As both his first western and first time with sci-fi, there’s never been an entry into either genre that looks quite like what Wes Anderson conjured with Asteroid City. With its dreamlike, milky textures captured under the blazing sun of Spain (standing in for a fictional desert town of 1950s Americana) and extraterrestrial sequences that have a uniquely otherworldly touch, I was eager to speak with cinematographer Robert Yeoman about his process. For having first collaborate with Anderson on his debut Bottle Rocket and subsequently worked on all of his live-action features since, he’s been with the director every step of his evolution, honing the craft with a beautifully persnickety preciseness simply otherwise absent in American filmmaking.
Ahead of Asteroid City‘s NY/LA release this Friday, followed by a wide expansion next week, I spoke with Yeoman about the exacting details of his workflow with Anderson, how he’s pushed out of his comfort zone on every movie, embracing the harshness of the sun, influences for the film, what he thinks of the AI replications of Anderson’s work, and his next two collaborations with the filmmaker.
The Film Stage: Did the more limited set of Asteroid City require or invite more inventiveness with the camera? I love the 360-degree shot near the beginning establishing the entire desert set.
Robert Yeoman: Basically, we start out with a concept of what the town should be, and then Wes makes an animatic, which is a little cartoon. It shows where all the camera moves happen. And so before they actually build the set, we go out there with a finder and a lens on it and [establish] “Okay, this is the diner here. Then we need the hotel this much distance from the diner.” We can plan it out in the real space, and then Adam Stockhausen, our production designer, will start building the sets and we then we leave the track and actually do the moves before the actors come in. If there’s any alterations, sometimes we even have to move structures or things because the moves are designed to a piece of music or a piece of dialogue, so there’s a finite link to how long those shots can be and oftentimes the sets are too far apart. So we have to condense that distance so that we can make those moves with it.
At the beginning of [Asteroid City], when we introduce the town, it was Wes’ idea to shoot the town sequence without any movie lights at all. And I knew that, because of the desert sun in the summer in Spain, it was going to be very hot outside. If people were inside you have to balance that somehow. So I asked if we could put skylights in those buildings, and that’s what we did. It was kind of going back to the early days of filmmaking, where Thomas Edison on the east coast, they put silks over their set and used the sun to light the actors. So that was the concept.
Then when we did the television studio we shot black-and-white film, obviously, and we wanted to shoot that with much more theatrical lighting so that it had a very distinct, different look. I think the movie is set in 1956 and we were trying to give it that look of the hard light that would see in television shows of 1956. That was kind of the concept. The moves and everything are kind of predetermined in many ways and we build the sets to accommodate the moves. [Laughs]
Speaking about the specific color and visual tone of the Western scenes, it’s almost a creamy, dreamlike color. I’ve seen a lot of Westerns, but I haven’t really seen one that utilizes exactly this color. What references did you use to find that exact color-timing, or was it determined on set?
A lot of it Wes and Adam worked out before I got there. Adam usually shows up a month or two before I do and they start that discussion with Milena [Canonero], our costume designer. And then when I get there, we start shooting literally the day I get there. [Laughs] But there’s tests at first and Milena might have a piece of cloth that would be a costume of minor or major characters, and Adam would maybe paint a flat the color of what he was thinking. And then I try to duplicate the lighting as best I can, how we’re going to shoot it in the movie. And then we can see how that color of that costume will play against that building, and we’ll bring options of that color and options in those flats. Because film doesn’t always replicate exactly the color that your eyes are going to see, you know?
And so we do a tremendous amount of testing and we test all those camera moves that we just talked about, and it’s all kind of worked out so that when the actors show up there’s no guesswork. It’s all pretty much: we figured it all out. It’s just a matter of laying the track down. And Milena knows the color of the costumes, obviously. And Adam has painted the walls. But a lot of it came up initially with Wes and Adam; the two of them worked it out. So by the time I got there, the main ingredients were there and it was just choosing this or that kind of a thing rather than more of the conceptual stage. They send references. I live in Los Angeles and Wes is in Paris, so he’s always sending visual references to me in prep and we do a Zoom once a week to go over everything. So I have a pretty good idea of the direction that they’re going by the time I get there, too.
