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A Distinctive LOOK For 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Tim Wilson : A Distinctive LOOK For 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
CreativeCOW presents A Distinctive LOOK For 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' -- TV & Movie Appreciation Editorial
Oahu Hawaii USA All rights reserved.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL - Official International Trailer HD

There's distinctive, and there's distinctive.

Here's the test: can you look at a single, random frame from a movie, and tell beyond any doubt who directed it? Wes Anderson may pass that test more easily than anyone working today. From his 1996 feature debut, Bottle Rocket, to 2012's Moonrise Kingdom, whether in black and white or color, animated or live action, nobody else's movies look like this.

Not that his movies are all about style. Wes has two Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay, for 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums and for Moonrise Kingdom, which AFI named their 2012 Movie Of The Year.

By many accounts, his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, takes every aspect of his filmmaking to the next level, starting with the writing. Among those weighing in is a man who also made his fair share of contributions toward executing Wes's vision, Gabriel Sanchez, VFX Supervisor for LOOK Effects. Despite a small team (15 at its peak) and an original target of 90-100 shots, they actually completed approximately 340 shots!

This wasn't Gabriel's first film with Wes. That would be The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou in 2004. "I was the Senior Flame Operator here at LOOK Effects when we did the main title sequence. We started editing it together, then laying in the actual titles -- and it just turned into a full-on client session. We started enhancing almost every shot with Wes until he was happy with the whole sequence, and it went very well.

Gabriel Sanchez
VFX Supervisor
for LOOK Effects
"It turns out that there were other things that he was still trying to figure out for the rest of the movie, and he actually ended up asking for my opinions on some of them, just throwing things back and forth. I really didn't have much to do with how things turned out, but it was just cool that he was willing to hear my thoughts."

The work that LOOK Effects and Gabriel did on The Darjeeling Limited was more extensive. Still working as an effects artist, much of his effort was focused on the film's train sequences. (You can get some idea of how important this was when you understand that "The Darjeeling Limited" is in fact the name of a train.) In typical Wes Anderson fashion, though, the effects were intended to be organically integrated into the scene: in essence, invisible.

"Every time there's a scene in a train, we were doing something. Some of the items you see weren't originally in the room, so we created them in 3D and I was the one who composited them into the shot. Space was tight, so I also did some of the classic kinds invisible effects, like removing cameramen from reflections in the windows -- and there was a lot of glass in that movie," he laughs.

Along the way, Gabriel's time at LOOK has included some other directors with strong visual sensibilities, including David Fincher (on The Black Swan) and Darren Aronofsky (on The Fountain), as well as some episodes of HBO's Game of Thrones. He has also worked on quite a few films with less obvious effects, such as The Perks of Being A Wallflower and Seabiscuit. It gave him the opportunity to wrestle a wide range of problems as he worked his way up from being an artist, to a compositing supervisor, and now, a visual effects supervisor for LOOK.

"I've filled so many of these roles jobs myself roles that I could see how much time a shot was taking someone to finish. I could give pointers, but I also helped move people from one task to the next. 'Oh, this guy is almost done with this shot. Maybe he can give you what you need next.' And then I just put myself in any role that was needed. That's one of my strong suits -- being able to get stuff done, even though I wasn't on the set, in the optimum position."

When it came time for Wes to start putting together The Grand Budapest Hotel, he brought LOOK Effects in at the very beginning of the process. Gabriel's flexibility and experience working with Wes made him a natural choice to take his first on-set supervisory role on location in Germany, running the LOOK team for this feature from their (then) new office in Stuttgart.


Creative COW: How were things different for you by starting so early?

Gabriel Sanchez, LOOK Effects: I got the script, I got the story boards, and I started breaking things down right away, giving my suggestions on what we'd need to do. Would it be green screens? Matte paintings? Miniatures?

One of the first big challenges I saw in the script was a major chase sequence. As a viewer, you see it as a single piece -- it's building up, building up, we finally see the bad guy, and then the chase starts -- but, for us, I saw that it should be broken into two parts.

First, we wanted to use matte paintings to create a kind of 360 degree scenario. Because of how carefully Wes built up the environment, you always know exactly where you are as a viewer. You know where the observatory is, you know what's to the east and to the west. We wanted to do that for the environments too, so that no matter where you look, no matter what your point of view, you're looking at something specific.

Wes provided us a bunch of high-res stills of mountain scenes for reference -- over a terabyte's worth. We were able to say, 'Okay, out of these mountain ranges, this is the one that he likes.' As we enhanced each of these views and stitched them together, we actually created a 360 degree world. When you're looking behind an actor, or the chase sequence turns, or we've shot reverse POVs of the actors on green screen, nobody will look at the backgrounds and say, "Wait, that looks like the same set of mountains. They just used it over and over." No, that's not what we did.

These background matte plates were just a small part of it. For the chase scene itself, I had to use everything. There were miniatures of the gondolas on the mountain tram. There were miniatures of trees. There was stop motion -- they took a picture of this little character, moved him, took a picture, moved him again, took another picture -- but the character was a miniature, so we had to implement that stop motion as a miniature in a real environment.

There was also a bobsled run, a kind of canal on a big piece of plywood, with fake snow banks -- but it wasn't a stop motion series of stills. It was shot in real time on film, so we had to make the miniature scene realistic, and still look like a miniature, while it was in motion.

