Discover how cinematographer Robert Yeoman keeps his comedies light and helped develop Wes Anderson's whimsical aesthetic.
As anyone who's ever been part of a high school film club or set foot in a film school classroom will tell you, one of the most distinctive looks in modern film is that of Wes Anderson. And while it's true that Anderson is known for creating every element of the visual style of his films, Robert Yeoman is the real man behind the lens for every one of his live-action features (so far).
While Yeoman's work was intertwined with Anderson's coffee shop aesthetic long ago, he actually has quite a career as a cameraman outside of that relationship. His early work earned him some appreciation at the Independent Spirit Awards (Live and Die in LA, Drugstore Cowboy), and his later work included several very successful comedy blockbusters (Yes Man, Bridesmaids).
Let's take a look at how the man behind cinematically recognizable films like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic and The Grand Budapest Hotel so successfully highlights arthouse indies and blockbuster comedy franchises by sharing his kitsch craft with his artistic and comedic sensibility combined.
Find your creative process
Everyone has their own voice, and for me creativity means being able to express that voice. I've always been inspired by the visual language of films, even more so than writing or anything else. Only pictures stuck to me and I was so excited about them. So I started doing cinematography in film school and I was good at it, a natural and had a talent for it. And I've never looked back – I love what I do.
What a fantastic quote from Yeoman to start our journey to understanding his cinematography. In this intro video from Academy Originals we get a glimpse into an artist at the top of his field and reflect on how he achieved his success. Finding your unique voice and creative process is a fascinating lens to look at cinematography as an expression of the language of film. And that's exactly what you see in Yeoman's work.
It's also cool to see some of his early pre-production techniques explained when he talks about traveling to a foreign country he may be filming, as well as Wes and Wes Anderson's penchant for early film photography on set (with no lights or actors) start their own creative processes.
Development of a visual grammar
Once we start breaking down the hallmarks of Yeoman's cinematography, what really matters is dialing in the visual grammar of the director he's working with.
For example, with Wes Anderson in the CookeOpticsTV video above, Yeoman talks about "finding the center" of each shot to understand Anderson's cinematic mindset while working with the chaotic documentarism of Bill Pohlad's Love and Mercy and open to improvisation from Paul Feig's comedies like bridesmaids and ghostbusters.
As Yeoman explains, all cinematography decisions for each part are part of developing a visual grammar that will allow him and the director to communicate quickly and precisely to make the narrative the best in each take.
Lighting for clarity and comedy
Of course, just because Yeoman has a complexity of styles doesn't mean he doesn't focus on lighting up with his own tricks and techniques and making clear and concise compositions.
In another interview, Yeoman discusses the challenges of following the sun in order to use it as one of the greatest sources of light for many of his recordings – a process he has perfected by using the SunSeeker app for the timing and direction of the Sun used.
Because Yeoman works most often with comedies and more lighthearted features, he often focuses on soft lighting to keep his shots bright and clear, as opposed to dark and harsh. His goal in combating the comic and bizarre is to make his recordings appear as if they are lit as naturally as possible in order to bring the audience into the reality of the story as best as possible.
Old school whip pans and slow motion
There are some looks and techniques in Yeoman's work with Wes Anderson that are quickly becoming synonymous with Yeoman's cinematography. Most notable for many fans of Anderson's works are the popular whip pans in his films and the famous slow motion shots, which are usually the ending scenes and often the most memorable.
While dipping into whip pans, Yeoman takes the old school approach and will do it on camera and on set as often as possible. This requires some complex framing setups with multiple lights and actors ready, but it does achieve a much more real and imperfect look than adding the whip pans as a transition in the post.
For the slow motion footage, Yeoman admits that Anderson likes to work as old-fashioned as possible. Therefore, he is often left with simple settings with just a dolly and focus puller to capture those iconic shots in as few settings as possible.
Development of the Wes Anderson look
When looking back on Yeoman's career to date, it's important to realize that he's not just a means of bringing a director's vision to the screen, but actually a developer of the looks and aesthetics we've come to know and love .
It would be difficult to watch a mainstream comedy these days and not see some of its soft light looks in many setups, and it's even harder to watch a Wes Anderson movie – or a Wes Anderson-inspired composition – and not to see how much Yeoman has put into developing the overall aesthetic.
Yeoman has given the wide-angle lens a renewed popularity as he encouraged Anderson to take on the strange contours of real life, although he preferred to make everything perfectly symmetrical. He's pushed the boundaries of what whip pans, crash zooms, and other old-school techniques can actually capture in-camera, and not with simple tweaks. Ultimately, he helped inspire a whole new, younger audience of aspiring cameramen to use cheesy whims in place of old, stale compositions and storytelling techniques.
For more spotlights and insights for cameramen, check out the articles below.
Cover picture via ASC.