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Introduction: Wes Anderson Photography and the Art of ‘Asteroid City’
If you are still not familiar with film director Wes Anderson’s unique visual aesthetic, you probably live in a bubble.
Wes Anderson’s style is distinguished by a rich visual aesthetic that permeates his films, reflecting a unique fusion of whimsy, symmetry, and nostalgia. His compositions feature meticulously arranged sets with vibrant color palettes and carefully framed, often sublimely symmetrical shots. The characters in his films are idiosyncratic and frequently exist within worlds that seem both familiar and slightly fantastical.
Anderson’s collaboration with cinematographer Robert Yeoman often results in a distinct cinematic look that emphasizes texture, pattern, and depth. His use of music is thoughtful and eclectic, complementing the visual storytelling.
Together, these elements form a signature style that makes a Wes Anderson film immediately recognizable, a blend of visual artistry, quirky character development, and storytelling that dances between the poignant and the absurd.
In fact, with time and aesthetic consistency in his films, Anderson has essentially created his own film genre, often being mimicked and reproduced both ironically or as a tribute by film admirers. Check out this artificially generated video of the TV series, The Office, re-hatched as a fanciful Wes Anderson Production.
To be honest, it was Wes Anderson’s famous style that almost stopped me from watching Asteroid City in the first place, for fear of the film being simply another Anderson production set in a different location, offering little to no novelty to the experience for the already indoctrinated.
Luckily, I was wrong. Asteroid City, a movie about a TV-program, about a script which becomes a play, lives true to the now iconic Wes Anderson photography style, but it also, in my opinion, adds surprising nuance to his established visual language.
A Collaborative Vision: Wes Anderson and Cinematographer Robert Yeoman Crafting ‘Asteroid City’
Wes Anderson is known for an unusual pre-production practice: he often creates detailed animations or animatics of certain scenes before filming the actual movie. These animations serve as a kind of visual script or storyboard that provides a clear picture of how he envisions the scenes playing out.
The animations are not meant for public viewing but are essential tools for Anderson and his team. They allow the director to experiment with various visual and narrative ideas and share them with his crew, including cinematographers, set designers, and actors. By seeing the scene in animated form, everyone involved can better understand the director’s vision, ensuring a more cohesive and efficient filmmaking process.
This practice reflects Anderson’s meticulous attention to detail and his desire to have complete control over every aspect of his films’ aesthetics. It’s a technique that further underlines his distinctive style and approach to filmmaking. While this method might be more time-consuming and labor-intensive than traditional storyboarding, it provides a unique way to explore and communicate the visual and thematic elements of a film before principal photography begins.
This is where Robert Yeoman comes in.
Robert Yeoman has been the director of photography on many of Anderson’s films, and their collaboration over the years has become an integral part of Anderson’s distinct visual style. Yeoman ultimately serves as a master technician and visual collaborator in helping Anderson’s vision come to life.
Robert Yeoman and Wes Anderson first worked together on “Bottle Rocket” in 1996 and have continued their partnership on films such as “Rushmore” (1998), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004), “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014).
Yeoman’s cinematography complements Anderson’s directorial meticulous attention to composition, lighting, camera movement, and color contributing to the unique and easily recognizable aesthetic that defines Anderson’s films.
Wes Anderson’s love affair with Symmetry
There is a plethora of articles and videos illustrating some of Wes Anderson photography hallmarks in visual imagery. For this reason, I won’t dwell too long on some of the obvious features, however, the first defining characteristic of his photographic style is Wes Anderson’s dedication to symmetry.
To see how his use of symmetrical composition serves to tie Anderson’s films seamlessly together, have a look at this video produced some years ago, and continues to be as relevant as ever, regarding this technique.
One way in which Wes Anderson consistently achieve this center composition in his films, and namely in Asteroid City, is by constructing the film sets themselves to accentuate symmetrical camera angles. Shot in desert flats in Spain, rock formations, cacti, and all building locations were constructed to build the theatrical layout of Asteroid City.
Carefully placed floor markings were also used to cue both actors and dolly movements within these sets to know exactly where to stand and how to move at each given moment. Relentless practice and preparation were taken to place all elements in a position that most effectively scratches Anderson’s itch for perfection.
Frames within Frames, Narratives within Narratives
In addition to symmetrical photographic composition, Asteroid City also uses symmetry in shot styles within the movie, often book-ending scenes and sequences. The movie itself begins and ends with its narrative frame of a TV program about the production of a play and the original fictional story behind the play which takes place in Asteroid City.
One of the more obvious and fun compositional tricks Wes Anderson employs to further his story within a story approach is the use of framing scenes within a camera frame. Here the viewer is privy to both external and internal realities in the same scene.
