A discussion regarding the elements of visual style, cinematography & narration in the works of director Wes Anderson.

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The term ‘auteur’ originated in the French magazine, ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’. It was coined by François Truffaut, who “viewed authorship in terms of literal authority, of power, and placed as much emphasis on the production of films as on their direction.” (Brody, 2019) The purpose of introducing the term was to enable the ranking of certain filmmakers, including himself, above others, in order to construct the ideal of prodigious cinema. In order for a director to be considered an auteur, they must exert such artistic control and personal influence over their films that they may be regarded as their author. Another requirement is that their films may be regarded collectively as a body of work sharing common themes or techniques and expressing an individual style or vision (Understanding film theory, 2011).

It should be noted that while a prevalent theory in film criticism, “auteurism is only useful as a critical tool as long as it generates good, exciting results.” (Martin, 2004) The theory of auteurism can credit a single director with the work of an entire cast and crew, often unfairly. However, regardless of the validity of auteur theory in modern cinema critique, Anderson is a director whose wholly recognisable visual style, cinematographic choices and repeated use of certain themes make his body of work a collective and cohesive set. Additionally, his personal influence over the films he directs lead to him being regarded as the ‘author’ of these works. He is, by textbook definition, an auteur.

Anderson’s use of visual style is unique to his direction and present across all of his films. There is a definite and often studied ‘Anderson aesthetic’, that employs vibrant colour palettes, specific font choices, the use of title cards and other visual elements to create a distinctive feel that is echoed throughout all his works. His creation of an artistic identity is simply put as: the only films Wes Anderson makes are ones that look like Wes Anderson made them (Browning, 2001). Regarding the element of colour, Anderson regularly uses colours in his films that are reminiscent of the 1970s, carefully coordinating colour schemes across the films in their entirety, not just across single scenes. (Dilley, 2017). Anderson’s films are consistently categorised as ‘indie’ and ‘quirky’ because they run parallel to the glossy, formulaic presentation of a mainstream Hollywood film. The element of colour is an oft underutilised method of imparting the mood of a scene, and the time in which it is set. A key characteristic of Anderson’s films is that they all present as if set in a world not unlike the one their audience watches it in, only far brighter and more whimsical. Colour plays a large role in the creation of these worlds. The colour palette often utilised in Anderson’s more thoughtful films are muted browns, yellows and reds. An example of this can be seen in the film The Royal Tenenbaums (see figure 1). This is in direct contrast to The Grand Budapest Hotel, where Anderson flirts with a brighter colour palette and changes the colours’ tones to suit each era of the hotel in the film (Lannom, 2019).

When considering Anderson’s visual style, it would be foolish to exclude discussing his use of font and colour in the written component of his films. This element of the ‘Anderson aesthetic’ is the distinct font choice in his title cards, subtitles and promotional posters. It is well documented that Anderson is known to use Futura, Helvetica, Tilda and Didot in most of his title cards (see figure 2). In addition, the text is often the same shade of yellow (see figure 3). This produces a recognisable likeness that is unique only to Anderson’s work. Even the decision to use of title cards is an ‘Anderson aesthetic’ related choice. He likes making his audience read. His repeated usage of simply designed, clean title cards are an illustrative technique to impart information in a direct and succinct way that cannot always be achieved by active narration. This adds to the recognisability of his visual style and the consistent use of it across all his films adds to the cohesive nature of his work.

Cinematography is an important and easily recognisable element present in Anderson’s work. He has a consistent artistic identity and can be seen to compose each shot so carefully that almost any still frame could be used as a promotional poster (Browning, 2011). God’s eye view shots of centred objects, profile shots, zooms and whip pans are used often across his body of work, creating a viewing experience so recognisable that even the most inexperienced audience member can recognise this specific auteur’s work. Generally, Anderson favours longer, single shot takes with little to no camera movement over the use of any transition devices (Browning, 2011). He often favours placing his actors symmetrically parallel within his shots. Conversely, the standard shot composition for film takes into consideration the rule of thirds in the division of the scene. This ‘going against the grain’ approach is a largely contributing factor towards Anderson’s status as an auteur, continuing to define his work regarding cinematography. In a particular scene from The Grand Budapest Hotel, two characters sit at a table in a restaurant, talking (see figure 4). The scene is meticulously crafted, with profile shots and overall symmetry the main focus of its composition. Anderson is relentlessly direct in his actions, expressing his own personality through a distinct visual representation of himself in his films.

Anderson has worked exclusively with Robert Yeoman as cinematographer for all of his live-action films and the familiarity Yeoman has with Anderson’s cinematographic preferences cannot go unnoticed. Their joint decisions to present scenes in flat, symmetrical compositions further the ‘storybook motif’ Anderson aims to create (Lannom, 2019). Another feature of Anderson’s distinct cinematographic style is the use of slow motion. Speaking on his usage of this technique, Anderson said, “There is always a moment when I feel it is simply the best way to express a scene… Slow motion is wasted when it’s not used properly. You have to have a very specific idea of what you’re looking for.” (Kornhaber, 2017) Anderson has a distinct preference for symmetry and simplicity in his scene composition that makes his work instantly recognisable and ensures his body of work is cohesive as a set.

