What We Can Learn from Wes Anderson's Distinct Style
All Wes Anderson movies have a unique visual and storytelling style that instantly sets his films apart.
With an exact eye and a flair for creating big, fanciful worlds with deadpan characters, Wes Anderson has essentially created his own genre of film. Although he features all types of characters in various periods and settings, from the 1960s summer-drenched island of Moonrise Kingdom to the dystopian version of a future Japan in Isle of Dogs, Anderson's stories are character-driven and often deal with heavy themes like loss and dysfunction.
"If I feel like I have an idea what the best thing is for the story, I just want to follow that. Even if it does mean that people can tell it's me."
Whether you are a fan of his quirky approach to filmmaking or not, Anderson's abilities to use color, set design and cinematography to create a unique visual style can benefit any director with a developing eye. His approaches to story and characters can also help guide writers seeking a voice of their own. More than anything, all the elements are carefully selected and curated to create one seamless idea and add to characters' stories.
"It's just the way I like it," he says. "And I feel like it's a mistake for me not to do that. If I feel like I have an idea what the best thing is for the story, I just want to follow that. Even if it does mean that people can tell it's me."
Wes Anderson's Characters
During a 2014 interview about The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson talks about how he often uses recognizable actors in many of his projects. He says that he hopes this doesn't distract or feel like cameos, because the characters themselves are usually so exaggerated that they stand on their own.
In this project's case, he says he modeled many of the characters on Dickensian tropes.
Within screenwriting, it's always better to go bigger with your characters, and then pull back if you need to.
So go ahead and write your characters as big and ridiculous caricatures. Chances are, they'll be more fun to watch -- and if you go too far, you can always scale them down again.
Anderson also points out that most of his characters are coming from a very real place.
Anderson knows his characters sometimes come off as "quirky" or "weird," but they only grow into that slight oddness after being inspired by someone Anderson actually knows. In this way, the characters come from a place of heart and emotion that will ground them no matter how quirky they become. Remember this as you construct your own characters.
Wes Anderson's Costumes
Much like the big and goofy caricatures of Anderson's characters, he knows that the costumes of his films are usually exaggerated and become an element of character development. In the following featurette from The Life Aquatic, actors and crew discuss the importance of costume to the film.
Actor Bud Cort was not so crazy about his clothing at first, likening it to diarrhea, but Anderson insisted on the character's polyester-laden look. Cort eventually had to admit the director was right.
"At some point, the costume weds with the actor," Cort says. "And there's a character."
Willem Dafoe says he was given his costume and told to bring life to the character. There was some room to play in costuming, but it had to match Anderson's aesthetic.
"In the end, it's got to be something that he really responds to," Dafoe says. "He doesn't really indulge people's personal fantasies unless they align with his."
Wes Anderson's Color Palettes
Anderson is obsessed with yellow and red (which will come up again when looking at his set design), with occasional blues in the mix. His films usually contain highly saturated sets filled with these colors.
This compilation of different Anderson shots by Misha Petrick shows how color is used consistently across his films.
There is even a supercut focused on Anderson's use of red and yellow specifically. But what does this mean?
At least one academic paper posits that Anderson's more vibrant uses of color aid with audience retention and help viewers associate his distinct visual style and storytelling tone with his films. And we're talking about that here, so obviously that's been effective.
Vreeland, the writer of the paper, also points out that Anderson's use of color is similar to how he tells stories. Characters sometimes discuss dark, painful topics in lighthearted or deadpan conversations. Similarly, at times dark and depressing things are happening to these characters onscreen, but they still find themselves in bright, colorful sets that lend a sense of visual humor to the moment.
When making a film of your own, don't forget how color impacts the audience and can change the mood of an entire movie.
Wes Anderson's Cinematography
There are quite a few visual choices that are consistent across Anderson's films, including shots with flat composition and perfectly centered and symmetrical configurations, usually using long lenses. He also tends to include dramatic slow-motion sequences, swish pans, and meticulously organized overhead shots (which is also known as "knolling").
In this 2015 interview, Anderson's cinematographer Robert Yeoman discusses the technical aspects of capturing Anderson's distinct vision.
"I know that when Wes walks in, the first thing he's going to say to me is, 'Are we square to the wall, here?'" Yeoman says.
This exactness is incredibly important when symmetry and the need for very precise whip pans is so important to Anderson's style. Actors hitting their marks exactly is also crucial, but Yeoman says Anderson is usually the one to ask for that meticulous level of performance from the actors, so he doesn't have to be the "bad guy."
Whip pans and symmetry are obviously not the only ways to approach a film shoot. Develop your own personal style, and once you've really gotten a grasp of how you want to tell a story, don't be afraid to ask for perfection from your crew if that's what you want.
Wes Anderson's Set Design
As Yeoman says in the above interview, Anderson's sets sometimes must be constructed to accommodate his style. With such a specific vision and a need to shoot things in particular ways, the set design of Anderson films becomes just as integral to the projects. Anderson also uses his settings like he uses his characters and allows his sets to have personality.
In this video about the creation of the fictional Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson discusses how an abandoned shopping mall was transformed into a luxury period hotel, with other Eastern European hotels serving as inspiration. Anderson was able to exercise his usual control over every element in the set by adapting the space to his specific needs.
On this film, there was an additional challenge of shooting in two different decades for the film -- the slightly drab earth tones of the 1960s set had to give way to the rich reds and pinks of the 1930s.
During an interview for Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson acknowledges that there are some visual motifs that he just can't seem to get away from -- for example, he doesn't know why he gravitates toward yellow tents specifically in his films. Rather than fight this, he goes with what he really wants and allows that motif to connect his various works.
Finally, this off-the-cuff behind-the-scenes look at Moonrise Kingdom with Bill Murray is not necessarily focused on the set design, but the video inadvertently offers a look at how several sets are constructed. A dolly shot reveals parts of the family home, which was built on a soundstage, as Murray meanders through. A cutaway trailer shows how the interiors of a very small space were captured.
The level of your own set design is obviously going to be dictated by budget and what's available to you, but Anderson's approach shows the value in being creative. Maybe there's a perfect location you can tailor to your needs. Maybe you can build a set from scratch. If you really want to get particular, maybe you can even try miniatures or try stop-motion animation.
There are so many Wes Anderson themes and styles that are repeated across his films. What are some more of your favorites?