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Mulan: Behind the scenes with the creatives who made Disney's warrior so fierce

We chat with cinematographer Mandy Walker, costume designer Bina Daigeler and hair and makeup designer Denise Kum: "The hair was doing its own stunts."

Yifei Liu in Mulan.

I never got to see Mulan on the big screen. The March 19 press screening in San Francisco was canceled. The March 27 release was postponed. For months I've been sheltering in place at home, wondering about the fate of this movie (and movies in general in this pandemic). When I finally watched Mulan, it was on a small screen, which is something of a tragedy. From its visuals to its meticulously crafted costumes and hairstyles, Mulan is a movie deserving of the full cinema experience. The movie's team agrees.

"We made the movie as a film for the big screen," says Mandy Walker, Mulan's cinematographer. "We want people to see it in the cinema." I spoke with Walker in July, before the decision to release the movie on streaming was announced.

Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro (The Zookeeper's Wife), Mulan is a live-action adaptation of the 1998 Disney animation classic. Set during the Chinese Tang dynasty and imbued with just the right amount of fantasy and adventure, the movie follows Mulan (Yifei Liu), from young woman to brave warrior. 


Yifei Liu in Mulan.


"I'm sad because it's such an epic movie, a big screen movie," the film's costume designer, Bina Daigeler, told me via video chat from Berlin when I asked about the streaming release. "It's a sad side effect of the coronavirus." 

The silver lining to the movie's digital debut, Daigeler said, is audiences will at least finally be able to see the crew's work, if not on the big screen. The movie premieres on Disney Plus on Friday

A female-led set

Retelling a story inspired by 6th century poem The Ballad of Mulan, Caro didn't shy away from spectacle. With a budget of $200 million, she had the responsibility of a big Hollywood production on her shoulders. A responsibility until now rarely entrusted to a female director and that she bore alongside a team of capable women on her crew.


Director Niki Caro with Yifei Liu in Mulan's set.

Jasin Boland/Disney

"It's important that women support other women," said makeup, hair and prosthetics designer Denise Kum during a video chat from London when I asked about her work with Caro. "Niki has a lovely thing, she holds the door open to get as many women through."

Baigeler, who described the director as a collaborator, emphasized the camaraderie on Caro's sets. "She always puts an amazing crew together."

"We didn't go one day over our schedule," Walker added, remarking on the organization skills of Caro on set. 

"We had three women behind the cameras," said Walker, referring to herself, Caro and the movie's first assistant director, Liz Tan. Mulan is the most expensive live-action movie directed by a woman. "We were very cognizant of that fact. Because we're all strong women anyway, we all felt this was a great opportunity. We were going to get the film done really well and show everybody." 

Getting Mulan right

One of the main challenges of Mulan was getting the fight sequences right. A second unit shot landscapes and backgrounds in China while the main unit was on location in New Zealand, aiming to use as little CGI as possible. They worked and extensively rehearsed with numerous stunt doubles, extras and horses. Caro wanted the action centered on the character of Mulan, covering action in an elegant and choreographed way.


One of Mulan's battle sequences.


Because of those stylized battles, costume designer Daigeler faced the challenge of creating an armor for Mulan that would follow her movements. "What Yifei as Mulan does is nearly like a ballet performance," she said. "I really embraced that she's a female warrior."

The costume designer also revealed the tricks required to pull off Mulan's many transformations. The character goes from girl to woman, then pretends to be a boy who becomes a man in the army. The armor Mulan wears while pretending to be a man hides her figure, but when Mulan sheds that armor, Daigeler made sure her vibrant red tunic was more fitted to drape Liu's body.

But it's Mulan's hair that reveals her biggest transformation. In the animated movie, Mulan cuts her hair to pass as a man. Not here. She ties it back in a bun as a soldier, and lets it loose later on. "The hair was doing its own stunts half the time," Kum says. 


Yifei Liu in Mulan.


The hair and makeup designer explained they didn't use a whole wig because they wanted to use the hair's natural movement. But looking natural still requires a touch of movie magic. "She had so many hairpieces in, it all had to be individually toned and baked to make it really look like it was just the wind [moving it]," Kum explained.

Don't try to emulate Mulan's look at home though. It might not be as easy to achieve without Kum's team of makeup professionals aiming for understated perfection. The makeup team used strategically placed dirt in the sequences where Mulan pretended to be a man, sculpting Liu's jaw and contouring her face. They then enhanced the color when she transformed into a woman warrior. Even when it looks she has no makeup on, she does. "What comes out as looking subtle and natural, comes with a lot of consideration and testing," Kum said.

Nothing was left to chance in Mulan.

Even if this is a movie designed for cinema consumption, I still loved it on streaming. It gave me the chance to finally enjoy the unfolding of this empowering story made by a supporting team where women were allowed to take chances.

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