Wes Anderson’s style is one of the most distinctive in the cinematic world, so much so that his films can often be recognized with just a single frame. With walking contradictions, vintage flair, and joyous whimsy, Anderson’s style is unique and well-received, both when live-action and animated. His films have become synonymous with distinctive product designs that make us feel a sense of nostalgia as if we have entered a magical world.
But what is it that makes his films uniquely ‘Anderson’? Here is a breakdown of the art nouveau director’s style.
Let’s start with the basics- the story. Wes Anderson constructs most of the storylines for his films from scratch. He occasionally draws influence from books for themes and characters, but Anderson himself often marks the stories. They are crafted from the perspective of young adults, which can give us an insight into why his films are highly saturated and bursting with vivid nostalgia.
The stories consist of ensembles of flawed misfits. The characters are often social outcasts or unusual in a pleasant way. They are imperfect and flawed, often with selfish desires or strange habits. He features walking contradictions in how adults act like children and children acting act like adults.
For instance, in Moonrise Kingdom, 12-year-old Suzy and Sam have a very complex and mature relationship, where they understand one another's deep-rooted emotions and work together to overcome things. On the other hand, Suzy’s parents are dysfunctional and immature in how they go about communicating with one another.
Many of the adults in Anderson’s films seem to be trapped in eternal adolescence, while many of his child characters are prodigies full of ambition. Anderson explores how society creates an illusion between youth and maturity and the conflict between childhood and adulthood. This also relates to his repeating obsession with parent/child relationships.
With the surreal and fanciful story laid down, Anderson creates room for escapism in his films. Combine this with his magical production design, and it transports you to a whole new world. His films extract a feeling that can’t quite be put into words, but they take you somewhere away from the drab reality of day-to-day life. The dry humour and exciting colour palettes create freakish eccentrics, but it doesn’t stop at that.
Anderson does use films as a means of escapism, but there when you cut into that joyous fancy, there is tenderness but also darkness. Persistent themes include loneliness and heartbreak.
In The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson pokes fun at the idea of “self-discovery” and the absurdity of trying to find yourself while being aware that you’re trying to find yourself. But there are also scenes, such as when the brothers fail to save the child who fell off the raft, where we are shown real and raw sadness.
There is humour, and the films aren’t too emotional, but the simplicity and awareness of the emotion make it all the rawer when something inspirational does happen. Behind the dry, deadpan comedy and satire, there is tenderness.
One of the most notable things about Wes Anderson’s style is the eccentric use of perspective. Anderson is hands-on with the camera, and he frames for mise-en-scene- he sets the stage carefully, and each frame is deeply considered.
The lens functions to depict space, time, theme, plot, and character. The camera pans in quick movements during scenes to create a chaotic and quick-paced excitement. Conversational scenes are filmed at eye level and in two hots to develop a sense of intimacy and make the dialogue more personal.
Camera movements and lenses create complexity, and a perfect example of this is in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The change in aspect ratio throughout the film suggests time and mood. In the opening scene set in the 1980s, he uses the 1.85:1 ratio, the popular standard when films became gentrified in the 80s. In the 1960s, we see the Anamorphic ratio, 2.4:1. In the 1930s, the Academy, 1.37:1.
Anderson's films often feature warm and whimsical soundtracks full of folk music and nouveau rock hits. They are both OSTs (often by Alexandre Desplat, for instance, in Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel) and also songs from his own life.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson makes use of the art rock energy and includes hits from The Rolling Stones, The Velvet Underground & Nico to create a certain feeling of adolescent angst and a dreamy romance. Anderson uses music to reinforce the energy of a scene.
In any Wes Anderson film, the colour palette will be of note and will be one that sticks with you, so much so that you will be able to recognize the movie from any tableau afterward. He builds entire worlds on colour schemes to emphasise the feeling of a microworld with its feel and characters.
In The Darjeeling Limited, the world is filled with vibrant blue-green hues and yellows, and oranges to emphasise the lustre and splendour of the warm Indian scapes in which the film is set. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the scheme is based mainly on red and blues. Red in Anderson’s films is often saturated and bright to symbolise a deep pain or trauma that sticks out in character and is a defining part of their character.
Colour, saturation, and brightness can also be used as a narrative device to present changes in events or feelings. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, colour is used to show the changing status of the hotel. In the early years, the heyday of the hotel, there were bright red walls, rich purples, and soft, inviting pinks. As the years go on and the hotel deteriorates, we see burnt oranges, drab greens, and wood tones. As the prestige of the hotel faded, so did the colours.
The most significant aspects of production design that create that magical feeling is the costumes and set designs. They are a representation of characters and story arcs.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Chas is shown as having had a chaotic childhood and lacking order and security. In adulthood, he runs away from his past and is seen dressing in red jogging suits. Margot, the enigma of the family, adopted and unable to accept love, is a blonde goth. She wears pastel dresses and colourful hair clips, as she did in her childhood, but wears dark eyeliner and fur coats to show an attempt to separate herself from the pain that she felt as a child.
If you want further insight into how important a character's outfits are, look at Anderson’s style. He has a niche and notable style reflective of his aesthetic and stylism. He dons tweed jackets, brown shades, plaids, and red accents in his socks or ties to accessorise.
Another thing to note in the production process is the recurring cast. This is more a practical choice than a story-telling mechanism. Some faces, such as Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody, will be familiar to fans of Anderson as they reappear in many of his films. This is because filmmaking is costly and tedious, and getting comfortable with actors makes the directing process smoother. The actors can adjust to their taste over time, and he to theirs. But this does also add to the feeling of the micro-world, as we become familiar with faces and associate them with the colourful world of Wes Anderson.
Anderson generally avoids aggressive editing. He films in broad two-shots and long singular takes. This creates a calmness and steadiness to the film, but he does know when to turn this on its head. At times, he pans back and forth between shots, which gives a suddenly static feel to a scene. This creates unusual emotional inertia and depicts a set's energy shift.
For instance, the wedding scene in The Royal Tenenbaums begins with long takes and quiet music, but when the fight breaks out between Chas and Eli, the scene takes a rapid turn, demonstrated through the short interpretations and quickly changing shots.
The editing is slow generally but static when necessary to portray a shift in emotion.
Another trait of Wes Anderson’s editing is how he stretches a single conversation or thought across multiple scenes. In The Darjeeling Limited, Francis explains the plan to his brothers across multiple cuts to portray the longevity of a feeling or thought and the way things are changing around the world, but the storyline continues.
Generally, Wes Anderson avoids overly stylized sound design. He doesn't distract from the dialogue and music, but when utilised sound is used, it is bold and makes a statement.
In conclusion, Wes Anderson has crafted well-rounded and culturally significant cinematography. Through trademark stylistic choices like track shots, colour palettes, and symmetry, his work has become well-recognized and distinguished in the cinephile world.
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