Robert Yeoman, ASC, shares his choices on Wes Anderson’s "Asteroid City", Greg Fromentin adding to his words

"Cuando calienta el sol", by François Reumont for the AFC

Contre-Champ AFC n°344

[ English ] [ français ]

After shooting The French Dispatch in France in Angoulême, Wes Anderson and his crew decided to set their new film in Spain’s desert. For Asteroid City is therefore a very brilliant hommage to 1950’s America and to stage play, as the prologue says. Robert Yeoman, ASC, whose long filmography notably includes William Friekin’s masterpiece To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) shares his lensing and lighting choices on this new nostalgic fable, where John Ford’s desert and SF imagery are sometimes meeting. (FR)

The opening scene, with Bryan Cranston’s character sets the story around a stageplay. Did this affect your approach ?

Robert Yeoman : There are two worlds portrayed in the film Asteroid City. The first is the television special about the making of a stage play, the second is the filmic realization of the play itself. As the time frame was in the mid 1950’s the television portion was filmed in black and white with a 1.37 aspect ratio. The filmic realization was shot in color with a 2.40 aspect ratio. I feel that this immediately signals the viewer which world we are in.

Robert Yeoman, à la caméra, et Wes Anderson sur le tournage d'"Asteroid City" - Photo Roger Do Minh
Robert Yeoman, à la caméra, et Wes Anderson sur le tournage d’"Asteroid City"
Photo Roger Do Minh

And about lighting ?

RY : In prep I studied many films and I especially liked how the sun was used in Bad Day at Black Rock and Paris Texas. You could feel the intensity of the heat from the sun in those films. The light becomes a character in the film. For the town of Asteroid City in the desert a total naturalistic plan was our goal. After an extensive scout a great location was found in Chinchón, Spain. Wes loves to work “low tech” so our plan was not to use any movie lights for our day exteriors or interiors in this town. Luckily we were building all of the buildings so I asked that we build sky lights into all of those locations in which we planned to shoot day interiors. The gas station and the diner were the main ones. We covered the skylights with full grid cloth to soften the harsh overhead sun, which provided a soft even light inside. The ratio was essentially 1 stop under for the interior, roughly one and a half stops over for the exterior. No lights were needed so the entire location was free of any lighting gear.
From the beginning Wes pushed me to embrace the harsh overhead light of the desert. In the past I always tried to use the sun to backlight or sidelight the actors. In the middle part of the day on other movies I previously would fly large 20x20 silks. But on Asteroid City we went in another direction. No silks were used on day exteriors. We generally shot with no additional lighting gear at all except for the occasional white bounce board.

Robert Yeoman à l'œilleton d'une Arricam ST équipée d'un Arri/Zeiss Master Anamorphic 40 mm - Photo Roger Do Minh
Robert Yeoman à l’œilleton d’une Arricam ST équipée d’un Arri/Zeiss Master Anamorphic 40 mm
Photo Roger Do Minh

What was the main challenge for you ?

RY : Probably the most difficult mood to handle was dusk because of the small finite time we had to shoot. To help achieve this the actors rehearsed thoroughly and we used practicals in the background to give the image some sparkle. We had to move quickly and shoot all of our shots in a small amount of time. No additional lighting was employed.

How do you work with Wes, as most of his storytelling is done on set via camera, like a ballet ?

RY : Before we begin principle photography Wes makes an animatic, kind of a cartoon which shows the camera moves and gives a rough idea of the locations. He even does the voices for all of the characters. This becomes our guide and we prepare everything accordingly. The camera moves are generally linked to the dialogue so we listen to the rhythms of the language and the speed of the actors movements to determine the speed of our moves. It often becomes kind of a dance between those in front and behind the camera. Whip pans are a staple of Wes’ movies and this was no exception. We use them to connect actors and/or locations and they give a visual energy to the shot.

Robert Yeoman et Sanjay Sami, à la dolly - Photo Roger Do Minh
Robert Yeoman et Sanjay Sami, à la dolly
Photo Roger Do Minh

What about your lens choice for this show ?

RY : The film was shot on Arricam ST and LT cameras with occasional use of the Arri 235 for mounts. Wes and I started using Arri cameras on The Grand Budapest Hotel and we never had a problem, despite shooting in the freezing cold of winter in Eastern Germany. That film was shot with the Cooke S4 lenses and we have been using them for spherical ever since. I like the image quality and the rendering of faces. For Asteroid City I used the Arri Anamorphic Primes. I like the way they look and they hold focus across the entire image quite well. Older vintage lenses fall off on the edges. I knew that Wes likes to fill the frame with the actors and I wanted to be sure that the actors on the edges of frame would still be sharp. We also shoot at deep F-stops to hold people in the foreground and background in focus. The film stocks were Kodak 5213 for color, Kodak 5222 for black and white.

Color is also a very important thing on Wes’s movies. How do you define it ?

RY : Wes is obviously very concerned about the color palette and a lot of time and testing goes into the selection of clothes, wall colors, etc. In prep we often shoot tests so we can better gauge how colors will be rendered in film, particularly under different lighting conditions. The DI was done at Company 3 in London and Wes and the colorist pushed the look further into a more pastel and low con look than what we had originally. When he sent it to me in Los Angeles for my comments I immediately loved the look ! They had taken it further than I had imagined and I felt it was perfect.

How do you see the future of moviemaking ?

