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Through the Lens: Mandy Walker on Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures continues to lead the other Best Picture nominees at the box office, with a total now exceeding $131 million. The inspiring film about three black women working at NASA in the 1960s itself had a crew that was 35% female. Last week at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, director Ted Melfi said by comparison that the average film crew is usually no more than 25% female.

I spoke briefly with Mandy Walker, the cinematographer on Hidden Figures, to get her insight for another installment of our Through the Lens series.

The Space Task Room:

We never shot anything at NASA. We shot in Atlanta. NASA for us was seven different locations and we had to make it look like were in the same area. In fact, we were in an archive building, an old asylum, and a school. We had one set which was the Space Task room. It was something we planned from scratch, so between myself and Wynn Thomas our production design and costume designer, we had control over that set. We thought it should look like something that NASA called “Space Age” in those days because it was in a new building.

We built a new light that sat over the top, that great big round light that we called the oculus. It had this seamless white muslin fabric over it, we had gray walls and the men wore white shirts and Katherine Johnson wore color and she was the only spot of color in the whole room. Even the secretary who was the only other woman in there wore bland and neutral colors.

We wanted Katherine to sit out like a jewel in this sea of white guys in their white shirts. She wore emerald green outfits. For me, that was one of my favorite challenges for the whole movie because the integration of the other departments worked really well. Jim Parson’s character is explaining the issue with the Mercury 7 rocket, and that’s when our costume designer put Katherine in that outfit. She could ask questions and it was hard for her to be heard, and we made it so that she was special.

Also, because we had the top light, I wanted to create depth. Everyone had desk lamps and we had a few working benches that were white Plexi that were light from underneath to create a depth of contrast in the frame. So when you were looking in that room against the gray, it wasn’t a flat image.

Shooting a movie in 2-D to create a 3-D sensation was something I was striving for, and we did that with focus. In some scenes, we shot wide open on the lens so we could concentrate the eye to a certain point of focus whether it was the foreground, the mid ground, or the background.

Dorothy Leads the Women Down the Hall

That was a really important scene in the movie and we planned it early on. We had a few photographs to use as stylistic references. That shot of Dorothy coming down the hall leading the women came from a Gordon Parks photograph of nuns, and there was one nun leading the rest of the nuns, and you see the layers of shots behind her. That was a shot we reproduced, and we didn’t often do direct references.

I thought it was quite powerful to see her leading those women, and the music and sound helps — their heels on the floor and they go from one area to another.

In terms of composition we wanted it to be powerful. We had 43 days to shoot the film and we were very well organized. We went to the locations and took photographs so we planned the shots. When we were shooting on the day, we would already know. We had a production bible, we would have a slug line for each scene that would tell you what was going on for the characters at that point. This was about a powerful woman taking charge. We always had that in mind when we were shooting.