, she’s on track to infiltrate the top five before Oscar nominations are announced on January 24th. “Elvis” has proven naysayers wrong and become a top tier contender for Best Picture, but early wariness toward predicting it in cinematography made sense, since so much of the biopic’s aesthetic relies on split-frame editing, digitally bedazzled shot-to-shot transitions, and opulent production design. Walker herself has discussed the intricate ties between the movie’s sets, costumes, and alternating palettes. But ASC members were clearly able to appreciate her contributions apart from those of other craft departments, and industry voters who love “Elvis” enough to make it a juggernaut above and below the line (recent weeks have revealed what a large group that is) are unlikely to leave this box on their ballot unchecked.
Long stretches barely have a frame that isn’t in motion. Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy’s incredible sets (the duo is fourth in our combined Best Production Design odds and just picked up a nod from the Art Directors Guild) provide Walker’s restless camera a playground which to perpetually zoom and frenziedly pan. Speaking with IndieWire’s Daniel Eagan, Walker said, “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.”
SEE Austin Butler (‘Elvis’) on emotional ‘Unchained Melody’ audition dedicated to his mom: ‘I let myself cry’ and ‘play the music’ [Exclusive Video Interview]
To visually differentiate the thirty-year saga’s time periods, Walker shuffled lenses, color schemes and digital duplicates of various film stocks. Notable movies to undertake similar techniques in telling stories that cover multiple eras include 2004’s “The Aviator” (which won this category) and 2015’s “Steve Jobs,” photographed by Robert Richardson and Alwin H. Küchler, respectively. Luhrmann and Walker’s decision to use handheld photography for certain concert shots and apply LiveGrain afterward enhances both the period detail and Austin Butler’s Golden-Globe-winning performance, creating the illusion, even, that we are watching remastered archival footage. Luhrmann perfectly calibrates filmmaking crafts to balance verisimilitude with a hyperrealism that sets “Elvis” apart from the boilerplate music biopic, earning Walker’s description of him as an orchestra conductor. They previously worked together on 2008’s “Australia.”
Walker would become just the third woman nominated for Best Cinematography in the academy’s 95-year history. Rachel Morrison, who lensed 2017’s “Mudbound,” broke the glass ceiling. Ari Wegner was nominated for “The Power of the Dog” four years later.
PREDICT the 2023 Oscar nominees through January 24
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