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  • 02.18.15

Shooting The Oscars’ Most Centered Movie: The Precision Filmmaking Behind “Grand Budapest Hotel”

Longtime Wes Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman talks about making the gorgeous Grand Budapest Hotel and the eternal question on all the director’s films: “Are we in the center?”

Wes Anderson’s go-to cinematographer Robert Yeoman has nearly 20 years of experience capturing painstakingly composed scenes for the famously meticulous director. But the duo’s work on The Grand Budapest Hotel took precision-tooled moviemaking to an entirely new level.

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Nominated for nine Oscars including Best Cinematography and Best Picture, The Grand Budapest Hotel dazzles the senses like a “twelve-layer wedding cake,” as Matt Zoller Seitz puts it in his new picture book The Wes Anderson Collection: The Budapest Hotel.

Yeoman, who’s filmed every one of Anderson’s live-action features dating back to 1996’s Bottle Rocket, spoke to us from his Santa Monica home about how he used whip pans, tape measures and framing from the 1930s to shape the rigorously madcap world of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Tilda Swinton as Madame DGrand Budapest Hotel © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Front and Center

Like Stanley Kubrick, a devotee of “one-point perspective,” Anderson gravitates to shots with perfectly centered focal points. “I’ve practiced those kinds of shots so many times it’s become sort of second nature for me,” says Yeoman.

Here’s how it works. “In the morning, before Wes arrives, I come onto the set and place the cameras,” Yeoman explains. “I have the camera assistants take a tape measure from each edge of the matte box in front of the camera and go to the corner of the room to ensure that the camera is perfectly centered. When Wes gets to the set often the first question is, he’ll look at me and ask, “Are we in the center?” So then I can say for example, ‘Yes we are 22 feet and eight inches from that corner, and 22 feet and eight inches from the other corner. For us, that’s pretty standard practice.”


Toughest Shot: The Whip Pan

Yeoman injected the hotel’s formal behavior and elegant couture with antic energy through frequent use of the whip pan. It’s a tricky maneuver that requires Yeoman to swing the tripod-mounted camera from one face to another, making sure to “land” on the new subject with absolute stillness. “The idea was to keep the rhythm of the scene very quick when the characters are speaking much faster than they would in regular life,” Yeoman says. “Unlike doing one specific shot of somebody without the camera moving, and then doing a separate reverse shot to show the other actor in the scene, the whip pan ties everyone into the scene because you’re doing it in a single shot.”

Case in point: a climactic hotel chase sequence. “There’s this gun battle on the top floor of the hotel where we see Edward Norton and Owen Wilson running towards us, then I whip pan over to Adrian Brody coming down another hallway, and then I whip-pan over to Ralph Fiennes and Tony coming out of an elevator, and I whip back to Owen and Edward Norton. So basically I’m doing a complete 360 and each shot has to be centered exactly on that one doorway or hallway that people are coming out of.”

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To complicate matters, Yeoman and his camera were perched on scaffolding four stories high. “It was a little scary being up there,” he says. “If you look closely at that shot, you’ll see there’s a little bit of movement, which is the scaffolding wobbling back and forth because I was literally swinging around the camera on a tripod so quickly. That was one of the most difficult shots I pulled off.”

Still-frame: M. Gustave posing for a group photo with his staff.”Grand Budapest Hotel © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Group Portraits

In keeping with the formal period it depicts, Hotel draws inspiration from posed group portraits photographed in the 1930s. Yeoman says, “Wes did research at the Library of Congress and found these old black and white pictures of people in hotel lobbies which had been hand-colored. He was fascinated by that process and early on we explored the idea of making the whole movie look like this early version of Kodachrome, hand-tinted photography,” says Yeoman. “In the end Wes decided to go a more traditional route, but those old photos influenced the way we framed some of those scenes.”


Sticking to the Storyboards

On most previous collaborations, Yeoman has relied on Anderson’s hand-drawn storyboards during pre-production but Hotel and its predecessor Moonlight Kingdom, the director used motion graphics animatics to rough out the narrative before filming began. “These are crude cartoons where Wes did all the voices of the characters,” Yeoman says. “It gave us a pretty good idea of what the camera needs to do and where the actors will be in the frame.”

During production, Yeoman recalls, cast and crew referred to the animatics whenever they got stuck. “If we ever got to a point on set where we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to do, Wes would pull out the iPad and we’d look at the animatic and just go with that.”


The Beauty of a Boxy Frame

Yeoman shot Hotel on 35 millimeter film, but the movie’s most radical homage to old-school cinema is informed by Anderson’s decision to set the contemporary portion of the film within a contemporary 1:85 frame–185 percent wider than it is tall–shift to the super-wide 2.40 Cinema-Scope screen for the 1960s segment, then frame the core 1930s-era story in the square-ish 1:37 Academy ratio common to black and white movies made 80 years ago.

“I was a little nervous, but I came to embrace the box-like frame,” says Yeoman, who took an Anderson-curated crash course in old motion pictures including 1932 classic Grand Hotel and Ernst Lubitsch‘s sophisticated comedies. “I watched how the directors and cinematographers handled groups of people and did their close ups. That became part of my visual vocabulary.”

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The constraints of a box-like frame inspired fresh thinking from Anderson and Yeoman. “It’s a lot easier to get five or six people into a shot when you have a wide frame. Working with the narrow Academy format, we were constantly pushing people closer together or finding different places the characters could be within the frame. When Edward Norton pops out of the floor in the prison, his head is at the bottom of the frame and all these soldiers are standing around above him. You could never do that in a 2.40 aspect ratio.”


By Winter’s Light

The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel Book Cover

Filmed over the course of 50 frigid days in Germany, the Hotel production posed difficulties for Yeoman when it came to lighting. “The biggest challenge throughout the movie was the fact that there was such a narrow window of light,” he says. “We basically had natural light from 8:30 in the morning to about 3:30 in the afternoon. I had to re-create that light in the interiors and make it feel natural and real. The hotel lobby, the prison, the spa in the beginning of the film–those were very large areas to light, so those shots were probably my hardest takes.”

Not that Yeoman’s complaining. “The exteriors were very cold and even the interiors, like the prison, hadn’t been heated for years. But I think the fact that we were in this picturesque little city in eastern Germany near the Polish border in the winter, in the snow–when you combine that with Wes’s amazing script and the crew and the cast, which was fantastic–all those elements came together to create this fairy-tale-like story.”

Collaborating With an Autuer

Yeoman has worked with far more improvisational directors including Paul Feig, for whom he shot Bridesmaids . Being part of a movie like The Grand Budapest Hotel takes a different set of muscles, Yeoman says. “Wes has a very specific idea about how he wants things to be. He’s worked out this very cohesive world where everything from the props to the wardrobe to the cinematography is very carefully controlled and I think that’s one reason why his movies are so special: everything emanates from him. There’s room for personal creativity and input, but in the end, everybody’s there to make that world Wes envisioned as great as it can be. That’s a different style of filmmaking, for sure.”

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.

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