DEFINITION June 2019

FEATURE | WOMEN I N C I NEMATOGRAPHY

MANDY WALKER

JOAN CHURCHILL

Born in Australia, but now based in Los Angeles, Mandy Walker has photographed under extreme climate, weather and topographical conditions. Walker shot The Mountain Between Us (2017) on the snow- covered mountains of British Columbia in sometimes -40°C, where the Alexa cameras had to remain on all the time in order to function. While filming Tracks (2013) in the 50°C heat of the Australian deserts, cameras had to be kept cool to preserve the film negative. Walker also photographed Hidden Figures (2016), the story of Katherine Johnson and the team of African-American mathematicians who played a vital role in NASA’s early space missions. “Photographing Hidden Figures was a fantastic experience,” enthuses Walker. “We visited Katherine Johnson, who is a lovely, humble, smart woman, and still sharp as a tack aged 100. This is a very strong, untold, true history that resonated with audiences. Those are the films I like being involved in – films that affect people emotionally.” Hidden Figures was shot on film, because of the look and the way it integrated into archival footage. It was shot with E Series and T Series Panavision anamorphic lenses to get the right feel, with mixed 35mm for the contemporary sixties and 16mm for the flashbacks of Katherine’s childhood. “What I like about my job is that each film is a new challenge,” says Walker. “On all films, the question facing a cinematographer is: how are we going to achieve the director’s

I met Joan Churchill in London while she was teaching at the National

Film and Television School in the mid-seventies. She is a leading camerawoman and director in England, and she was also the first woman to be given the BAFTA Flaherty Documentary Award for Soldier Girls. “I always feel that my most recent work is my best,” Churchill says. “ Bedlam , a documentary I’ve been working on for over five years, premiered at Sundance in January and is about people who suffer from severe mental illness who are locked in one of the largest psychiatric emergency rooms in the US.” The documentary deals with homelessness, incarceration, lack of support and the suffering and devastation inflicted on the subjects and their families. Churchill explains: “Today, 50% of the people locked up in jails are mentally ill – they’re not criminals. LA County is spending 3.5 billion dollars to build another huge prison facility for the mentally ill. These people need psychological support and humane treatment in their own communities. This is one of the biggest crisis in the US. It was such an emotional journey to be involved for such a long time in the lives of these people.”

She is also working on Medicating Normal , about people struggling to get off their psychoactive drugs who suffer from anxiety, depression, weight gain, brain zaps and suicidal thoughts. “There’s a good case to be made about the correlation between the amount of psych meds in someone’s body and the rampant shootings and mass murders happening regularly in the US. The pharmaceutical corporations play a part in this tragedy.” Churchill adds that she dislikes how documentaries have changed and become too overproduced. “It’s no longer the scrappy, passionate person who invests ten years, struggling to make a film with no money. It’s become a factory line of formulas, interviews with the de rigueur two camera angles and intercutting different angles that make you lose track of the conversation. “Large-chip cameras are fashionable, but unergonomic and require rigs, and much of the footage is out of focus. The photography is impeded by the required ‘look’, and when something really happens that is not set up, the shooter can’t follow the action. Music is slathered all over everything for production value and sound design costs a large chunk of your budget,” she bemoans. However, when speaking about working in the film industry, Churchill is enthusiastic. “I love this life. Where else can you immerse yourself in subcultures closed to the world? I’ve trained in the US army, been confined to mental institutions and prisons, rode with LA cops, been a refugee, talked to Marie Colvin, seen inside the music scene and watched Arnold Schwarzenegger pump iron.”

vision? My answer is: we’re going to work it out. I always hire a crew that is adaptable and great collaborators. You just need the right people around you to take the challenge. That collaboration is the most exciting part of the job.” Walker also teaches and mentors film students, because she believes it’s important more women become cinematographers. Currently, women make up 3% of all cinematographers worldwide, according to a 2018 survey by the Center for Study of Women in Television and Film. Mulan (2020) was directed by Niki Caro, with Liz Tan as the first assistant director and Walker as the cinematographer. She recalls: “It was empowering to have three women running the set on such a big budget studio film. We were all very organised and we didn’t go one day over on our schedule.” For Walker, one of the most important parts of making a movie is the pre-production, where she can spend time with the director and work out the story arcs and emotional journeys of the characters. “Then I can find inspiration and test various formats, cameras, lenses and colour spaces to help tell the story. When we are shooting, the film is already in my head. Of course, plans can change, but that is one of the exciting parts of movie making,” she concludes.

LEFT Walker found photographing Hidden Figures a ‘fantastic experience’

52 DEF I N I T ION | JUNE 20 1 9

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