Even on the small screen at home, Disney’s Mulan boasts a stunning visual palate of gorgeous vistas and expertly lensed action sequences. The visual language of the film combines breathtaking long shots, intimate interiors, and a detailed realization of complex choreographed fight sequences. Cinematographer Mandy Walker captured these elements with a legendary source of inspiration: nothing less than David Lean’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia.
“When we were doing our research for the visual language of the movie, we knew that we had these epic landscapes,” Walker explained. “For me, Lawrence of Arabia is such a great example of that cinematography. They shot on 70mm to get the epic vistas, but it’s also a very intimate film too. So was our movie.”
To help obtain that general look and feel, Walker worked with Panavision to obtain lens based on the Lawrence of Arabia lenses built specially for Mulan. By using the same style of lenses Lean used, Walker was able to achieve a more traditionally cinematic, vintage look without the side effect of an overly crisp digital presence.
Mulan is not Walker’s first time lensing a massive scale, epic production. She also filmed Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. While that film was inspired by the Hollywood grand scale epics of the 1950s, it gave Walker the experience of working with a massive crew in remote locales, something she would again take on with Mulan. Her close collaboration with Luhrmann, who she will again work with on his upcoming Elvis, repeated in her work with Mulan‘s Niki Caro.
The importance of being the first women to create a major studio action drama was not lost on the team. With the recent announcement of pending Academy rule changes to ensure diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera, Mulan‘s strongly female creative team breaks new ground for a project of this scale.
“We knew that this was an unprecedented situation that we had female director, female DP, female first AD, and in fact, a lot of the history department besides our production designer, Grant Major, were women. We were very aware of that,” Walker explained. “I do remember Niki in one of our early meetings, say, ‘You realize that this is the first time that women have been at the hit of production this big and a film as big as this.’ She said, ‘We’re going to do it really well.’ ”
Audiences have responded in kind by praising Walker’s brilliant cinematography, particularly how it captures the extensive action sequences required for the film. Walker and Caro studied Chinese cinema, Wushu martial arts, and other traditional battle sequences to uncover the exact style they wanted to apply. With Caro’s direction that the fight sequences should appear as real as possible, Walker couldn’t rely on CGI or traditional green screens.
Many of the fight sequences are filmed outside in colorless locations, which was by design. The selection of barren, bleak landscapes contrasts with the warm colors used in Mulan’s home village. When the two armies first clash, Walker used a complicated mixture of cameras attached to planes and helicopters and even mounted to a mountain miles away to capture the scale of the event. Also, it helped that star Yifei Liu performed many of her own stunts and had an innate sense of how to position herself for optimal shots.
In fact, one of the most talked-about sequences of the film happened completely thanks to Liu’s ingenuity.
When Mulan first holds her father’s sword, the camera catches her reflection in its blade. With reflections a major theme and repeated visual motif of the film, Walker and Caro both new they’d struck gold when they saw the moment on their monitors.
“I don’t know if Yifei did this on purpose, but she found that reflection on the first take. She did it, and Niki and I both looked at each other [with shock] because it was such a brilliant thing. You could try and line that up 100 times, and it would never happen. It happened on the first take.”
Mulan is now streaming on Disney Plus.