Walker on Truth, Westerns and ACS Gold Winner Tracks

Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS, recently checked in from the set of Truth, a feature film about Dan Rather’s abrupt departure from CBS News in 2005 in the wake of reports that raised questions about George W. Bush’s military service during the Vietnam War. Robert Redford portrays Rather, and Cate Blanchett plays CBS producer Mary Mapes, who was fired for her role in the incident. Directed by James Vanderbilt, the production is currently shooting in Australia, in part to allow Blanchett some time close to home.

Mandy says Truth is an elaborate story that’s heavy on dialogue; the story unfolds in offices, conference rooms, boardrooms and television studios. After shooting 16 features on film, she is going digital for Truth. She is using the Arri Alexa, which she has used before on commercials and TV projects. The anamorphic-lens set consists of Panavision G Series and E Series.

“I think shooting digitally was a good call in this case because there are many five-page dialogue scenes where the director wanted to be able to shoot multiple takes without cutting,” says Mandy. “It was interesting to work out a way of shooting a film in which there are a lot of talking heads. The combination of digital and anamorphic really enhances all the distinctive lens artifacts, like the way the focus drops off at the edges and the inherent bokeh.”

Mandy had just returned to work from the 2014 Australian Cinematographers Society Awards, where she accepted a Gold in the feature category for her work on Tracks. That film, directed by John Curran, depicted the true story of Robyn Davidson’s solo journey through the Australian Outback. (See AC Oct. ’14.)

Mandy, who moved to Santa Monica 11 years ago, says she cherished the opportunity to return to her native country and shoot a film about “the beauty, harshness and richness of the landscape that I know quite well.” The budget was modest, roughly $15 million. Mandy shot anamorphic and operated one of the two cameras that were run simultaneously most of the time. “It was a very different movie and a pretty amazing experience,” she says. “It was very challenging, but John is a great director, and it was very well planned. That was the only way we could do it.

“We’d drive for an hour-and-a-half across desert landscapes to get to our locations, and we’d end up with only six or seven hours of shooting time. We worked fast, but it’s quite elegantly covered because John did not want to make a documentary-style film. There was some Steadicam, but we had the camera on the dolly most of the time, and we’d do very long tracking shots with a lot of long-lens work.”

She says the shoot reminded her of her earliest years behind the camera, when she traveled to remote parts of Australia to make documentaries —the classic apprenticeship for Australian cinematographers. “That gave me a love of the landscape and of being in the Outback — not that I want to do every film out there!”

Mandy’s recent projects also include Jane Got a Gun, another feature she shot on 35mm in the anamorphic format. The film was prepped by director Lynne Ramsey, with Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC, slated to shoot, but the director and key crew, including Khondji, departed before principal photography commenced. Mandy came onto the project on very short notice and revised the visual strategy on the fly with director Gavin O’Connor, who also rewrote the script.

The film is a Western that stars Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor. “We looked at films like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Searchers and Unforgiven, and we gleaned bits and pieces from other Westerns, but overall our approach was to make it something different and new,” she says. “It was great to work on a Western. We all grew up watching those movies, and it’s an iconic genre that everybody wants to attempt. Anamorphic film was the perfect format, and we used the wide screen to make some very strong compositions.”

 

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