For anyone who has seen his films, specific images come to mind when you hear the name Wes Anderson. The eccentric, perfectly symmetrical, pastel-colored style of the Academy Award nominated director has become one of the most recognizable in recent memory. Flourished with quirky characters and adventurous story lines, Anderson is able to create worlds that are immediately iconic and memorable. World building is clearly one of the most important aspects of storytelling in Anderson’s eyes, making the sets and locations integral to the success of his films. The settings aren’t just settings – they’re characters. 7/10 of Anderson’s films are actually named after one of the central locations, including his upcoming journalism anthology The French Dispatch. The most obvious example of this is The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it also applies to the likes of The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Wes Anderson is known for his meticulous, perfectionist, almost dollhouse-like style, and there is no better way to observe that than by looking at the very intentional production design of his films.
The most elaborate art direction on an Anderson film yet belongs to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won Adam Stockhausen an Academy Award for Best Production Design. The titular hotel is the central hub of everything that happens in the film, with the production design reflecting the different characters and motivations throughout, combining elements of stop motion and full renovation. When we are first introduced to the Grand Budapest, it’s worn out. Oranges and browns make up the majority of the color scheme. The hotel is still beautiful, no doubt, but there’s a certain loneliness to it. The author, the concierge, and Mr. Moustafa are more or less the only characters inhabiting the space. The 16:9 aspect ratio places an emphasis on this loneliness. We can see all the beauty that once made up the hotel before we even truly introduced to it.
As Mr. Moustafa, begins to tell his story, we go back in time to when Zero first met M. Gustave, where the hotel was livelier and more packed than ever. Bright pinks and reds cover the walls and carpets. Compared to the present, there are many more patterns and colors and furniture. It’s chaotic, reflecting the constant streams of guests the Grand Budapest was receiving. That’s even further emphasized by the switch to a 4:3 aspect ratio, cramming all the people together in a small frame. The sadness and emptiness of the present day hotel is gone, and through the production design we are swept into the constant dribble of the characters. The film doesn’t even give us time to process every little detail like you would think Anderson would want us to, but rather sets us in the routine of M. Gustave and Zero, who are both busy workers constantly aiming to please their guests.
The hotel isn’t the only notable location in the film, but it is clearly the one with the largest emphasis. Anderson meticulously detailed what certain aspects of production design, whether it be props or colors, he wanted present in certain scenes. Everything has a purpose. For example, Anderson puts an emphasis on the Courtesan au chocolat dessert from Mendel’s Bakery, starting with a passing mention from M. Gustave to elaborate showcases of baking talent via Zero’s wife, Agatha. Constantly putting the image of the tiny stacked pastries in their perfectly collapsible pink boxes was not purely an aesthetic feat, as the desserts repeatedly become a bigger part of their scheme as the plot elaborates. The props are just as much of a character as the physical sets. Each location, whether it be the hotel or the jail or the train, has a specific feeling. Each prop, whether it be the keys or Boy With Apple, has a specific purpose. When it all comes together with the story and the characters, each part becomes dependable on each other, merging into a fully fleshed out world with characters who we can reflect on internally and externally.
Though not everything in Anderson’s catalog is as elaborate as The Grand Budapest Hotel, all of his films are able to use production design in a similar way, but with each having their own distinct feel. For example, the intricate interior design of the house in The Royal Tenenbaums is able to connect us to the characters and gain a better understanding of each of their struggles, passions, and goals through their surroundings. Chas’s structured, colorless, business orientated room automatically lets the audience know that this is a character who is precise and meticulous, and probably a bit of a control freak. He’s the least artistically creative one in the family, but the most logical. Margot’s room, lined with plays she’s written, lets us know the obvious: she’s a playwright, a melodramatic creative. The dark colors of Margot’s rooms let the disconnect she has from her family as the only adopted member. The rest of the house has brighter colors, from light browns to blues to yellows, but Margot’s room is soaked in dark red, contrasting her from the rest of the family. In addition, the darkness ties in with the depression and resentment her character faces throughout the film. Finally, Richie’s room shows us the messiness of his character. Though his walls are lined with tennis trophies, he also has a drum kit, a collection of cars, a radio, and a whole section of the ballroom dedicated to his paintings. He seems to not really be able to figure himself out, bouncing from one thing to another, which creates a contrast with his siblings who are very orientated and know exactly what they want to do. All of this happens within the first minutes of the film. By introducing us to these sets and these characters’ childhood personas, Anderson is able to set the stage for what is to come. The conflict, love, and development that the characters go through is all contained in this one house, and Anderson makes sure to use the design of that house to reflect on the characters in a deeper way.
Anderson’s live action films aren’t the only ones with meticulous production design. His two stop motion features – Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs – might have the most elaborate art direction of all his films. Live action films are more restrained, but the fantasy elements of both these animated films allow Anderson to go all out in his world building. The tightly crafted autumn world of Fantastic Mr. Fox would not have been half of what it was without the intricate attention to detail. Every little prop inside the fox hole felt like it brought something to the film, allowing ourselves to truly indulge in this world and all its details. The same can be said about Isle of Dogs, though that acts on a larger scale, as the characters go across many different locations in Japan on an adventure. More than anything, both of these films use their production design to create a rich and fleshed out world that is truly unforgettable.
Even Anderson’s smaller scale films still use location and setting as an integral part of the story. One of the best examples of this is Rushmore. Despite being one of Anderson’s earliest and lower budget works, the titular school is still directly connected to the main character, Max Fischer. It would be impossible to separate Max from Rushmore Academy, or vice versa. Even though the production design isn’t particularly lavish, those ideas that Anderson was able to expand upon in films like The Grand Budapest Hotel were still present. Now that Anderson has the budget to do so, it seems like he will continue to develop his usage of production design. This can be seen in the trailer for his new film The French Dispatch, where the sets look more gorgeous than ever. Though some may think his films are just pretty dollhouses, Wes Anderson is able to use his precise style to flesh out worlds and characters in a truly unique way.