RY : The future of filmmaking is constantly changing due to the invention of new technologies. I came up shooting film and certainly digital cameras have changed the playing field. These cameras are so sensitive in low light situations that it changes the way cinematographers light a location. LED lights have so much versatility and require much less power and have become a common tool that is utilized widely. Recently shooting in a Volume has been making great strides. A Volume is a space that is created by LED walls which depict computer generated backdrops to depict a location. Instead of traveling to the moon with a film crew you can now shoot in the comfort of a studio. Obviously there are a lot of advantages to these new tools but I come from a different world. I still prefer shooting in real locations (or on a set built in the studio) with a film camera but I am afraid that those days are narrowing because so much can now be created in post production. Many people get enthralled with all of the new technologies but I am fairly “low tech.” I don’t really care how many “K” a camera has. There is nothing better than shooting a great script with amazing actors. After all it is the story that matters.

Gregory Fromentin, gaffer, adds to Robert Yeoman’s story

Robert Yeoman et Gregory Fromentin - Photo Roger Do Minh
Robert Yeoman et Gregory Fromentin
Photo Roger Do Minh

How did you find yourself shooting this extremely American film in Spain ?

Greg Fromentin : The initial option for shooting this film was actually in Italy, at Cinecittà studios. Wes Anderson is a huge cinephile and a great admirer of Fellini. I think he liked the idea of shooting it over there. But, for budgetary reasons, I think he had to reverse course and choose the little Spanish village of Chinchón, which is another cinephile’s pilgrimage destination because it was beloved by Orson Welles, who was a great lover of Spain. What is surprising is that Chinchón isn’t at all in the desert. It’s nothing like the region of Almeria where all the spaghetti Westerns were shot. On the contrary, it’s a very picturesque, little tourist town located 50 km outside of Madrid. The crew led by Adam Stockhausen, the set designer, literally rebuilt the entire universe of the film in huge fields located several cable lengths outside of the city.
Wes set up his crew and actors in the city’s hotels and recreated his own open-sky studio within range of an electric car.

The sense of disorientation must have been total !

GF : It was entirely unprecedented. It was like arriving in a Wes Anderson theme park. Everything was absolutely fake. The set design crew had, of course, built all of the sets such as the gas station, the diner or the little houses… but they also built a railway actually capable of being used by an authentic locomotive, along with the little train station and the 3-km-long asphalt road. In the back, 15-meter-by-20-meter mesas were built out of Styrofoam with work being done on the forced perspective. It was truly the first time in my entire career that I have witnessed such a lavish expenditure on set design. Everything was totally supervised by Wes’ demanding and careful eye, down to the details of every element of the set. On a film like this, the set design and location management crews need unlimited talent and bravery !

Didn’t shooting without any spotlights scare you ?

GF : From the very first discussions I had with Robert, the idea of using natural light was there. The sequences that were originally supposed to take place at night were shot at dusk or dawn, and Adam Stockhausen intentionally left all of the sets open to the sky. That way, my crew and I were able to install diffusion frames, sometimes on very large areas, up to 20 meters by 20 meters. This diffusion helped us to handle the very aggressive sunlight more easily and to reduce the shadows it would cast, which would move as the day went on. What you have to keep in mind is that we were sometimes shooting in temperatures that could reach 50°C and I think the heat comes through on the screen. Furthermore, we had decided not to spend lots of money on logistical and comfort elements on set. Only a few electric generators were buried underground and no trailers were available in spite of our high-profile cast. The actors and technicians were all treated equally, forced to rest in little shelters with fans. There was a very retro feel both behind and in front of the camera on this film. And then, like on all films, a strong family atmosphere.

And the parts in the theatre ?

GF : The sequences in black-and-white were shot in the city’s old theatre.
There, we did, naturally, use spotlights. We also worked with a theatrical lighting designer who was flow in from London at Wes Anderson’s request. Robert, this designer, and I worked in tandem. The main challenge was the quantity of light. Indeed, these sequences were actually shot in black-and-white (Kodak 5222 - 160 ISO) and Wes Anderson always requests that we shoot at very small apertures. He always wants the set to be as legible as the actors. So we shot with a SkyPanel 360 that was so close to the actors that we almost infringed the safety regulations.

What are his favorite tools ?

GF : He is a director who is happy with very little technology. The camera, the dolly, the traveling rails… that’s pretty much all there is on set. No crane, no gyrostabilized systems or console lighting. It’s a far cry from normal American superproductions where everything has to be instantaneously possible. There’s really a Méliès vibe in the way he works, for example, he’s totally fine using a little piece of Styrofoam with a green screen for a composite shot. On any other film with an equivalent budget, we’d use ten times more things. The shots themselves are usually done by a very small team surrounding the actors with the cameraman, the sound engineer, Wes Anderson and his assistant. But he is someone who does shoot the way that we have been accustomed to shooting in digital. There can be many takes, the camera is always rolling, and it’s a continual ballet for the camera assistants with the 300 meter rolls they’re constantly loading and unloading. Some scenes can require up to 50 takes, and everyone plays along to make it just right.

And how was it working alongside Robert Yeoman ?

GF : Robert Yeoman is really an incredible person. He’s always kind, unpretentious and seems happy to be on set and never gripes about anything whatsoever. When you spend 15 hours, as he does, behind a dolly shooting takes, always with very precise movements, it represents a true physical challenge. He is someone who has an incredible force of character. I took a great deal of pleasure watching him work and learning from him.

(Interviews conducted by François Reumont, for the AFC)

Thanks to Roger Do Minh, PFA, for the stills illustrating this article !

Asteroid City
Director : Wes Anderson
Director of Photography : Robert Yeoman, ASC
Production Designer : Adam Stockhausen
Costumes : Milena Canonero
Editing : Barney Pilling