The Wes Anderson style

A Wes Anderson film is, above all, cinematic. The writer/director’s love and understanding of film as a creative medium shines through his work in every frame. It’s this dedication to cinema that allows him to precisely manipulate the medium to his tastes. Though Wes Anderson emphasizes aesthetics over realism, each film manages to tell an affecting, relatable, human story. But what is the Wes Anderson style? And what can we learn from it?

How to spot a Wes Anderson film

There are a few obvious visual elements that define the Wes Anderson style: ubiquitous symmetry, tableau-style compositions, sparse and deliberate color pallets and the preference for long takes. Using these tools and others, Anderson tells you exactly where to look at all times, guiding the gaze effortlessly through the frame. Let’s dig into each of the key elements a little bit deeper to see how this works.

Symmetry

Wes Anderson likes symmetry. You will not make it more than a few shots in any direction in any of his movies without encountering a shot that’s perfectly centered. Not only is this inherently pleasing to the eye, but it also provides a natural focal point for each composition, whether that’s a character, an object or a location.

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Even in Anderson’s first film, “Bottle Rocket” (1996), we see symmetry emerging as a part of his signature style.

Tableau compositions

The constant use of symmetry also highlights the fact that every frame is precisely composed, giving the sense that each scene is a tableau or stage setting — like a self-aware distillation of a more complex experience. These carefully stages scenes also often reference well-known works of art. For instance, this scene in “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) emulates DaVinci’s “The Last Supper.”

Image from “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012). Image courtesy: Focus Features

Color

Just as each frame is deliberately composed, so does each film have a deliberately chosen color pallet. Consistent and meaningful color schemes unite each scene while also setting the tone for the story.

For example, a mostly blue and white color scheme supports the nautical setting of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004). The signature red Team Zissou hats stand stark against the blue backgrounds, continually pulling our focus back to the crew.

Image from “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”

Likewise, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) builds a color pallet around a fox-fur orange, bringing warmth and harmony to the charming setting. In contrast, the darker greys of the man-made tunnels and the black of the wolf’s silhouette feel foreign to our vulpine hero and his woodland friends (though for different reasons). In this way, color sets the tone and supports the narrative.

Similarly, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014) uses color to signify the decline of the hotel’s grandeur. Bright, saturated reds and purples signify the hotel’s glory days, but as the old building loses its luster, so does its color pallet.

Image from “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Long takes

Another common visual element in the Wes Anderson style is the long take. We often see tracking shots, whip pans and long static shots. This style of shooting requires a precise choreography of different screen elements, but the result is a deep sense of continuity and connection between characters. Here’s an example from the ending of “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007).

Once the pattern of long takes and connected shots has been established, Anderson can then break that pattern to create a sense of chaos at key moments in the plot. For instance, the pacing ramps up quickly in this chase scene from “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001). Only when the brothers begin to reconcile does the static long take return.

Common narrative threads

Anderson’s signature visual elements are easy to identify, but there are also story elements that recur throughout his work. Anderson often tells stories about misfits finding their place. This can take the form of coming-of-age stories, like in the semi-autobiographical “Rushmore” (1998), or stories about midlife crises, as we see in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”

Often, these themes feature in the same film, as with “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Here, Anderson’s ensemble casts allow multiple storylines to weave together. Having these different stages of life presented side by side reveals them as parallel narratives, suggesting that maybe we are never actually done growing up.

Other common threads include comedic stories with tragic elements and dialogue that is dry and distilled without losing emotional impact. In fact, the deadpan delivery helps avoids the indulgence of melodrama, which could push the hyper-stylized sets and character designs into the absurd.

Wes Anderson’s inspiration

As inspiration, Anderson often borrows stories from his own life, but he also takes both visual and thematic inspiration from the subject matter of each specific film.

For example, when making the Japan-set “Isle of Dogs” (2018), Anderson studied Japanese art and media — especially Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period — to help inform the film’s tone and aesthetic.

Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo (Edo Nihonbashi), from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei)” by Katsushika Hokusai. c. 1830/33

Similarly, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” takes obvious inspiration from the life of famed deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau. In the film, the spectacular cross-section of Zissou’s ship is a direct reference to a diagram of Cousteau’s exploration vessel, the Calypso. Even the name of Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte, is an homage to the original ship. Harry Belafonte is, of course, a well-known calypso singer.

From The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau, Vol. 21 (1978)

Throughout his work, Anderson also pays homage to the history of cinema with borrowed compositions and shot sequences.

Indeed, the nested stories of Anderson’s most recent film, “The French Dispatch” (2021), provide plenty of opportunity for references and iterations.

Wes Anderson’s influence

With such a recognizable aesthetic — and we didn’t even talk about the music and costumes— it’s not surprising that Anderson has his fair share of imitators. Notably, Vampire Weekend borrows from the Wes Anderson style in their music video for “Oxford Comma” (2008). You also see Anderson’s style popping up in commercials since he often takes on advertising work to support his feature film projects.

Beyond its influence on media, however, Anderson’s unique style has also influenced the way we look at the world around us. See, for example, Accidentally Wes Anderson on Instagram.

How to develop your own style to rival Wes Anderson

So what can we learn from Wes Anderson? Here are the easy takeaways: symmetry pleases the eye, deliberate color pallets enhance the story and long takes preserve continuity. We can look at a Wes Anderson film and easily replicate the aesthetic — but does that mean we learned something about the art and craft of filmmaking? Here are some lessons we can take from Wes Anderson that might stretch a bit farther in filmmaking or any creative endeavor:

One, love and understand the medium. Studying the movies you love will reveal the tricks and tools of the art. With time and attention to detail, you will be able to wield those tools to tell exactly the story you want to.

Two, have confidence in your taste. The Wes Anderson style isn’t for everyone, but that’s ok. Anderson knows what he likes, and his taste is directly reflected in his films.

Three, do not compromise. Don’t settle for good enough. If you want the shot to be centered, take the time to set up the camera accordingly. Viewers might not be able to articulate why a slightly out-of-square camera angle feels off, but they will certainly feel it.

These are the true lessons to take from any great director. Following these lessons will put you on the road to developing your own unique and memorable filmmaking style.

Nicole LaJeunesse is a professional writer and a curious person who loves to unpack stories on anything from music, to movies, to gaming and beyond.