Meticulous, playful and ingenious, Wes Anderson has an adroit mastery in the production and visual design of his films. His distinctive visual and narrative style is whimsical, eccentric and nostalgic. From The Darjeeling Limited to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson and his team of creatives have brought visuals that are striking and anomalously aesthetic.
With symmetrical frames, bright pastel pop of colours and nuanced blocking, Anderson constructs a choreography that explores architecture’s ability to narrate spatial stories. His films stand out of the crowd—locations, objects, transport, characters and clothing among others defines its niche. A large part of his aesthetic is his attention to colour, perspective and proportions. All of these features reflect deeper connections to emotions, time frames and multiple viewpoints.
Anderson’s cinematic universe is a kit of parts, interior and exterior references that become a constant background almost serving as a silent character in the film. The architecture weaves the film together by acting as a reference point, a landmark generating mental maps within the viewer helping them navigate through its spatial narrative.
Anderson, a true architectural film-maker is not just so because of his elaborate sets but because of his filming strategies and choreographies. With his zoom shots, whip pans and tracking shots, every frame is like a well-assembled painting. He uses orthogonal axes, left to right, up to down, in and out (Rose, 2014) time and again showcasing the continuity of the space. His compass point editing is seen in Darjeeling Limited as he moves the camera left to right showing different compartments of the train, almost creating a section where one can see by whom and how the place is employed.
His film, The Life Aquatic displays a sectional ship dollhouse to introduce the boat to the viewers. Wes instead of hiding these narrative filmmaking details goes on to highlight and explain, drawing attention to the movement and spaces that people inhabit.
With The Grand Budapest Hotel, one of Anderson’s most remarkable films, he does all of this and more. Based in Central Europe, the story is about a hotel that undergoes decline. From a 1920’s decorative pastel Art Nouveau hotel it moves to a 1960’s functionalist Modernist hotel with Fascist influences.
All exterior shots of the hotel are taken from a miniature model that undergoes major visual transformations while the interior shots were taken in a vacant departmental store called Görlitzer Warenhaus, where they redid two complete sets of the interiors to display different periods and stages in the movie. He used his team’s design prowess to make a film that jumps between eras and architectural styles to create something beyond imagination.
Anderson’s compositions are mostly planimetric, where the backgrounds are relatively flatter and character choreographies are usually parallel to the background, while the focus characters are either facing the camera or are perpendicular to it (Flight, 2020). This compositional technique used by Wes creates layers that help him direct the audience’s attention to what is important in the frame. Moreover, such blocking and arrangement create an immediate focus on the hierarchy of the characters.
One can also see that Wes does draw inspiration from Hitchcock with the linear zoom-in slow motion and Kurosawa from which he gets multiple people to react at the same time to heighten the situation and effect of the shot. His ingenious changes in proportions, use of curtains and narrators, make it a fulfilling storytelling experience. One can also conclude that Wes is very much a part of the cast, visible with his curatorial approach and demanding attention with his authorial establishment.
Anderson’s visions are met by his talented team of designers, Kris Moran who designed sets for the films—Moonrise Kingdom, Royal Tenenbaums and Hotel Chevalier. She breathes life into the director’s visions layering the frames with nuanced object narratives. Working from detailed storyboards made by Wes Anderson, she further investigates how to make them a reality continuously drawing inspiration from her own experiences as well as from the perspective of the character to be represented.
Another set designer, who lingers around Wes’ sets is Sandy Reynolds. The interesting thing about Sandy is that she also worked on films such as Pulp Fiction, which gave Quentin Tarantino his signature style. It’s safe to assume that working with designers like these, Mr Anderson realised his creativity. These designers don’t just think of the set as space but also weave the auteurist vision of filmmakers into it. Another name that warrants the same request is that of Adam Stockhausen. Stockhausen along with his set decorator Anna Pinnock also went on to win the Academy Award for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Stockhausen and Pinnock don’t only stop at live-action features though. They helped him through the Isle of Dogs as well. That speaks towards the versatility and singular vision of Mr Anderson and his team. Making a picture like Isle of Dogs or Fantastic Mr Fox which is essentially animated goes beyond just set decoration. So how did he get there? You need to be adept with colours and cinematography that goes beyond shooting actors. That’s where Wes Anderson’s long time collaboration with his illustrators and graphic designers comes into play.
Wes Anderson’s brother, Eric Chase Anderson is an illustrator and they did work together to develop this very distinctive aesthetic. He created designs for The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Rushmore. Annie Atkins, the graphic designer behind those beautiful Mendl boxes from The Grand Budapest Hotel is inspirational and one of the agents why every single detail in Anderson’s movie works.
From detailed letters, bills, book covers, boxes to maps, newspapers, dog tags and Yoko Ono hair ties – she is the force behind everything that creates and completes the aesthetic of the director. Her love for everything handmade and period films work with Anderson’s aesthetic that stresses and pays so much attention to graphic design, a truly unique characteristic of films.
Wes World, as it is fondly called, appeals and inspires people through the world. You’ll find his cultural influence all over social media. For example, ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ is a crowd-sourced Instagram profile that records places across the world that fits the Anderson aesthetic. People all over the world discover spots that could fit into a Wes Anderson film and send it to the community. It is one thing to have a vision yourself but it’s a spectacular feat to make the whole world adopt that vision too.
The rooms and spaces we inhabit hold memories and physical evidence of our existence and Wes Anderson is spectacular at creating peculiar microcosms. He holds detailed tangible references communicating the characters complex journeys and personal narratives. His charm in balancing elements that are in between fiction and reality immerses the audiences and forces them to reimagine the world around them.
Architecture can be a great tool for storytelling practices, reflecting on not just spatial but social and economic conditions informing us of our past, our histories. Filmmaking involves learning contexts and complex relationships between characters and that is what makes it synonymous with architecture. Anderson brings both these together in spectacular fashion.
- Rose, S., 2014. Wes Anderson: the architectural film-maker. [online] The Architects’ Journal. Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/wes-anderson-the-architectural-film-maker [Accessed 28 March 2021].
- Thomas Flight. (2020). Why do Wes Anerson movies look likethat?. [Youtube video]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ba3c9KEuQ4A
[Accessed 28 March 2021]