Wes Anderson has one of the most easily recognizable styles in cinematography. His movies can be distinguished immediately from the others mostly because of the visual impact but also because of the unusual atmosphere they exude. Each movie denotes a certain amount of artificiality, which can be noticed by the audience without difficulty. But how does he manage to achieve this effect? And what are the other characteristics of his movies that make them so easily distinguishable?
Wes Anderson trademark
Symmetrical framing – probably one of the first things that comes to one’s mind when it comes to Wes Anderson is symmetry. His movies are abundant in symmetrical shots and the director has proven that he truly masters this technique.
Slow motion shot – this type of shot is recurrent in Wes Anderson movies and is usually used in order to emphasize a certain moment or emotion. The slow-motions shots are accompanied by a soundtrack which completes the atmosphere Anderson desires to transmit.
Bird’s eye view – this type of shot is taken from above, with the camera pointing at a 90-degree angle to the floor, giving the impression that the observer is a bird. The shot looks directly down on the subject and can have several significances. Wes Anderson uses this type of shot in order to isolate his subject, whether it is a character or an object of great importance. Anderson also uses this shot in order to ease the observation of a wider range of significant details, as objects play important roles in his movies. They are not decorative, but carry powerful meanings and help the development of the plot.
Whip pans and tilts – in case of these shots, a fixed camera moves quickly from left to right (in case of whip pans) or vertically (in case of tilts). The movement is used in order to create a transition between scenes or characters. It can denote the passage of time or induce an atmosphere of frenzy. You can see how Anderson uses this type of shots in The Grand Budapest Hotel in the video below:
Tracking – the camera is mounted on a camera dolly which is placed on rails, with the aim of following the characters which would otherwise leave the frame. The camera can slide along the characters or it can be located behind or in front of them.
Color – Wes Anderson chooses a color palette which remains consistent throughout the film. For example, the main color in Moonrise Kingdom is yellow, Rushmore is abundant in dark greens, blues and reds, the main colors in The Royal Tenenbaums are brown and red, in The Darjeeling Limited we encounter blues and beiges and The Grand Budapest Hotel is recognized for its pinks and purples. However, in case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes employs two different color palettes before the final “wedding cake” one. He does this in order to make a distinction between three time periods.
Flatness – Wes uses planimetric composition in his movies, orienting the camera perpendicular to the elements of the scene. When moving, the characters remain parallel to the flat background. In order to maintain the flat composition throughout the movie, Wes chooses compass-point editing: the camera only faces 4 directions, maintaining the 90-degree angle in order to keep the environment flat. The effect is that the composition feels deconstructed.
Most of these elements give the sensation of artificiality. But why does he make these choices?
Wes Anderson – against naturalism
Wes Anderson disregards naturalism. While the aim of many directors is to make the movies seem as real as possible, Wes wants the audience to be aware that they are being told a story. This is also emphasized by the authorial framing, which is present in most of his movies. For example, The Royal Tenenbaums is presented as a book with chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. Rushmore is presented as a theatre play, with the employment of stage curtains to present the action. In Moonrise Kingdom we have a narrator who speaks directly to the camera and in The Grand Budapest Hotel the story is told by an author.
Dream-like effect in animated films
The fact that Wes Anderson is against naturalism can also be observed when regarding the choices he makes for his animated films. One of the reasons why Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Isle of Dogs look so different from other animated movies is the gripping effect on the animals’ fur. This effect is a consequence of using puppets with natural fur instead of synthetic one. Although the crew was against the idea, Wes wanted the fingerprints of the creator to be literally seen.
Moreover, in both movies Wes chose the stop-motion technique. Movies are usually shot in 24-30 frames per second, which means that 24-30 still images are shown every second, succeeding so quickly that they give the illusion of motion. In his animated movies, Wes shot in twos, meaning only 12 frames per second, which caused a rupture in the fluidity of motion.
Fan of Wes Anderson movies or not, it is difficult to argue about the visual pleasure his works produce or not admire him for his meticulousness and attention to detail. The color palettes, the shooting angles and the story structure combine into a truly unique cinematography style which became an inspiration for many.