Shooting with Wes Anderson

Matt Zoller Seitz talks to Wes Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman about the techniques and ideas used to create the unique on-screen worlds

Matt Zoller Seitz: Do you remember the first time you met Wes Anderson?

Robert Yeoman: I’m a little bit older than Wes – like, 15 or 16 years older. I’d been doing a series of low-budget movies that hadn’t been that well received, and then he sent me the Bottle Rocket short and a script for the feature version. I read the feature script and thought it was great, and I liked the short, so I went to meet him. Wes was in an office at Sony Pictures, because James L Brooks was producing the feature version, so I went over and met him there.

MZS: What was your impression of him?

RY: When I first met Wes, he had these big glasses, and I was like, ‘Oh, man, another kid is going to make another movie that’s not going to go anywhere’. But I liked him, and the more we talked, the more I realised that this guy really had something going on. We found that we were drawn to the same things visually. We agreed on things we didn’t like, as well as things we both liked. We just kind of hit it off, and I could see right away he had something special to offer – and good for me! I’m really happy I’ve been part of all his films. It’s been one of the highlights of my career.

MZS: What is it like working with a guy who, in a sense, pre-edits the movie in his head? We’ve seen his storyboards. He’s not a filmmaker who does a lot of ‘finding the movie in the editing room’.

RY: Yes – it’s all very carefully planned out. On the past couple of movies, Wes has done these things called animatics, which are little hand-drawn cartoons that represent each shot and scene. He then adds all the voices of the characters himself, and that gives an ‘attitude’ to the scene. He’d show the animatics to me and our first AD, Josh, and sometimes even to the actors, and I think it gave everyone a sense of what we were going for. And it helped us in the shooting and during the prep.

Occasionally, as we worked on the film, we’d go out with just the assistant directors, the producers, and myself and Wes, and we’d shoot rough footage based on some of the animatics. It gave us a pretty good idea of how a scene was going to look when we photographed it with the actors. In the [Grand Budapest] hotel shoot-out scene, for instance, we shot some of that with a camera without the actors, just to get a sense of how everything would come together.

Wes was pretty true to the animatics. Whenever we were shooting, if, for some reason, we had any doubt of what direction to go in, we’d get out the animatic for that scene and stay true to that. To work on a movie like that is refreshing, because most of the time, people don’t really have an idea of what they want to shoot when they show up on the set. Wes has it all planned out so carefully in his head – and knows what shot to cut with what shot – so everyone knows exactly what we’re going to be doing when we get there. He has a very strong vision of how the film is going to be, and we’re all there to try to help him achieve that.

MZS: I’m sure you’re aware that there’s this stereotype of the cinematographer as the guy who’s never happy with whatever the plan is and wants to do his own thing.

RY: It depends on what movie you work on. I’ve worked on movies where the director is much more concerned with the actors and the writing, and so he more often leaves the visuals up to me and the production designer. That’s not as satisfying.

I find the best movies come from people like Wes, who are directors with a very strong vision of the film. Certainly, I have more creative freedom on movies with other directors, but in the end, Wes pushes all of us – himself included – to do our best work, and so we’re pushed into territories we wouldn’t ordinarily think about, cinematically. I think the challenge and the excitement that comes from that adds a whole different element to the filmmaking experience for all of us.

MZS: Let’s talk about the different aspect ratios in The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is the sort of thing – the ratio of frame width to frame height – that a lot of viewers may not be aware of: that movies have different shapes depending on how they are shot or matted.

RY: A long time ago, I was really intrigued by the ‘Academy’ ratio. In fact, on The Royal Tenenbaums, for the house, we talked about shooting that 1:37.

MZS: Which is more ‘square-ish’ than people are used to seeing now. The ‘old-movie ratio’, basically.

RY: Right. We didn’t do it on that movie, but it’s something we’d talked about doing for a long time, when this movie came up, we first thought about the 1930s segment of it, and we decided to shoot 1:37 for those parts. Gradually, that idea kind of expanded to using 1:85 and 2:40 to represent the other time periods.

MZS: 1:85, the ratio you use in the 1980s part of the movie with the older version of the Author, is slightly more rectangular – very close 16:9, or the standard dimensions of contemporary televisions. 2:40 is CinemaScope, basically, the really wide format you and Wes used on his second, third, fourth, and fifth movies, and the ratio you use in the 1960s part of the movie with the younger version of the Author.

RY: Right. The idea of changing aspect ratios from one time period to another was something Wes came up with. I was very excited about it, and I think it brought a lot to the film.

MZS: When we’re looking at this movie, we’re not actually looking at the Academy ratio, and 1:85 and 2:40, because all those different sizes of image have to fit within a 1:85 frame, right? So 1:85 is the basic frame for the film, and then the anamorphic and the old-movie, Academy ratio are sort of nestled within the 1:85 frame? How did that work, exactly?

RY: Well, it’s basically done in post-production. We shot three different formats, and in post, they just fit them all into 1:85. It was all done digitally. You can kind of combine all the formats into one format that way.

MZS: Was the entire movie shot on 35mm film?

RY: Yes, with the exception of some of the miniatures. The film itself was shot on 35mm, but some elements of the miniatures – the skiing, the wide shots of the hotel exteriors – some of that was done digitally.

MZS: How was the skiing sequence done, exactly?

RY: The skiing sequence was a combination of a lot of different elements. We tried to shoot as much live, with the actors, as possible. We put them on a slant with the wind coming at them and the smoke coming at them, and with a white backdrop behind them. When you see the wide shots of them skiing, those are miniatures, done later. But as much as possible, when you see Ralph, when you see Tony, we wanted it to actually be Ralph and Tony. For example, we tried, first thing out of the shed, with the skies, to shoot that live. But then the wide shots and some of the more spectacular point-of-view shots were all done with miniatures later.

MZS: Can you talk about the use of paintings and films as reference points?

RY: We looked at the Ernst Lubitsch films of the 30s. We looked at Grand Hotel, To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner … those were our references. Wes got a lot of these ‘photochrom’ pictures of old hotels from back in the 30s [see p44], and we used those as references, too.

In fact, at the beginning, we were toying with the idea of making the whole movie with a photochrom look. A lot of it would have been treated in post. We played around a little bit, but we never really came up with anything Wes was happy with, so we abandoned the idea. But it was certainly an inspiration to us, in the preparation of the film.

Robert Yeoman has served as director of photography on every live-action Wes Anderson feature. The above interview is reproduced with permission from The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Matt Zoller Seitz (Abrams, £21.99), cover shown right,

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