Regarding personal influence, Anderson has concurrent themes across all his work that relate to his own life. His films feature, almost without fault, a male protagonist with strained familial links and some sort of internal struggle regarding being himself. He writes about adults refusing to grow up (Browning, 2011). As remarked upon in ‘Honest Trailers — Every Wes Anderson Movie’, the notable plot progression of Anderson’s films is that a disaffected protagonist meticulously plans an event that ultimately goes wrong (Gilbert et al., 2018). Each one of Anderson’s works also features romance, and sometimes the romantic relationship is used as a tool to help the protagonist come to terms with themselves. It is often suggested that the divorce of Anderson’s parents when he was young is the reason the majority of his films feature characters with strained parent-child relationships. These themes are prevalent in his work regardless of whether the film is live action or stop-motion animated. As discussed by Whitney Dilley, “the characters [in Bottle Rocket] lack a sense of belonging, but all they truly seem to need is a father figure.” (Dilley, 2017)

A scene in which this theme of a strained familial relationship is detailed clearly is in The Royal Tenenbaums. The character of Chas pulls his father Royal into a closet filled wall to wall with board games to argue about his treatment of Chas’ children. Royal challenges Chas’ parenting style in an almost direct mimic of how Chas feels about his own upbringing. The argument takes place surrounded by board games, typically viewed as a way for family members to bond. The fact that so many of them sit stacked away inside a closet is reminiscent of Chas’ attempts to reach out and connect with his father when he was younger. Just like the board games, any kind feelings toward his father are stacked away in what could be perceived as an ‘emotional closet’. Further personal influence can be noted in an excerpt from Wes Anderson, “The impulse towards collecting- towards selecting, regrouping and arranging for one’s personal possession the objects of this world, especially in the face of emotional distress- runs strong in Anderson’s filmmaking.” (Kornhaber, 2017) This theme of ‘collecting and organising’ provides a powerful lens through which to interpret the body of his films. It is clear that Anderson continues to utilise his own personal experiences to evolve his direction, allowing for relatable and honest filmmaking.

Wes Anderson has, with a relatively small body of work, created a clearly defined style of his own in both American and worldwide cinema. In December of 2016, Anderson’s film Rushmore was inducted into the United States’ Film Registry. The criterion for a film to be selected is that it is recognised by the National Film Preservation Board as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and must be considered of enduring importance to American culture. (Dilley, 2017) The induction of an Anderson film into this prestigious registry highlights how important his work has become. He is an icon in American filmmaking and has had an influence on both mainstream and independent film culture. Michael Newman defines Anderson as the “quintessential hipster auteur” (Newman, 2011). Though the term ‘hipster’ may generally have a negative connotation, it is undeniable that Anderson stands as a symbol for the movement and style. He has become the poster child for ‘indie filmmaking’ and has inspired countless styles of fashion and even personality through the aesthetic his work promotes. It can be concluded that Wes Anderson is an auteur because his work is considered iconic and is instantly recognisable due to the ‘Anderson aesthetic’ visual style, along with his personal brand of cinematography. He utilises clear, repeated themes and visual elements across his body of work that enable them to be considered a cohesive and well-defined set. Anderson has managed, across only nine major films, to create an artistic identity revered by audience and critics alike. His influence on the films he directs is so great that it is as if he has authored them himself, and indeed he often has.

Reference List:

Brody, R. (2019). The Truffaut Essays That Clear Up Misguided Notions of Auteurism. The New Yorker. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/the-truffaut-essays-that-clear-up-misguided-notions-of-auteurism.

Browning, M. (2011). Wes Anderson: Why His Movies Matter (p. 104). ABC-CLIO. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=h6GALLPaaJUC&oi=fnd&pg=PP2&dq=wes+anderson&ots=d6jN812XtJ&sig=bALQ2LWJ0eqEtXLvIu0SudzFx6o&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=wes%20anderson&f=false

Dilley, W. (2017). The Cinema of Wes Anderson: Bringing Nostalgia to Life (Chapter 2, p. 33. Chapter 3, p. 61). Columbia University Press, Wallflower Press. Retrieved from: https://www-jstor-org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/stable/10.7312/dill18068.6?refreqid=excelsior%3A082e721fab6ff7c97c72e29c4504d185&seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents

Etherington-Wright, C., Doughty, R. (2011). Understanding film theory. Chapter 1, p 3–20, Palgrave Macmillan.

Gilbert, S., Starr, J., & Murrell, D. (2018). Honest Trailers — Every Wes Anderson Movie [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trWLY6NrS2Q.

Kornhaber, D. (2017). Wes Anderson. (p. 3–4, 154). University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from: https://www-jstor-org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1t89knr.5?refreqid=excelsior%3A2afe5ed7779090e7a8ade3b607600e00&seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents

Lannom, S. (2019). Wes Anderson’s Visual Style Explained [Filmmaker Essentials]. StudioBinder. Retrieved 28 May 2020, from https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/wes-anderson-style/#wes-anderson-style.

Martin, A. (2004). Possessory Credit. Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media: Vol. 45 : Iss. 1 , Article 7. Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/framework/vol45/iss1/7.

Newman, M. (2011). Indie: An American Film Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Figure 1:

Wes Anderson Colour Palette in The Royal Tenenbaums.

Via: Lannom, S. (2019). Wes Anderson’s Visual Style Explained [Filmmaker Essentials]. StudioBinder. Retrieved 28 May 2020, from https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/wes-anderson-style/#wes-anderson-style.

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Figure 2:

Anderson loves ‘Futura’.

Via: Criticalmob.com (no longer active). Retrieved from Pinterest.

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Figure 3:

Wes Anderson Title Cards.

Created with images via: Art of the Title. Tumblr. (2014). Retrieved 28 May 2020, from https://artofthetitle.tumblr.com/post/81078946635/wes-anderson-movie-logos-and-title-cards-moonrise.

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Figure 4:

Shot list from The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Via: Lannom, S. (2019). Wes Anderson’s Visual Style Explained [Filmmaker Essentials]. StudioBinder. Retrieved 28 May 2020, from https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/wes-anderson-style/#wes-anderson-style.

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