Often overlooked, the cinematographer lives in the director’s shadow. Films which come to mind having distinct cinematography must be that of the work of Wes Anderson; but what about Robert Yeoman who has continually worked with Anderson as cinematographer? The true ownership of his work (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and Moonrise Kingdom to name a few) seems to belong to Anderson.
It is difficult to know if Anderson’s distinct style of long takes, panning, wide lenses, and symmetry, is created by his imagination alone. More likely, it is a collaborative effort. Nonetheless, the role of cinematography is crucial to a film’s construction and reception since it is the medium through which we see everything.
“cinematography is crucial to a film’s construction”
The Grand Budapest Hotel displays Yeoman as a painter, with each frame being centred, cinematography is something which truly makes this film. The painting-like feel is aided by the decision to film in square aspect ratios (the 1930s’ scenes shot in the Academy Ratio of 1.37:1) which further enhance Anderson’s (or, in fact, Yeoman’s) symmetrical style, leaving the viewer’s eyes more than satisfied – especially if you’re a person who appreciates structure and perfectly used space. The switch of aspect ratios throughout the film reflect the ratios of the time in which the scenes are set, meaning that Yeoman had to frame each part of the film differently, particularly those set in the restricted aspect ratio, which he still manages to pull-off the distinct wide-angle shots, even with the appearance of the side of the frame being cut-off. Yeoman manages to make each frame as if nothing is missing.
None of Yeoman’s frames are boring, there’s always activity on screen. This is particularly evident in Anderson’s earlier film Rushmore, whereby the lead character, Max Fischer, is displayed in a colourful montage of his multiple extra-curricular activities. From boys whirling round in go-karts to a completely smothered desk in coins and stamps: no space is left unused. Everything is active and accurately placed in each individual frame.
But, is this the outcome of a precise and hyper-accurate cinematographer or the prevailing director?
In the case of Wes Anderson, it is clear that his vision is articulated particularly in his own mind, being the collaborative writer and director of a film perhaps gives him gravitas in the production hierarchy. Nonetheless, the genius of the cinematographer must not be taken for granted – it requires great technical skill in articulating a director’s vision, created in their mind, into a visual style or medium in real life. Evidencing Anderson as deserving of the credit that a film receives is the fact that he has meticulous attention to detail, and eccentric style which is not reflected in Yeoman’s other work; Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Ghostbusters (2016). However, this may be the effect of these films’ genre – comedy – since attention, arguably, is diverted from aesthetics in favour of witty dialogue and need to present scenes clearly in order to fulfil their comedic potential.
“the genius of the cinematographer must not be taken for granted”
Anderson’s distinct style is just that: his. Yeoman, of course, is vital to Anderson’s style, as exposed (or exeposéd) by the fact that Yeoman has worked on all of Anderson’s films, but he seems to be forever in shadow.
So, is the cinematographer a genius? Yes. But the true genius is still left, in the case of Wes Anderson and Robert Yeoman, to the director himself. This does not mean to say that the role of cinematographer shouldn’t be acknowledged more, after all, how many cinematographers really come to mind when you think of films? If the answer is under 10, then something clearly needs to change.