Blackmagic Design – Color Enhances Storytelling in Live-Action Mulan

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The makers of Disney’s live-action Mulan devoted an enormous amount of time and creativity to planning and executing the way color would be used to enhance the storytelling and evoke each scene’s emotional content. The feast of color that audiences experienced watching Mulan was the culmination of preparation from director Niki Caro; cinematographer Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS; production designer Grant Major and colorist Natasha Leonnet of Company 3.

“The film was a colorist’s dream,” says Leonnet, who worked on Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 16 in her grading theater in Hollywood while collaborating remotely with Caro and Walker, neither of whom were able to be physically present. The director and cinematographer, Leonnet says, “were always after something that was extraordinarily beautiful, but not over the top. There is a very strong color ‘arc,’ which helped make it a particularly inspiring film for me to work on.”

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Natasha Leonnet

Planning for Mulan‘s look commenced in 2017, when New Zealand-based Caro began prepping the film, which stars Yifei Liu, Jet Li and Jason Scott Lee. “We went through the script and talked about the emotional journey of the character,” the director recalls. “That’s where I always take my cues. Then when we start talking about each scene; we discuss giving it a sense of place.”

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Director Niki Caro (left) on set

Caro spent a great deal of time researching the use of color in Chinese art and movies as conceptualizations about locations, production design, costume design and lighting started taking shape. “It was so clear that red was Mulan’s color,” she says. “In any culture, red suggests passion, love and strength. Even while some of the epic battle sequences are very monochromatic, we knew it was important for the defiant Mulan to stand out in the scene in her red costume.”

Caro was also clear from the start that despite Disney’s previous animated version of the story and the elements of magic in Mulan’s tale, this film would be grounded in a real-feeling approach to its environment. “Because of where I’m from and my history as a filmmaker I’m very preoccupied with the natural world,” says the director, whose breakthrough film was Whale Rider. “I always knew I wanted to shoot on real locations, doing as much in-camera as possible.”

“Niki always said she wants the audience to feel they’re in a real place,” says Walker. “It’s also very helpful for the actors that they feel they’re not in a greenscreen world. They are in a physical world. Aside from some work for some big battles and a few other places, we used production design and costumes and lighting to build the look. Then we worked 

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with Natasha in post to fine-tune that look.”

Walker, who shot on ARRI Alexa 65, recalls being inspired by the epic Lawrence of Arabia, which was shot on 65mm film. “What’s interesting about that film and what we worked to achieve in Mulan was the combination of epic images and intimacy,” she says. “By shooting with such a large sensor, we could show these very big battle sequences with a lot of detail but still bring the attention of the viewer to one character in the foreground. For scenes of just two or three people, the shallower depth-of-field characteristics (inherent in the focal lengths used to cover the 65mm image area) allow us to focus in on a very small portion of the frame, which can bring more intimacy to a scene.”

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By the spring of 2017, Caro says, “We had a ‘war room’ in our production offices in Auckland, New Zealand. There was a huge table that seated 50 people where we would have all our meetings. You could walk around and basically go on the journey of the film, through a lot of the still images, scenic art and representations of scenes to come.”

This “tour” of the film’s world was designed to reflect what Caro explains as “my desire that the film keep opening up and opening out, growing and changing. We had some geothermal and underwater images. It was designed to present a feeling of what all those environments look like. You could walk through this room and feel [the space] grow and change and see all the places a young Chinese girl from a small village would never see herself. It was exciting for me to take people on that journey as a filmmaker before we started shooting.”

“That room was a perfect way to work out the visual language of the film and the whole arc of the story,” says Walker. “It was a collaboration with Niki, the art department, makeup, costume and me all adding ideas. We used a lot of photographs I’d taken in China and various paintings and images.”

“Sometimes we were inspired by a location, and then we recreated it,” says Walker. “For the fight between Mulan and the witch, we

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loved this highly unusual geothermal volcanic lake that we saw in China. It had beautiful, otherworldly colors, but we couldn’t actually shoot there, so we recreated it in New Zealand. The color and look was a wonderful place for us to set a battle between what appears to be good and evil, natural and supernatural.”

In other cases, the production carefully scouted for the perfect location and then shot in the space. “We had a choice of two deserts,” Walker recalls. “One had a kind of warm glow with a kind of orange-colored sand. The other had white sand that looked more like you think of when you think of the Sahara. We chose to shoot in the one with the warm sand because we felt it just made the scenes slightly warmer-looking.”

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When it came time for final color grading, Leonnet worked remotely with Caro and Walker, who was in Australia prepping her next film. The colorist was on the Disney lot in nearby Burbank until the final weeks, when they were able to sit together.

“We all work from a place of feeling,” says Caro of Walker, Leonnet and herself. “It’s a very feeling film. Some of it was a really effortless communication with Natasha. I

could describe something in berserk terms,” she laughs. “‘This red feels a little ‘pithy” to me, or something like that. I don’t think I was even using the right word, but Natasha knew exactly what I meant and made the change right away.

“The reds especially presented an interesting challenge in the DI,” she adds. “They were sometimes just screamers. We knew Natasha would have to restrain them — to find a sweet spot where the red is bold and undeniable and iconic and punchy, but it’s not just screaming at you!”

Walker concurs, adding, “We shot in situations where the natural light would undergo changes, whether you’re at dusk or sunset, or it becomes overcast. And part of Natasha’s job, of course, is making tweaks that maintain consistency throughout, and particularly in the color red, which was so important. At one stage she said she needed a day to do a red pass — to make sure the red was consistent throughout the entire film — and I’m glad she did. The color is so important to the feeling of

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so many scenes.”

Colorist Leonnet, according to Walker, “did a lot of work to ensure that patterns and fabric and leather work was clearly visible and didn’t just turn into a solid [mass], which can easily happen if you’re not working with a colorist of her skill.”

For scenes of Mulan at home, “we wanted it to feel really warm with a feeling of love and closeness, and that gave me the key to lighting those scenes,” describes Walker.

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“I’ve worked with Mandy many times,” says Leonnet, “and I always feel like I’m working with a master — a true artist. She has a wonderful way of creating color separation in very warm scenes like those of Mulan at home. By cooling down the ‘toe’ — the low end — you still feel like everything is bathed in beautiful, warm lamplight, but

subconsciously you feel that there is color separation in the scene. It’s not just a wash over everything. It’s something very subtle but really powerful that she did with the lighting and that was the basis of how I graded all those scenes.”

“Color contrast creates a third dimension to the images,” Walker elaborates. “So if people are lit by firelight, or it’s a sunset shot, I’ll have a tiny bit of cooler light on the shadow side of characters’ faces. Otherwise, it can look like you just put an orange filter on the image, and there’s no color contrast at all.”

“From the time Mulan joins the military,” says Leonnet, “each battle scene has its own color palette. All the adventures she has and all the challenges she has on road to becoming a warrior are represented in part through the color. The film really has a lot of variations in its palette, probably more than any film I’ve ever worked on.”