Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Flat Staging and Camera Moves (4/5)

Over the years, Wes Anderson has found a way to translate his visions into pictures as rigid as if they were drawn with a ruler and a spirit level. Since he obviously likes to control every single detail in his films it’s astounding how long it took him to finally end up in animation.

As we have already seen, many of his distancing trademarks translate very smoothly into animation, others can even be exaggerated due to the stylized nature of the medium.

If you look at any Anderson film from Rushmore on you’ll notice the many top shots (or “God’s eye view” as used by Scorsese and Hitchcock) and slow tracking shots. Already quite distinct in the beginning, Anderson and his director of photography on all live-action films, Robert Yeoman, have perfected their system of preferred framings into a very rigid concept.
top shot inserts (left TRT, right TDL).
TRT: from relative close-up on detail (left) to top shot of characters (right).

left (TRT): god's eye view like point-of-view of a character, right (TDL): no character could see this perspective.

Note: On Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson worked with DP Tristan Oliver for the first time. While all the style choices seem to be straight Wes Anderson, there’s hardly any wide-angle distortion visible and it’s his first film since Rushmore that is not filmed in cinemascope. 

Top row: top shot inserts aka rostrum camera shots; bottom row: god's eye view on characters.

Central perspective
Anderson’s preference for central perspective first cropped up in a few right-angled top shot inserts in his debut Bottle Rocket. In Rushmore, he started to favor flat setups with the camera perpendicular to the background.
left: The Royal Tenenbaums (TRT), right: The Darjeeling Limited (TDL)
central perspective and symmetry in TRT.

He kept shooting most of the dialogue scenes in standard overshoulder style. There are a few instances of point-of-view shots, though, that are straight on. In later films (starting with The Royal Tenenbaums (TRT)) these straight-on point-of-view shots become independent from the actual characters so that there is a feeling that the camera is an additional character in the room. Henceforth, virtually all the conversations are filmed either full frontal or in profile with the camera always horizontally perpendicular to the background or the speaking character. This way, the characters often seem to speak almost directly into the camera. 
shot - reverse shot in Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (LAWSZ)
TRT: The camera usually stands on the axis, and makes 180° turns during conversations.
LAWSZ: The characters looks slightly to the side of the camera although they sit in the middle of the frame. This way they avoid breaking the fourth wall.
Conversation over a very long dinner table.
Ozu often used such setups for his dialogue scenes as in Late Autumn (1960), just look at the trailer:

To achieve something of a standard shot – reverse-shot continuity with the characters to the left and right side respectively, he still places the camera perpendicular to the background, but the characters are not sitting or standing in the middle.
one of the rare overshoulder shots in TRT
TRT: The background is in central perspective, the second character is not centered, however.
LAWSZ: The same, only with Bill Murray even more on the edge.
LAWSZ: The off-center character can have overshoulder shots without blocking his opposite.
Same here with Kylie and Fox.
This flat staging also emphasizes the lightness and comedy potential of the story as opposed to the more angular deep focus staging of more dramatic films. Mark Kennedy has extensively written about it here. Especially the central perspective wide-angle long shots are reminiscent of theatrical staging.

We either get the characters in profile...
...or full frontal.
upper row: profile and full frontal in same frame, lower row: the same, but there's a 90° turn from lower left to lower right so that profile and frontal are reversed. This also shows us that we're not looking at the stage from outside but can assume positions within.

There seems to be an exception to this strange 90°-rule: on the vertical axis, the camera can assume almost any angle, low or high.
high angle shots.
low angle shots to make the characters look more powerful to limit of distortion (upper left).
Doll house aesthetics
Some of the right-angle shots are not connected by a cut but by a whip pan of approximately 90° (sometimes 120° if characters are blocked in a triangle). This can be seen most often in The Darjeeling Limited (TDL) when the three brothers (sometimes including the mother) are having three- or fourway conversations. Speaking of whip pans and Indian movies: there is a similarly turning whip pan from one setup of a face to a central perspective framing of a doorway in Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955).

While it’s nothing unusual to have the camera follow a character throughout a scene (think of Scorsese’s GoodFellas or Raging Bull), Anderson often organizes his camera moves in straight lines, horizontal and vertical (dolly as well as steadycam shots). Like the fixed camera setups, the tracking shots are increasingly limited to 90° angles. Again, the feeling that the camera is a very limited character itself or is carried by an omniscient narrator is emphasized.

Especially since TRT, Anderson often shows sets in cross-section so that we can see how the characters’ environments relate to each other. The outer circumstances are always straightforward and easily manageable, yet the characters’ inner life seems to be confused to the point that they are paralyzed emotionally. Anderson also likes to frame his characters within the frame.

