Niki Caro’s epic live-action remake is finally hitting Disney Plus on Sept. 4 at the cost of $29.99 to subscribers. The film will be made free later on in the year, this December on the regular service.
Caro’s version reimagines the 1998 animated film, with Yifei Liu playing the title heroine and warrior. As the emperor, played by Jet Li, decrees one man from every family must be sent to the front lines, Mulan steps in, undercover as a man, and prepares for battle in place of her father who has been injured in battle to save the dynasty.
Caro recruited cinematographer Mandy Walker (“Hidden Figures”) as part of her female crew (she worked with costumer Bina Daigeler (“Mrs. America) and makeup artist Denise Kum to help bring the Disney warrior to life.
Walker breaks down the key battle sequence from the film and how Panavision made a specific lens to ensure Caro’s direction of wanting audiences to go on Mulan’s emotional journey was captured.
THE BATTLEFIELD SCENES:
Whenever I talk to a director, it always starts with storytelling. Niki went through the script with me and she talked about the emotional journey of Mulan.
Early on, she said, ‘This film is centered on her and I want the audience to go on this journey with her. We want to feel all the emotions that she’s going through, so I always had that in the back of my mind.
At the beginning of the film, we see her with her family. It’s a warm, safe space and it’s about love. I wanted it to feel new and bright and not like this ancient building. This house had new curtains, and the pottery was fresh and colorful, so are clothes are colorful.
I felt the light needed to be warm and inviting and something that brings back memories of love. It was how we photographed her when she’s with her family.
In juxtaposition to that, we shot the battlefields in New Zealand and we looked for locations that had no color. But first, we took three trips to China to find locations that we thought were right and would translate to the corresponding places in New Zealand.
The battlefield is a place that is desaturated and lacking in color. Against that, Mulan’s red outfit would pop out, and when we shot her, we wanted the audience to stay with her.
In total, we spent three weeks shooting that sequence. When we choreographed those sequences, I wanted to make sure that my camera moved with her in a very elegant way. The battle scenes were not about the fighting. It was all about her ability and being able to move. She has this special chi. She’s an elite warrior. I designed a lot of shots and we had complex crane shots.
I had a special lens made for her. At the beginning of this, I went to Dan Sasaki, Panavision VP of Optical Engineering at Panavision and he’s the lens guru. I told him we were making the film and I wanted this lens to feel like they were with her all the time, no matter what was going on at that moment.
He made this one based on the Petzval portrait lens from the 1800s – it’s where the focus is in the center and the sides drop off in a very elegant way without being distorted or out of focus.
When she had her chi moments, we had a lens based on the Guass lens that had a little chromatic aberration and color on the edges for her moments of strength and power. We used a special 2800mm lens which we used to film the army as we showed each side.
We spent a lot of time on these battle sequences and choreographing them. We are so lucky that Yifei did almost all of her stunts so I could concentrate on her face. We’d have five cameras and I’d say, ‘I want to see her face and see what’s going on at that moment.’
We collaborated with costume, art and makeup to be able to express that situation with color. We also shot in a geothermal area, so there was a lot of mist and steam.
I’ve never done a film like this before with battle sequences and I jumped at the challenge, but it’s something that we spent months doing and getting right. Niki had employed a battle unit and military advisors that trained both the extras and actors.
SHOOTING THE COLOR RED
I did a lot of testing with different colors of red. We had different textures of fabric, different tones, and what they looked like next to other tones. I made a LUT ( a look-up table) which was the base of our color palette, and then I used a very basic color. I pushed the red just a little bit and just enough so it would pop and not affect the skin tone. That way, it didn’t feel to digital and vibrant.
THE SWORD PRESENTATION
In that sequence, I dropped off the depth of field so that the focus was just on where you want the audience to look, especially for Mulan and her family.
We didn’t move the camera too much because we wanted the audience to be with them. Niki and I were saying it’s all about the faces and characters so we didn’t need to move around.
For a lot of the sequences, we had blocked and worked out the sequences in pre-visualization and through storyboards.
We blocked that sequence and we rehearsed it with the characters. The only time you see the camera moves is that last shot of Mulan when you see her taking in the world and the phoenix. There was no need for crazy moves and sweeping around at that moment.