Who better to deconstruct Wes Anderson's visual style than his longtime collaborator, DP Robert Yeoman?
You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't associate whip pans, slow motion tracking shots, and overheads of perfectly placed props with Wes Anderson.
The Isle of Dogs director has one of the most recognizable visual styles in both modern live-action and stop-motion filmmaking, but despite him being a self-proclaimed perfectionist when it comes to the look of his work, he wouldn't be able to achieve it without cinematographer Robert Yeoman, who has lensed every live-action film the Anderson has ever made.
Yeoman offered some insider knowledge in this video for Cooke Optics TV, breaking down some of the most iconic shots in the pair's filmography. In doing so, he gave fans and filmmakers a deeper understanding of how these impressive visuals were achieved, why they were chosen, and how they affect audiences on an emotional and psychological level.
1. How to Nail a Whip Pan
Though whip pans might seem as spontaneous as your dad's handheld home movie camera work, Yeoman points out that they are planned well in advance and are thoroughly vetted in pre-viz before an actual camera ever arrives on set.
But once it's time to shoot, Yeoman offers some sage advice to young cinematographers on how to really nail them. He says the trick to shooting a good whip pan is to find a comfortable end position with your feet and body first. Once you have that, begin the shot from the uncomfortable corkscrew position you often have to take in order to shoot these shots.
2. Be Tenacious
That Long Technocrane Shot From The Royal Tenenbaums
Near the end of The Royal Tenenbaums, there's this beautiful shot that shows the audience a scene of fading chaos and reconciliation. It follows the length of a fire truck, revealing key characters doing an assortment of different things simultaneously, from Royal petting a Dalmatian to Raleigh trying on a firefighter's helmet to Henry surveying the damage from a window.
From Yeoman's description, this shot seems quite complicated to capture. A Technocrane was used to track along the fire truck and crane up toward the windows of the Tenenbaum home, which would be relatively much easier to shoot if there weren't so many cast members required to hit marks and deliver lines.
And working with a director like Anderson -- who is an absolute perfectionist, determined to get the shot -- we can take a page from Yeoman's playbook and be tenacious and patient until you nail the shot.
3. Believe In Your Director
The Tracking Shot From The Life Aquatic
Yeoman mentions another difficult shot he had to capture, this time from the scene in The Life Aquatic, in which Steve Zissou exits the screening of his film.
Using a Western dolly, Yeoman and his team had to manage the blocking and choreography of dozens of extras, but the most difficult obstacle to overcome, he says, was fashion icon/actor Isabella Blow forgetting her lines. Actors fudging up their lines is obviously a very normal, very common occurrence on a film set -- but things get a little hairy when you're shooting in a very expensive location, as was the case in this scene.
While many directors might scrap the original plan and try a more forgiving cinematographic approach, Yeoman put well-deserved trust in Anderson to direct the hell out of the scene and help Blow deliver a great performance. That's a lesson we can all learn as filmmakers: Even if something isn't working, believing in the vision of a capable director can pay dividends. Give them the space they need to do their job before insisting on changing up the approach.
Adapt to the Needs of Your Project
The Dolly Shots From The Darjeeling Limited
When you're shooting your own projects, it becomes very clear very quickly which tools you like to use the most and chances are you're going to try to use them as often as possible. However, when projects get more complicated and you're collaborating with more people, whether it's a Hollywood heavyweight like Wes Anderson or your buddy Dave from work, your shoot will become a lot less about using your favorite toys and a lot more about using the right toys.
As you can see, Yeoman had to adapt not only to the different limitations presented at each location, like the narrow streets of Jodhpur*, but he also had to adapt to the shooting preferences of Anderson himself.
*Side note: If he really is as old school as Yeoman says, Wes Anderson absolutely wore jodhpurs while filming in Jodhpur.
4. Slow Motion Shots
Anderson's slow-motion shots are arguably one of the most overtly emotional camera techniques he uses in his films. While most (if not all) camera movements and techniques can have distinct emotional effects on the audience, there are some that are used specifically to elicit them.
As Yeoman points out in the video, these slow-motion shots are used by Anderson in this way. They primarily occur during momentous moments in the narrative, specifically at the end when each character's arch comes full circle or when loose ends are being tied up. They not only allow you to slow down and look at the shot or scene more closely but they also inherently have a dreamlike, highly emotional aspect to them.
Over the years, Wes Anderson has received both high praise and harsh criticism for his rather idiosyncratic visual style. It will be interesting to see what his upcoming film The French Dispatch, described as "a love letter to journalists set in an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional 20th-century French city," will have the same melancholic twee and jaded tenderness as his previous works.
Seeing as the trailer has yet to drop, I guess we'll just have to watch the clock tick in slow motion to The Velvet Underground.