Beautiful Unrealism: What Makes Wes Anderson Movies Work?

Photo Credit Cordelia Riley

By Lucas Mellom and Cordelia Reilly

Warning: Spoilers for multiple Wes Anderson films ahead

Imagine sitting atop an icy mountain in Germany, a hotel glowing vibrantly of the color pink with the image of those scenes in perfect symmetry. No part of this scene is left undone or out of place, created almost like it was done using a formula. Using this movie formula you get the director Wes Anderson. A critically acclaimed director, he has create films such as Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Moonrise Kingdom, all of which exhibit Anderson’s iconic theme and style of film. However in the eyes of basic filming, his directing methods go against the basic rules of any other film, making him stand out from the crowd of directors to make him an individual icon amongst filmmakers. Notable awards he received were the Silver Bear award for best director of his film Isle of Dogs, and Writers Guild of America award for best original screenplay for his movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic style has allowed him to make a name for himself especially with his abilities to craft scenes.

Andersons scene settings are unlike any other as they go against the style of absolute realism to tell their story with a plain and up-front organization.. One key aspect of his scenes are symmetry. Symmetry is abused to the point where it doesn’t feel natural with everything so clean and cut which makes his scenes pop as each and every subject stands out in a satisfying way. Take for example the scene in Moonrise Kingdom when Suzy, one of the main characters, is atop the light house with her binoculars. Our main character is in the middle of the screen as it is the most important aspect of the movie and the symmetry with the lighthouse on both sides only brings it closer to the most important thing. This setup lets the characters speak for themselves as they are the main point of the story and having a simple background can be just as effective as more modern styles. Speaking about modern direction, sometimes the idea of realism within a film can be taken to different heights that are not worth it. Say if an important character to a movie passes away then the smart move in direction design would be to have the other characters give it their all to reacting to this relenting emotions after emotions along with the scene setting around them to perfectly reflect the feelings of the character. The camera movement can also follow in close to what the themes are too. Now this realistic effect can be done well, but sometimes these reactions and set scenes are larger than life dramatizations as those themes within a film can be victim to an over watered plot. In some ways that style can sell good to the public even with an over dramatic flow, but on the other hand you have Wes Anderson. He makes sure that his scenes can be viewed with complete understandability for the audience and not over convoluted with the plot or characters. Going back to the lighthouse scene, the subjects within the shot are simple and layed out. The ocean which sets the location, the background sky that is flat and still, and the light from the sun which is casted right upon the scene and it’s main focus, the character. Anderson brings objects and subjects down to their most basic element in order to easily show the point of his films, but how is this projection being impacted upon the audience when it comes to key scenes and transitions in his stories? When it comes to emotion, modern day films let their characters, scenes, and camera movement express the utter feeling of whatever that scene is trying to project so that the audience can feel the same. However sometimes that attempt to make that feeling can be falsely predicted when compared to real world interactions. It’s hard to capture real emotion, but with Anderson he throws his actors into plain reactions so subtle and plain that it is utterly confusing yet impactful just like the surrounding setting. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, when Steve’s son dies it is out of nowhere with barely any other outside attempts to even reflect the fathers feelings as the setting around lets the character speak for themselves. Now the purpose of Anderson’s scenes are not to overflow the idea of the theme, instead its purpose is to serve as a vessel for the main characters and to let them act upon the world and create its own theme. 

One thing Anderson is most prominently known for is his usage of color in his films. In both the shots of the film, and in the costumes of the characters there are compelling color schemes. Wes Anderson’s heavy handed usage of color sets the mood, enhances storytelling, evokes the tone of the movie and overall makes things more dynamic. A lot of times Anderson’s films have darker subjects or themes with a contrasting surrounding. For instance characters will be dealing with something heavy on their shoulders while being surrounded by energetic bright colors. Like in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zisso and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Steve is going through the stress of getting vengeance, and his crew falling apart, and of course the safety of the burrow at stake in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Both films have high stress situations surrounding bright and diverse shades of oranges, yellows, greens and blues. HSB (hue, saturation, and brightness) are the DNA of color, hue being the color itself, saturation being the boldness, and brightness being the darkness or lightness of color. These are what make the color unique, Andersons palettes with different hues, saturation, and brightness tend to invoke a lot of emotion in the viewer. Like when seeing the different shades of pink in The Budapest Hotel some may feel excited about the playful energy that the soft pink of the hotel brings to one’s eye. In Moonrise Kingdom there are a lot of yellows, oranges, and blues that are very bright making the audience feel the idyllic feeling of Suzie and Sam’s youth but also a bit of their naiveness. In other scenes the colors are muted by their surrounding fog, making the scene a bit calmer, but are later entureputed with bright colors again. The emotions that colors portray or invoke through the viewer are crucial to some filmmakers’ styles due to the great effect and the advantage it can give directors to making their movie imaginable, coherent and whole.   

With Wes Anderson’s bright colors it can give the film an almost childlike aura. This falls right in with Andersons theme of having darker subjects in his films with a contrasting surrounding of bright colors, mentioned before. Sometimes when people think of adulthood and childhood, childhood is filled with bright colors while adulthood is less bright and more muted. Moonrise Kingdom an adult movie about kids and Fantastic Mr. Fox a kids movie for adults, both use color and animation/or objects that would typically engage children, while the scene could be of the fact that Suzie sees her mom’s affairs with Captain Sharp, or the comforting tones of orange surrounding Mr. Fox when he’s trying to provide for his family. It’s like how adult cartoons portray child-like messages, while as most children’s cartoons portray very adult themes smoothly throw out the show, Wes Anderson does that in his films. And Anderson’s usage of color is not the only way he makes his films have a child-like feeling, a lot of the way scenes are shot give it a childlike feeling as well. “For Wes his scenes are plain up front and center making it comical and out of place of any other modern film direction” things being portrayed as up front and center can make it seem like the scene is filmed through a child’s eyes. Children tend to see things very upfront or blunt, or will want to see it that way. Like how sometimes children don’t understand analogies that adults use to dance around not telling them something, so they may ask very upfront questions, that is how Wes Anderson’s films. 

Trufully, Wes Anderson is an out of box director that goes against what we commonly think of the typical masterpiece films. He is not a normal director, but being out of that norm makes him unique and he does this through unrealism. To a broader stance unrealism may break the movie for someone, but doing it right lets us see that blatant information tells us the real truth rather than fishing through a multitude of signs to meet meaning to other movies. Going against societal norms of directing makes Anderoson an acclaimed director for his take on the unrealistic part of cinema as it makes the unrealism real in a different way. 

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