Written by Josias Jensen.
There are very few directors that have an instantly recognisable visual style. Wes Anderson is definitely one of them.
You may or may not be a fan of the quirky and whimsical style of his movies. However, one thing he is undeniably excellent at, is using Production Design to tell us about the world and characters of his stories.
Anderson frequently collaborates with Production Designers: David Wasco, Mark Friedberg, and Adam Stockhausen. Together they manage to fill every shot with plenty of detail and information for us to gain a deeper understanding of the characters of the story, and the world they inhabit.
As the Production Designer on The Out of the Woods Project, I was greatly inspired by Anderson’s body of work.
I would like to examine a few ways in which Anderson uses production design, to give us a deeper understanding of the characters in his films and the journeys they go on.
Attaching meaning to props
In The Darjeeling Limited, the three brothers carry with them suitcases from their father. Anderson uses these props to show the audience how the three brothers let go of their past, and the grudges they have held against each other and other members of their family.
The brothers walk away from their father’s funeral with much hurt and emotional baggage. The suitcases symbolise this emotional baggage. In the suitcases, they bring a few items with them that used to belong to their father as well.
Throughout most of the film they haul around all of their suitcases wherever they go. This is somewhat comedic, as they are carrying more than they need and they often get help just to carry it.
By simply attaching meaning to specific props Anderson shows us that the characters have changed, because of how they interact with these props. They have let go of their emotional baggage.
You can do something similar in your work by creating a strong association between a prop and a certain person or event. You can show the audience something about the character and their journey, simply by showing how they interact with that prop throughout the film. Do their interactions with this prop change as they grow as a character? Do they stay the same?
The family house in The Royal Tenenbaums is rich in detail and in almost every single shot we can learn something about the people that live there.
In the prologue of the film, we get introduced to the three children of the Tenenbaum family. In this shot we see how Chas has arranged his room. It is devoid of color and it doesn’t really look like a kids room at all, but more like an office. Chas has grown up fast and left his childhood naivety behind him.
In contrast to the previous shot is a shot of his brother Richie’s room also from the prologue. The room, the toys, and the clothes are just like a normal kid’s. This is a great contrast between the shot of Chas’ room that we saw earlier and this one. We can see that they are two very different people and later we also realise how they each have very different relationships to their father.
Chas feels overlooked by his father and there is great emotional distance between them. This is one of many reasons he grows up too fast. Richie is clearly the father’s favourite, he feels cared for and he gets to be a kid.
We can’t tell all of this just from the production design but it adds to and enriches their story.
I encourage you to experiment with contrast in the production design in your own work. You can show a character’s change or lack of change by having the environment they live in, or the clothes they wear, change or stay the same. You can highlight the differences or similarities between characters by showing them in vastly different or similar environments or clothes.
Characters, relationships and colours
Anderson’s attention to detail is especially evident in his use of colours. Rarely, if ever, will you see anything in frame that doesn’t fit in a carefully calculated color palette.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, we can learn quite a bit about the characters of Richie and Margot, and their complicated relationship, in the colour choices. Anderson’s use of color is a bit complex, but this is how I interpret his use of the colours of green, blue and brown related to these two characters.
In the prologue, we see that Richie’s room is blue and green. I assume these colours represent a sense of familiarity and childhood comfort to him.
In the film, Royal Tenenbaum, Richie’s father and Margot’s adopted father, lets everyone in his family know about his deteriorating health in order to gather them all under one roof again. When Margot meets with Richie after hearing the news, she steps out of a green line bus that has a green banner. The airport banners above Richie are blue.
Here Anderson uses those two colours to show how she represents something familiar and comfortable to him. Coincidentally, he is also in love with her and the color of green can both represent something healthy and obsessive.
Throughout the film, Margot frequently wears outfits of those colours and both her and Richie often wear browns. The colour of brown is something they share.
In another scene Margot has locked herself in her bathroom distancing herself from her husband. She is wearing brown, and the bathroom is green and blue. This represents how she longs for the familiarity of being close to Richie (his colours) while being removed from her husband.
In the tent scene where Richie confesses his love to Margot, they are in a brown tent and both of them are wearing colours within the blue and green pallette. Here the green and blue colours represent them finding comfort and familiarity with each other. The brown represents their similarity and bond.
You can apply this to your own work by attaching meaning to a specific colour.
You can use that specific colour to show the audience what the character’s desire is, as well as where the character is in their journey. Have they reached their goal yet? Have they returned to familiarity? Have they entered something completely new and unfamiliar?
These are just a few of the principles and ideas Anderson and his Production Designers explore in their work. Production Design is easy to forget in low budget independent filmmaking, but it really makes or breaks a production. If what you put in front of the camera doesn’t tell the story of your movie, it will not be as strong of a visual narrative.
I encourage you to be inventive and creative in your use of production design in your own work!