Hot tip: we’ve got a hunch that Hidden Figures is going to be a very big deal. This film, which tells the little-known story of how three African American women working in a segregated division of NASA calculated the flight trajectories of Apollo 11, is the inspiring, feel-good movie of the season. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, it’s got some serious star-power, the kind of talent that we hope will make Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson (the real-life physicist, mathematician, and engineer that they portray respectively) household names to rival Marie Curie. Their story needs to be known.
Created by a crew that was 35% women, this film put its money where its mouth is, hiring female talent above and below the line, including cinematographer Mandy Walker. Walker [Truth, Shattered Glass] is at the top of her game, and there’s already been some buzz that Hidden Figures may garner her the first Oscar nomination in cinematography for a woman, ever. An extremely relevant period film that also features CGI, the look is somehow able to contain a whole range of emotional and visual tones while maintaining consistency. It’s a powerful story, and it is equally powerfully shot. We spoke to Mandy about preparation, palette, and the responsibility of artists to unearth hidden stories for the world to see. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CT: I’m gonna start with a way-back-when question. I read in another interview that you knew you wanted to be a cinematographer at age 13, which is remarkable. (I don’t know many 13-year-olds that even know what a cinematographer is.) What was it that drew you in?
MW: My parents had always exposed me to art. My mother took me to galleries when I was a tiny toddler, and I loved going to the cinema when I was a child as well. I started doing photography at school, and my father built me a dark room in a little shed in our backyard. I sort of put two and two together: if I love photography and I love movies, why don’t I become a cinematographer? At the time, I didn’t realize that there were hardly any women doing it in the world at that point. It was just something I was naturally drawn to.
CT: Hidden Figures takes place in the 1960s. Did you prepare for a period film differently than you might have for a film set in the present day?
MW: We did. Director Ted Melfi and I, and as well as production designer Wynn Thomas and costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, watched a lot of film from that time. We started with Eye on the Prize, and we watched a lot of NASA footage and archival footage. We also studied still photographers like Danny Lions and Gordon Parks and Saul Lighter — civil rights photographers. We decided that we wanted to make a modern version of a period film. For example, we shot young Katherine on 16 mil and took an extraction from the frame, so it’s extra grainy, to reference the 1920s. It took a while to work out what our look was, while also paying homage to artists of the time.
CT: I’m glad you brought up the young Katherine scenes. The color palette of the film moves from a kind of sepia in those early childhood scenes to a cold, grey, almost lunar scale in the offices of NASA. Can you tell me how you developed the color palette for the film, and how you employed it as a storytelling device?
MW: The Space Task Group at NASA — the IMB room in particular — were part of the new NASA: this modern, space age, architectural vision that we wanted to express. Those scenes were much brighter and lighter. When Katherine walks into the Space Task Group for the first time, there’s this sea of white shirts and this big white light in the ceiling — called the Oculus — that my gaffer Chris Culliton created. It was meant to be quite overwhelming for her. She’d just come from the West Computing Group, which is like a dungeon: dark and dingy and old-fashioned with grey-green walls. We wanted people to feel how the different environments are affecting these women.
CT: Palette is something that even a casual movie-goer might notice, but were there other devices – like framing – that the average viewer might not be able to pinpoint, but that you were conscious of using as a narrative strategy in this film?
MW: When we were shooting the African American women talking to the white guys, we had the camera just a little bit under their eye-line, so they were always looking above them. As the film develops, the camera starts to be on the same level for both characters. It’s very subtle, but it’s there. Or, for instance, in that very strong scene when Dorothy leads the women down a hallway to the IBM — my hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time I see it — we used very strong framing. We wanted to make her look in control. Those things are subtle, but you feel them, don’t you?
“When we were shooting the African American women talking to the white guys, we had the camera just a little bit under their eye-line, so they were always looking above them. As the film develops, the camera starts to be on the same level for both characters. It’s very subtle, but it’s there.”
CT: Completely. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it until now, but the hallway scene in particular had the feel of a protest, a march.
MW: Yes. That’s exactly right.
CT: Were there any scenes, or perhaps a general element of “Hidden Figures,” that you found particularly challenging or rewarding?
MW: There were a couple of challenges. We had to shoot in a real wind tunnel at Lockheed Martin: the doorway to the tunnel, which you had to access by scissor lift, was about five feet high and two and a half feet wide, and we had to bring in a crane, two dollies, two camera packages, lighting…in just over a day. We had to bring all that gear in, and walk through the blades of the fan. The other challenge was that we didn’t have one location for NASA; we had seven. Integrating the transitions between one location and the next is something I have to give full credit to Wynn Thomas for, because it was seamless. Planning our transitions was one of the biggest challenges.
Although we had very little time to shoot – forty-three days, it was really fast – Ted is a very organized, smart guy. He had made a production bible: storyboards for every scene, with a little slug at the top explaining what was going on for the characters. I’d taken stills at each of the locations for ideas; we had inspiration photos. So we were really well prepared. Of course, when the actors come on they offer something else or something changes, but because we had a strong plan it’s easy to adapt. We had a really great team and I want to emphasize that. The reason this film works so well is the collaboration. Ted was a great leader, the girls we joking all the time, people made it a really nice environment… It made people feel comfortable, and they worked really hard because they felt included.
CT: I actually wanted to talk about inclusivity. In part because only three percent of cinematographers are women, you’re asked constantly in interviews about being a female DP. I can’t help but draw a parallel between people’s seeming fascination with a woman doing a technical job like cinematography, and a line in the film that belies a male character’s amazement that “they let women handle” complex computing at NASA. Does this script resonate with you on a personal level?
MW: I think it does. I’m part of a small percentage of women that do my job, and I’m encouraging other women to know that it’s an option for them. I have mentees. I’ve taught at UCLA. I have interns come out to see me. But the women in this movie — I find it quite emotional to discuss — they had so many more adversities to move through: racism, segregation, and much worse sexism that I’ve ever encountered in my life. I met Katherine Johnson — she’s ninety-eight and still alive — and I found it very overwhelming. She’s a very elegant, proud woman; she’s competent, but humble too. I knew that was the woman we wanted to portray in the film. Ted said, “When Katherine’s [character] is in the room, I want her to pop out like a beautiful jewel.” She’s in this sea of white guys and she’s got this jade dress on, these red lips, and she stands tall and confident and elegant. I thought that was really important. I think the film encourages women who are interested in math and science to know that it’s a possibility for them.
CT: It’s so moving.
MW: It is. A couple of times in emotional scenes – like when Mary Jackson’s talking in court – crew were crying on set, and I’ve not seen that very often when making a movie.
“…crew were crying on set, and I’ve not seen that very often when making a movie.”
CT: This film feels more important right now than ever. Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to tackle socially conscious material?
MW: I’m definitely attracted to projects like this. When I read a script, I look at it in terms of whether it’s a film I want to see, and whether I feel the message is important. I want to encourage people to see this film because I think it’s a story that should be told historically, but I also want people to realize that there are many more stories like this one that are still hidden. Hopefully, this film opens the door for people to seek out those hidden stories and make others aware of them. Also, I have a daughter, and I want my daughter to feel that nothing will hold her back from her career or her desires as a woman, that she can achieve whatever she wants in life.