- Friday, Feb. 10, 2017
When Theodore (Ted) Melfi was interviewed for SHOOT’s Fall 2016 Director Profile, he discussed what drew him to cinematographer Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS, for Hidden Figures.
“I had never met Mandy before but her work in Australia, particularly on the feature Tracks (2013), is so stunning,” assessed Melfi who not only directed but also co-wrote the adapted screenplay (with Allison Schroeder) for Hidden Figures. “Mandy has a great sense of composition. I didn’t hire her because she was female but I felt that having a female voice in shooting a movie all about females was an added benefit. She brought a lot to the movie.”
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” Melfi’s Hidden Figures introduces us to three African-American female mathematicians--Katherine G. Johnson (portrayed by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae)--who were integral to the success of NASA, serving as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that captured the nation’s imagination and turned around the Space Race.
Like the protagonists in Hidden Figures, Walker too is an accomplished female professional in a realm, cinematography, dominated by men. She became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2009 and is an accredited member of the American Society of Cinematographers as well as the Australian Cinematographers Society, and was the Kodak Artist in Residence at UCLA film school for the 2014-’15 academic year. In 2015 Walker received the Kodak Cinematography Mentor of the Year Award.
For the alluded to John Curran-directed Tracks, Walker won an Australian Cinematographers Society’s Gold Award and a Film Critics Circle of Australia Award while also earning a Best Cinematography nomination for an Australian Film Institute Award. For director Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, Walker won a Satellite Award, the Hollywood Cinematographer of the Year Award, and the Women in Film, Kodak Vision Award in 2008. Earlier in her career, Walker garnered a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography on the strength of director Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass (2003). Prior to that, her lensing of director Kathryn Millard’s Parklands (1996) won the Best Cinematography in a Non-Feature Film honor from the Australian Film Institute.
At press time, Walker was lensing director Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us. Among Walker’s other recent feature credits are director James Vanderbilt’s Truth, and Gavin O’Connor’s Jane Got A Gun.
SHOOT: What drew you to Hidden Figures?
Walker: It’s a story I couldn’t believe hadn’t been told. As a female cinematographer, I identify with women trying to break into a field on their own merits. The real-life characters in Hidden Figures broke into a traditionally male field but they also had to combat racism and segregation--much more than I was ever up against.
I met Katherine Johnson [the ground-breaking NASA mathematician portrayed by Henson]. She is remarkable. All three women were geniuses yet very humble and proud. They did incredible things without making a big deal of it. I have a daughter and want her to think that she can follow any path, pursue any career she’s passionate about. I was the Kodak Artist in Residence at UCLA and had the chance to work with women mentees and interns. It was gratifying to see them work towards their career goal, and I’m glad to hear that Hidden Figures apparently has had a big impact on heightening interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] classes. Young girls see this film and are now considering STEM as an option.
SHOOT: Hidden Figures is your first collaboration with Ted Melfi? How did you two connect and how did you get the opportunity to work on the film?
Walker: My agent sent me the script and I loved it. I met with Ted. We spoke for about an hour and a half and knew we were on the same page. We mainly talked about the story. We didn’t get too technical at that point. I like to start with how the director sees the story and we were on the same wavelength. This is a period piece but he wanted to do a modern rendition of it so people could better relate to it. He wanted to shoot on film because of the texture. He wanted a sort of Kodachrome feel to the work.
Film has an elegance to it. We ended up shooting anamorphic. Ted wanted to use wide screen. There are a lot of characters in our film. Shooting wide screen helps us in getting people in frame, giving us control over depth of field, control of the foreground and background, putting the focus on certain performers as needed. We shot with Panavision film cameras and used old-time glass from the 1960s and ‘70s--E series and T series. Those lenses were tailored and adjusted for the movie, customized to be straight and not bendy in perspective.
SHOOT: What was the biggest creative challenge that Hidden Figures posed to you as a cinematographer?
Walker: We had a very short shooting time--a total of 43 days. And for NASA, we could not find one location that would work for all of the operation. Instead we had seven locations all over Atlanta along with a big set created by production designer Wynn Thomas. Joining these multiple locations so they played like one place was a major challenge.
SHOOT: How did you arrive at the look of the film and how did you prepare for such a tight shooting schedule?
Walker: Ted and I along with Wynn Thomas and costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus watched a lot of film from that time period [1960s]. We saw Eyes on the Prize [the documentary about the civil rights movement]. We watched a lot of NASA footage and archival footage. We looked at the work of [civil rights] still photographers like Danny Lions, Saul Lighter, Gordon Parks. We looked at all these images and established a sense of the style of photography we wanted. We then went to our locations where we took a lot of still photographs. We walked through scenes at the locations. Ted had the whole film storyboarded. He put together a production bible with pages that had my photographs and locations. Scenes were incredibly well organized. We felt the story we wanted to tell for every scene of the movie. Ted defined what each scene was about. He wrote a slug line for each scene. One scene was “small woman, huge world,” for example. Another was “child’s perspective, awe.”
SHOOT: What’s your biggest takeaway or lesson learned from your experience on Hidden Figures?
Walker: The story was emotional and at times we had an emotional set. There’s one scene where Mary [Jackson, played by Monae] is in the courtroom, pleading her case to be allowed to attend a night class in engineering at a restricted school. I turned around and saw a gaffer and grip shedding tears. The story of these women affected everybody. To see big bulky guys in tears says it all. All the crew had a strong bond and we felt a sense of purpose on this film.