The bobsled run

We even did some digital particles, combined with some stock footage from our asset library to make it feel like the mist is flowing by camera. We pretty much had to do everything to make it come together. I mean, for other shots throughout the movie, you'd say, "Oh, this is a matte painting, it has its challenges." "Oh, this is a green screen, it has its challenges." Or, "Oh, this is a stop motion shot, it has its challenges." This sequence had everything, all wrapped together into almost every shot.

You mention that you wanted to make miniatures realistic, but you also wanted them to look miniatures. How did that work?

One of the most important miniatures was the hotel itself. They hired an oil painter to create an actual matte painting on canvas, and we took 4K stills from that. That's what we had to integrate the miniature into.

To be honest with you, our first couple of passes went too far in the direction of realism. I'm thinking, "Okay, they want this thing to look completely real." That was the treatment we applied, but they told us to dial it back. Wes said that he wanted to preserve the small little details. "We want people to know it's a miniature -- and we still want it to look real." It's a fine line.

Sometimes we got notes like, "It feels flat. Shouldn't there be more information in there?" and we had to do some cheating. We created a 3D replica of that miniature so that we could enhance the detail, and change the lighting to make it feel more dimensional. We didn't need to do that very often, but it was something that was in my back pocket that the client didn't even know was my approach.


They're going to know now! But I would guess that Wes typically cares more about the right results, rather than worry about the specific process. He knows exactly what he wants.

Sometimes we threw things back and forth a few times to narrow the target, but yeah, once he sees what he wants, you're done. That's a very good thing. Collaboration is great, but it's almost dangerous when you hear the client going, "Uh, well, can you do this....," or "Well, maybe we go with this....," or "You know what? I'll know it when I see it." Okay, but that doesn't help me to get there.

Let me give you another example. There's a very detailed library, and a point at which a character takes a high-priced painting off the wall. Wes said, "Make it look like the painting has been there forever. The wall under the painting should have a different coloring than the rest of the wall.

"Oh, by the way, I'm going to send you a high-res still of the actual hook I wanted implemented as the thing the painting is actually hanging on."

I'm like, "Alright!" (Laughs) Because we would have never thought about that. He's particular about what he wants, and now I know that I can get it right the first time. Obviously, he's the director on set, but in some ways, he really is directing post as well. That's a really cool thing.

[Because we're speaking before the film opened in the US] I should probably ask you what The Grand Budapest Hotel is about.

Because Wes is iconic, and his love of what he wants is so particular, that's actually how I start: "It's a Wes Anderson film." In my opinion, it is the best one of his films to date. I think it will open him up to a wider audience.

It takes place in different eras, but the center of it is a story that wraps around the concierge of this hotel, how he's framed for murder, and the things he does to clear himself. It's also visually enticing, even by Wes Anderson standards.

So looking back on the experience, how would you describe it both as in terms of the movie and in terms of your first experience as an on-set visual effects supervisor?

I had a blast. I had to face challenges that I never thought I was going to take on -- leaving home, going overseas, not knowing the language, dealing with the culture shock. It took me a couple of months to get over that.

LOOK had an office there, so I wasn't alone, but it almost felt like I was at first because of everything that was going on. I felt like I was starting in a bubble. I had to shift from, "I gotta find a way to do this," to, "How can we do this as a team?"

I can confidently say that everyone had a good time working on this film. I got to learn about the schematics of business side, and I got to pull out some old school effects tricks that some of these new kids didn't know about.

We developed a good energy, and they know they're better artists now. It definitely built a nice team, and that human contact from doing something together will stay with me.

Okay, last question. You've worked with Wes before, you've read a lot of scripts before. What went through your mind when you read the script for The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Sometimes when I look at a script, I'm just focusing on the work. Where are my shots, what do I need to do for them. I read this one out of enjoyment. It was amazing. Beautiful. It was almost like reading a book, where you want to know what happens next. "How's this thing going to end?" [Laughs]

I really think it's his best film to date, and I think it's going to open up a much wider audience for him.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Featurette: "The Story"


Re: A Distinctive LOOK For 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
by Peter Constan-Tatos
Grand Budapest is a great movie and Wes Anderson's 'keeping everything central' technique is just the business! I wonder if he used a motion control head for those pans and tilts that hit their mark so perfectly???
Re: Article: A Distinctive LOOK For 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
by Benjamin Reichman
What a fascinating article! These kinds of behind-the-scenes pieces are my favorites among the articles the COW produces, and I'd love to see even more!

Anyway, I absolutely loved the balance they consciously struck between realism and obvious miniature and stop motion work. Charming--and a huge technical accomplishment as well as an artistic achievement. Realism is often overrated.

That said, while this was a fun movie, Moonrise Kingdom will always be the one I love most, because it has so much heart. It's rare for a movie to be that genuinely sweet without giving into mawkish sentimentality, or clichéd storylines.
Re: Article: A Distinctive LOOK For 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
by Jeff Day
Thanks for posting, it's a great read. I have been on a Wes Anderson binge lately. I really enjoyed Grand Budapest Hotel. Moonrise Kingdom cracked me up. I agree, he isn't all about a look or style, I enjoy how he uses it to enhance his story.
Re: Article: A Distinctive LOOK For 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
by Scott Roberts

Wes Anderson // Centered from kogonada on Vimeo.

Re: Article: A Distinctive LOOK For 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
by Todd Terry
That's pretty amazing... and just goes to show you how rules were made to be broken.

At the very end of the remake of True Grit there was a horizon shot that perfectly bisected the screen right across the middle. My first instantaneous thought was "You're not supposed to do that!"... quickly followed by realizing that Roger Deakins definitely knew what he was doing, because the shot certainly worked.

This works, too.


Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.

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