Frozen mountain peaks are all in a day’s work for cinematographer Mandy Walker
To call Mandy Walker precise would be an understatement.
Early this fall, the Australian cinematographer, who has previously worked on “Hidden Figures” and “Australia,” is hard at work color-correcting scenes from the October romantic drama “The Mountain Between Us” from director Hany Abu-Assad. She homes in with eagle-like precision on the film’s stars, Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, achieving the seemingly impossible task of making the actors — not to mention the picturesque mountain serving as a backdrop — appear even more beautiful.
“Every little decision that you make affects how the audience experiences the film,” Walker notes. “And I think they should feel the images like it’s an emotion.”
The film, about two strangers stranded together atop a remote snow-covered mountain following a plane crash, was a challenge to shoot last December because, as Walker puts it, “it was the height of winter in British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains.”
What were the conditions in which this film was shot, and how did you work around them?
Quite harsh conditions. Hany wanted everything to be as realistic as possible. And the actors were so amazing. We really went to those locations and went up to between 10,000 and 11,000 feet, we got up in a helicopter, it got down to minus 40 [degrees Celsius] sometimes. The challenge for me was that Hany also said, “I want this film to be quite elegant and I want to move with the actors as they’re traveling on their journey.”
Up on the mountain, you can’t put track down like you can [normally], so we had a 50-foot Techni-Crane and we would follow the actors on the crane and use that as a track, which allowed us to avoid making footprints and ruining the snow. So we built a crane and the grips brought it up — it took three days to sling it up on a helicopter and they built it up top — and they also made a sled dolly on snowboards and we made a remote head so we could move the dolly on the snow.
Had you worked in extreme conditions like that before?
Well, I’ve done a few films in the desert, so in opposite conditions. That was about figuring out how to work in sand and dust and heat, so that was a different approach. But one of the things I loved most about this movie was the challenge of helping Hany get what he wanted in these extreme conditions. And I just had fantastic people working with me.
What was some of the decision-making behind some of the shots in this film?
Well, it’s about mood. So, for instance, sometimes we go a little colder and a little darker when we feel that the characters are maybe going to die, and we’re always moving with them. We want the audience to feel like they’re on the journey. They’re in a situation that’s really dangerous and harsh, but beautiful. Like Hany said, the really important thing is that every so often it’s breathtakingly beautiful, and that was really important to him. But also you have to feel their experience and the fear they have that they’re so far from civilization.
And sometimes we did things like, for that scene where Kate falls into the ice, we fogged that whole valley with smoke so when Idris leaves her, he can’t see where he is and he can’t see her. So when she falls, it feels more frustrating and hidden from the audience what’s going on in the scene. You feel a little bit lost in the fog.
What was your favorite scene to shoot?
Well, there’s two. One is when Kate falls through that ice and Idris pulls her out. We spent weeks in pre-production trying to work out how to shoot that scene because we were concerned that it was going to be minus 30 degrees [Celsius] and she would be freezing and snap frozen as soon as she got out even if the water was warm. We did it on location and we thought she’d probably do it once but she was so brave and amazing, she did it three times. And we were all there going, “I can’t believe this!” Her lips were blue. She’s just such a trouper, she’s amazing.
And the other one was when Idris gets to the peak of the mountain and the camera goes up with him and circles around him. That was really the peak of a mountain. And so that area that everyone was standing on was about 12 feet wide, and the camera went up — it was a Steadicam shot — and walked around him 360 degrees. Afterward, the camera guy said to me, “That’s the hardest shot I’ve ever done in my life.” When we got there it started to get windy and we only had one chance to get the shot and it all perfectly worked out. We were all hugging each other at the end because we were so excited that it worked.
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