The pattern in which Anderson weave’s together these narrative layers and repeated visual tropes is hypnotic and musical. For me, one of the most notable ways in which the shot sequence reveals a larger symmetry is with the viewer’s initial introduction to Asteroid City as a place.
Namely, the sparse and nostalgic world of Asteroid City is revealed through an impressive, one-take, 360-degree introduction tour of the imaginary town.
The camera seems to essentially pivot circularity save for a few subtle vertical zooms and horizontal pans which keep the city centered and place the viewer in the center of the landscape. The masterfully rehearsed low-tech, dolly-driven camera movements of head grip Sanjay Sami give the camera an ethereal floating presence.
A similar shot is performed at the end of the Asteroid City narrative closing the initial introductory loop with another signing-off loop, for me, symbolizing a kind of visual and metaphoric infinity.
How Color and Light Create A Celluloid Dream in Asteroid City
Another central defining element in Wes Anderson Photographic approach to creating Asteroid City is the lighting. As cinematographer Yeoman describes soft natural lighting was used throughout the Asteroid City color scenes to give the fictional narrative layer a dreamlike quality.
Even in interiors, skylights were installed to provide lighting to a scene, and large whiteboards were used to bounce natural light onto the characters and minimize shadows. The effect more or less flattens the features of the characters in the colored scenes, lending their features to be more illustrative.
Alternatively, reality, shown in the TV and theater production sequences, is literally filmed in black and white, using defined studio lighting, hard shadows, and at times even spotlights. This creates visual borders between the narrative layers in addition to helping distinguish between reality and fiction.
For a nice and thorough explanation of Yeoman’s general use of natural light watch this video below.
Both the B&W and colored scenes were filmed using 35mm Kodak film. The colored scenes were shot on KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213. While some complained that the shots looked overly processed, I believe they were meant to have a washed-out film grain with certain hues looking overly saturated, reminiscent of early technicolor or hand-colored film and adding to the scene’s dreamlike quality.
The B&W scenes were shot with EASTMAN DOUBLE-X Black & White Negative Film 5222, giving the look of the scenes a sharper more contrasted feeling.
Parallel Universes of Artifice: The Constructed Realities of ‘Asteroid City’ and Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills
In the world of cinematic exploration, the boundaries of reality and fiction often blur, and in Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” this blurring takes center stage. At its core, the film is a meta-narrative – a story about storytelling itself. Scarlett Johansson, in a captivating performance, enacts an actress playing another actress within a play. This multi-layered portrayal calls into focus the very nature of acting and the artifices it constructs.
The film’s exploration of unrealities resonates strikingly with the evocative work of Cindy Sherman and her series of “film stills.” Like Johansson’s character in “Asteroid City,” Sherman’s photographs depict her as an actress, seemingly captured in a still from a nonexistent movie. But Sherman is not just the subject; she’s also the artist, photographer, and director.
Her work becomes a commentary on the roles women are expected to play, both on-screen and off, and how these roles are crafted, assumed, and performed. It’s a deep dive into the unreality of acting, where the very act of portrayal becomes the subject itself.
Beyond the layers of performance, both “Asteroid City” and Sherman’s stills delve into the male gaze’s problematic intricacies. In Anderson’s film, the male protagonist, a photographer, captures Johansson without her knowledge or consent. His lens, often intruding and voyeuristic, peeps into her life from outside a window.
It’s a raw exploration of power dynamics, control, and the often unsettling gaze under which women find themselves. Sherman, through her film stills, echoes similar sentiments. By assuming various roles, she becomes both the observer and the observed, shedding light on the male gaze’s pervasive nature and how women are continually watched, judged, and framed within societal lenses.
In both the cinematic world of “Asteroid City” and the photographic realm of Cindy Sherman, we’re confronted with an astute examination of the performance’s artificiality and the omnipresent male gaze. Through these works, Anderson and Sherman invite us to reflect, dissect, and question the roles we see, the roles we play, and the eyes through which we view them.
Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of Wes Anderson’s Photographic Contribution to Modern Cinema
In conclusion, “Asteroid City” stands as a testament to Wes Anderson’s unparalleled mastery in the realm of film photography. This mesmerizing cinematic journey, infused with Wes Anderson photography’s distinctive visual language, invites viewers into a world where the lines between reality and fiction tantalizingly blur. When paralleled with Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills”, the film further underscores the profound complexities of performance, perception, and the omnipresent male gaze.
Through the rich tapestry of “Asteroid City”, Anderson crafts a visual narrative that is both an ode to his iconic style and an evolution of it. As viewers, we are not just passive spectators; we are drawn into a visual analysis, urged to delve deeper into the layers of storytelling and to appreciate the intricate nuances of Anderson’s photographic prowess. It’s an exploration that reaffirms Anderson’s position as a maestro of film aesthetics and solidifies “Asteroid City” as a magnum opus in his illustrious repertoire.