Robert Yeoman, the director of photography on The Grand Budapest Hotel, has been director Wes Anderson’s cinematographer of choice for nearly two decades. The enduring collaboration dates back to Bottle Rocket in 1996 and encompasses nearly all of the individualistic director-screenwriter’s droll and stylish confections, most notably Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom.
By now Yeoman is very familiar with the way Anderson likes to work; his favorite camera maneuvers, such as the whiplash pan; and his penchant for dead-center shot composition that lends a storybook quality to his films. Each movie presents its own challenges. In the case of Grand Budapest Hotel, the DP shot in three aspect ratios, to create film formats evoking different time periods in the film’s narrative.
“As always Wes pushes us on all fronts,” said Yeoman. “He came up with a few shots that required me to ratchet up several gears, and the whip pans are always a challenge.” The movie was filmed in mid-winter in Görlitz, a perfectly preserved town in the far east of Germany near the Polish and Czech border. There were tricky lighting issues Yeoman faced, not just because of the seasonally short days but also due to the large dimensions of some of the location interiors.
A sophisticated comic caper along the lines of films directed by 1930s’ master Ernst Lubitsch, Grand Budapest Hotel recounts the adventures of a snooty, demanding concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, played by Ralph Fiennes. The story involves the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting; a battle for an enormous family fortune; and a chase on motorcycles, trains, sleds and skis. The story jumps back and forth between the interwar period and the recent past as events get recalled.
A project with Anderson begins with a long prep. “It’s a much more extensive preparation than any other director I’ve worked with,” said the DP. The two began by doing research and immersing themselves in Eastern European culture and architecture.
They next traveled through the region with a location scout looking at old hotels. But for one reason or another, none fit the bill. They finally came upon the tiny town of Görlitz, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which had a big dilapidated old department store that Anderson decided could be turned into the hotel. The emporium had a big skylight. But the quality of the illumination was poor and the short winter days provided only about eight hours in which to film. Yeoman’s solution was to put lights on the roof, stretching a muslin material across the skylight to form a kind of cloud and then bouncing light through it. “That let us to shoot as long and whenever we wanted,” he noted.
In previous films, Anderson worked up detailed storyboards that led to specific shot lists. For Grand Budapest Hotel he used animatics instead. These are little cartoons that specify the idea of how each scene will look and be shot. The DP and director at each location then talk through how to pull it off. “By the time we shoot things are pretty well worked out,” said Yeoman. “The animatics become a kind of bible.”
Anderson came up with the idea of filming in three screen formats that would evoke different projection styles from the past. Influenced by the look of movies of the 1930s, Yeoman shot scenes from that period in 1.33 aspect ratio. For the 1970s-’80s he employed a wide-screen anomorphic look that was popular in films made then. And for the scenes set in the recent past he used 1.85 which is common for many of today’s films.
One of the director’s charming eccentricities is his extensive use of compositions that are framed dead-center. “I often get the set a little before Wes to put the camera completely in the center and sometimes the camera assistants tape out the edges of the matte box to the walls to make sure we are precise,” explained the DP. “One of the first questions Wes asks when he comes in is ‘Are we dead center?’ and I can say ‘yes, we are.’”
Yeoman’s first major film credit as cinematographer was on To Live and Die in L.A. directed by William Friedkin. Other movies he’s worked on include Drugstore Cowboy, helmed by Gus Van Sant and The Squid and the Whale directed by Noah Baumbach. Besides his long-term collaboration with Anderson, Yeoman in recent years has lensed several movies for comedy director Paul Feig, including Bridesmaids.