Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How filmmakers made Mulan defy gravity in that wall-run scene
Mulan faced an army's worth of obstacles reaching audiences this year, getting postponed multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic before ultimately premiering on Disney+ in August. When fans finally did watch Mulan get down to business, they were treated to eye-popping, gravity-defying action scenes that left us yearning for a big screen experience. But few marveled and delighted as much as a sequence where Mulan must run up a wall and then parallel to the ground to fight Böri Khan's soldiers and race to save the Emperor. Here, cinematographer Mandy Walker walks us through how they brought this sequence to life and stayed true to the heart of Mulan.
Sometimes the best things only come after a little reflection.
That was the case with this stand-out action sequence in Mulan, which was not in the original script but devised by director Niki Caro after they'd already wrapped principal photography. Cinematographer Mandy Walker reveals that the idea for this wall-run scene came to Caro after main unit photography was complete and was something they executed completely during additional photography sessions.
"She'd always thought maybe there was another [action sequence] that would also be [Mulan] with her unit in the army," Walker tells EW. "That was why it was added — to be another sequence that involved them and her."
They prepared to shoot the sequence with the same meticulous planning that defined the stunts throughout the filmmaking process. "We spent a few weeks planning that with the stunt performers and the stunt coordinators," says Walker. "Because the way that we shot this movie was the stunt sequences were choreographed to the photography in terms of how we shot [Mulan] and how we connected with her movements with the camera. So, we spent a couple of weeks actually going in and watching and filming rehearsals and making sure that the actual movement would work for that."
Walker shot the scene with four cameras and two Scorpio techno-cranes, as well as an Oculus lens that had a four-axis head. One crane ran the length of the corridor from above, while the other moved up and down the wall.
The challenge was being able to keep the audience with Mulan (Yifei Liu) and her emotional journey, while also showcasing the amazing stunt-work happening all around her. Walker and her team drew influence from martial arts filmmaking, but they also made it their own, specifically devising lenses that foregrounded Mulan's experiences. "We made lenses that would particularly draw the audience to staying with Yifei," she explains. "Sometimes we'd be on her face and we'd push the background out of focus. Her movements are very controlled and elegant, so I tried to make the photography work with that as well."
This required a lot of reverse engineering where Walker where would develop the camerawork in conjunction with the choreography, privileging camera movement that mirrored the dance of the stunts. "I always look at a scene and work out, 'If I had no limitations, how would the camera move?'" says Walker.
An extra complication here was the nature of their shooting space. Flanked by these two walls where the fighting is taking place, Walker had no way to buy herself, her crew, and their camera equipment extra room. "We didn't pull that set apart," she elaborates. "That set existed, so we didn't pull one big wall out to be able to get our cranes in. We worked within the structure of it. We had four cameras going, and to be able to have four cameras and not see each other, it's choreography and dancing with the stunt action."
For that reason, Walker says the most difficult shot in the entire sequence was the stirring image of Mulan running horizontally along the wall. "We had to do that track with her with all this other action going on around us," Walker explains. "That was the hardest to choreograph. Because you don't want to bump into the actors, you don't want to get tangled up in the wires, and you also want the actors to feel like they're not going to crash into the camera. It was something we rehearsed to make meticulously correct, because when she runs up, the camera drags back with her along the wall. That was a really tricky one."
Star Yifei Liu would also call that the most difficult shot, not just in the sequence, but the entire film. She previously told EW she sustained a minor injury while performing the scene and that it was the toughest of all her stunts (she performed about 90 percent of them herself). "It's against gravity, so you have to learn how to walk," Liu said. "It's not like you can just naturally walk or run. You have to knee-slide, and then with all the beams on the wall, I actually hit one of the beams. Thank God I had knee pads on — the hard-shell ones — because when I did the knee-slide I went too far. I smashed into the beam on the wall."
Despite the accident, Liu powered through the scene. "They didn't get the shot and they said maybe we should save it for tomorrow," she recalled. "But I felt like if I waited until tomorrow, I didn't know if I could still do it. The bruise always comes afterwards. I iced it, we came back, and we got the shot." Walker says she also recalls seeing Liu icing her knees, but that the actress waved her off and returned to set ready to rock the moment.
Still despite all those challenges, that's not Walker's favorite shot in the sequence — that honor goes to one from Mulan's point of view. "You see the shadow warriors, they're coming toward her, then you see them start to go up the wall," Walker describes. "I always say to Niki, 'It looks like spiders going up the wall!' This is what she sees and says, 'Oh no, how I'm going to get through this?' So, then you see her do something absolutely amazing to get through all that."
It was that moment that informed Walker's approach to the entire scene. "I want the audience to feel like they're with her. I want her to be the center of these sequences and so I always had that that in the back of my mind," she says. "We wanted the audience to feel like now she runs for it and then 'Whoa, here she goes up the wall,' and how to get that feeling and how to express that moment where it's a little bit of a surprise and be able to travel with her along the wall."
One more wrinkle was the sequence's fluid sense of time. It jumps between moments of slow-motion to normal speed and then even occasionally includes a more rapid frame rate. This choice also tied to giving audiences a window into Mulan's emotional state. "I had to light the sequence to have enough light to go super slow motion, which was 150 frames," notes Walker. "Niki and I talked about moments where we would have to slow down for the intensity of the moment and then speed it back up for the action, so that you get a little moment with her where you really feel what she's going through at that time and the danger, but also her abilities and her power."
Using her ingenuity, a broad array of technology, and the contributions of the team including director Niki Caro, the entire stunt team, and Liu herself, Walker crafted a sequence that brought honor to Mulan's abilities and then some.