New interview for my column at Filmmaker Magazine with Elvis cinematographer Mandy Walker. Shot on Alexa 65, with Panavision Spheros for the pre-Vegas portion of the film and Panavision T-Series anamorphics once The King hits Sin City.
Here’s an excerpt from the story where Walker breaks down Elvis’ first performance in the film at the Louisiana Hayride.
Filmmaker: Elvis’ first performance in the movie is singing “That’s All Right” on the Louisiana Hayride. It’s pretty early in Elvis’s career. Were there any historical references for that show?
Walker: There were some still photographs, because the Hayride was quite a famous tour that happened every year. We actually scoured the country for old rock and roll and theatrical lights so that the lights that you see in the frame were real lights of the period. Then, of course, we added our own modern lighting to augment it, especially LEDs so that we’d have full color control. That scene was a little bit brighter than some of the other concert sequences. We really see the audience because they’re in a town hall, not a concert stadium, and we wanted to represent the feeling of that.
Filmmaker: What is that row of footlights at the front of the stage? We see those again at Elvis’ Russwood Park concert. Are those period lights you found?
Walker: We built them, but they are period appropriate.
Filmmaker: What units did you actually put behind those glass coverings?
Walker: We used BB&S Area 48 Color LED soft lights so we could have full control and so that the lights were not as hot as traditional 1K tungsten theatrical ground rows. That allowed the crowd to lean on, fall on and climb over the lights without getting burnt. We asked the art department to build a box around them in the style of the era. They looked exactly like what we saw in old footage.
Filmmaker: How did you design the coverage for that concert? How many cameras did you use?
Walker: We had four cameras and I think we shot there for three days. One day we’d be backstage, one day we’d be on the side of the stage, then one day we’d be in front of the stage. That was such an important show for the drama of the movie, with the Colonel up in the gantry on the side of the stage watching Elvis. It’s also where you really see the reaction of the audience to him performing. It was all meticulously planned and rehearsed during prep. Baz does storyboards, but all the concerts were dress rehearsed with the cameras in prep quite a few times to plan out all the shots. During the rehearsals Baz and I would stand there with the four monitors in front of us making adjustments to the shots.
Filmmaker: Is that scene shot in a practical theater?
Walker: No, none of the theaters are practical. It was shot on a stage.
Filmmaker: The wide shot of the crowd from the stage POV, that’s a digital set extension?
Walker: Yes, it is.
Filmmaker: It passes really well.
Walker: We had about 300 people in the crowd. So, that would be like the first third of the theater, then the back was filled in by visual effects. They did an amazing job. They’d spend days in each set with the second unit moving the crowd around and shooting plates to do crowd reproduction. Everything in the movie was shot on stage except for four backlot sequences, which were Shake Rag in Tupelo with young Elvis, the exterior of Graceland, the carnival and Beale Street. One great thing about working with Baz and [producer/production designer] Catherine Martin is that most of the set is physically there and we’re just extending here and there in the deep background.