These cross-sections involuntarily remind me of a doll-house. So it’s not surprising that this rather mechanical, distancing effect works best in Fantastic Mr. Fox, where the sets actually are doll-houses.
TRT: like mocking his own concept Anderson shows us a stage model with pencil to get the size relations.
In LAWSZ we see the whole ship in cross-section. There's no way we believe this to be a true ship out on the see.
TRT: Like the windows of an advent calender we see the separately framed characters in one frame.
TRT: left: Margot is framed by curtains; right: the children are framed by the bench under which they lie.
TRT: here the characters are less obviously framed, left: by the door, right: by the background wall. The "chameleon concept" enhances the effect.
Most often the characters are framed by windows or door frames.
left: windows and doors, right: cooking area as framing device.
left: the resulting pattern effect is also picked up in this split screen top shot; right: geometrically patterned split screen.
Screens in the back provide split screen effect and frame-within-frame.

Flat staging to the max
While classically hand-drawn animation often tries to painstakingly simulate depth by way of multiplane devices, it is fairly easy to create natural depth out of a stop-motion set by just filming it from a natural angle. Yet, there have always been artists who favored flat staging to compress the filmic space into a relatively two-dimensional world. In this context, Anderson’s basic approach doesn’t stand out as much as in his live-action films. However, he is able to expand his concept.

The evolution of the doll house cross section in four examples (many more in the actual films) from TRT, LAWSZ, TDL and Fox. I have removed the sound so it doesn't distract from the camera moves.

Depth cues can be altered by using different lenses to photograph a set, but in puppet animation the set can also be built to the desired specifications. While there are sets that expand far into the background, others are more compressed. Especially in doll-house scenes and tracking shots the sets are built increasingly flat. Sometimes they are hardly distinguishable in style from Mrs. Fox’ paintings (which are allegedly painted by Wes Anderson’s brother Eric Chase Anderson who also voices Kristofferson in the film [UPDATE: according to Christian De Vita, the storm paintings were done by Turlo Griffin (see comments below)]).

Here we have depth by having two planes of action, one in the background, one in the foreground.
This is one of the rare examples of deep staging with a real horizon that is far away.
Usually, even in spatially deeper sets, the view is limited by objects in the near background that prevent us from seeing the horizon. Most often these are walls or houses.

Here we have walls and mountains to limit the space. Nevertheless this is about as deep as it gets in this movie.
Most of the interior scenes are staged really flat (theatrical again).
Also this exterior looks rather flat because we have no real depth cues except for the train size in background.
This top shot is from a helicopter and looks similar to the paintings of Mrs. Fox.

These three-dimensionally constructed long shots look rather flat/two-dimensional
These are all framegrabs from the same horizontal camera move to the right.
As soon as the animals start digging, Anderson resorts heavily to cross-section dollhouse shots.
With this being the most extreme. The set looks almost like a two-dimensional painting.
In the end, the sewer system is revealed to us in a mechanical camera move.
Speaking of these paintings: we’re in England and it never rains, there’s not even a hint where she gets the inspiration for her thunderstorm depictions.

By the way, there are some point-of-view camera setups, some of them reminiscent of ego-shooter game mode:
The one on the right is technically no POV, as we see the character's head in the picture, it looks more like a camera mounted to a dog.


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great images and great animations :)

Daniel Harris said...

Very interesting post! I've always found Anderson's compositions intriguing in their simplicity. Thanks for giving us a break down :-D.


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storyboardista said...

I just wanted to congratulate you on a very in depth analysis of Fantastic Mr Fox.
It's great to find people enjoyed the film and took so much out of it.

One point though I would like to make is that all of Mrs. Fox's 'storm' paintings were done by Turlo Griffin an artist employed by the studio working in London.

(lead story artist on Fantastic Mr Fox)

Oswald Iten said...

@Christian: wow, thanks for your comment! I don't usually get that kind of first-hand information from actual film makers. I have now rectified the credit for the "storm" paintings.

storyboardista said...

More than welcome.
Look forward to more on other films.

Tom werber said...

This is very good.

Have you thought about more breakdowns of filmmakers' staging and camera work?


Oswald Iten said...

@Tom: I have... although my blogging time is very limited at the moment.

I might do something on Clint Eastwood or Alfred Hitchcock soon, but I cannot say in what time frame.

animation software said...

Great pictures. Which 3D software did you use while you made them?

AlmostWriting said...

This whole 5 part series of posts breaking down the similarities between Fox and the other works of Wes Anderson is so well done. Great job. If it weren't for your blog I might have failed an exam because of lack of insight. This is really very well analysed. Thanks :)

Oswald Iten said...

well, that's a cool compliment :)
Just today I looked at Anderson's HOTEL CHEVALIER with a group of students as an example of telling a story by style rather than dialogue.