There’s a great Museum of the Moving Image series here in New York City, inspired by Jake Perlin’s new book that has influences on Asteroid City––everything from Close Encounters to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to Bad Day at Black Rock. Can you talk about looking at those films beforehand?
Oh, yeah. Well, Bad Day at Black Rock was a big one. Paris, Texas. One of my biggest worries was: we’re going to be out in Spain in the summer where it was super hot and the sun was really intense. On another movie I might have put up giant silks for the actors because it was windy and that’s dangerous. And also with some of the moves, you just saw everything. There’s nowhere to put them. I think Wes was eager to use the sun as a character in the film. As a cinematographer I would always back-light people or side-light them. I would never front-light people during the middle part of the day. We would try other things, silks or whatever. But we never used any of that gear on this. We just embraced the harshness of the sun, and particularly Bad Day at Black Rock was a good example. It gave you a feeling of this place.
At first I was a little nervous about this, but then as we went along I came to embrace it––as was often hoped I would. And in the DI [digital intermediate], because there’s so much information on a film negative, we were able to make it a little more low-contrast than what, initially, our dailies looked like. There was a little more harsher light in the dailies, but then in the DI, by making it a little more pastel and making it a little more low-contrast, it smoothed the whole thing out a little bit better. For me it was a different way of working. And then the stuff on the TV studios: we brought in a lighting designer from England, and he does theater, and they have a different way of working than film, obviously. We hung a giant grid up and he had a whole bunch of these theater lights up there, so I would work with him on somehow melding what he does and what I do together in one role––so that it would be film-friendly, but still maintain that theatrical look. So that was a challenge of mine.
Photo by Roger Do Minh
Jason Schwartzman’s character is a photographer who creates a makeshift lab processing photos. As the cinematographer, were you involved in that process at all?
The photos, a little bit. Actually Truman Hanks, Tom Hanks’ son, was on our camera crew. I had been in the darkroom, but not for 20 years, but he knew a lot about darkroom stuff. So he was showing Jason a lot of things. With the cameras, Jason would ask, “How do you work this thing?” We would all pitch in. He’s an actor who very much lives in that character. So he wanted to know everything––he would often ask me different photographic kinds of questions. [Laughs] He’d say, “What should I shoot this at?” His brother John is a cinematographer as well. He’s one of those actors that totally immerses himself in his characters and he wanted to know as much about it as he possibly could.
You’ve probably seen these in the last few months, but there have been viral AI replications of Wes Anderson’s work. It’s funny actually watching Asteroid City and realizing none of what Wes Anderson and his crew are doing could ever actually be created by AI––it’s such a distinct, personal version. As the cinematographer, do you get a kick of those videos or are you more hesitant in embracing them?
Well, I have mixed feelings. I think they’re meant as kind of an homage in a way, and I don’t think there’s anything bad about the intention of them. I think people love his movies, but to be honest with you, I watched two or three of them and I went “Okay…” I just stopped watching them because I get it; I get it. I mean, again: people do it because they love Wes. And so I don’t want to rain on their parade. But for me it’s like “Okay, another one. Haven’t we seen enough of these?” That’s kind of my attitude. But I don’t know what Wes thinks of them. He might like them. I don’t know.
Yes, I was curious. I had to ask, as the man behind the look of his films. One of the joys of this movie is seeing Wes Anderson dabble in sci-fi for the first time. What was it like bringing that to life with the lighting? The sequences are so striking and different from the rest of the film.
Yeah, we decided that the spaceship should emit green light and the light has to change on the actors as it comes down. So we hung sky panels up in the ceiling of the stage. And with the sky panels, you could control them, so you could go from tungsten to very green and the intensity can change. It was actually a lot of fun to do it that way. Green is something you typically don’t put on actors’ faces because it is not the most flattering. You want warm light on them, or a cool light. But I kind of enjoyed it, actually, just playing with the light panels. It’s LED lights, which are becoming more and more used in the film industry. It gives you much more control. So if I had had older movie lights there I don’t think I could have achieved that type of look by using those. I know Wes was really happy with them too. It was like “Okay, now it’s normally lit, now the spaceship’s coming down, it’s greener, greener, greener, brighter, brighter, brighter,” and I just love that kind of stuff where you’re playing with the lights in the middle of a shot.
Wes and I are big fans of One from the Heart, where there are a lot of lighting changes within shots and things. I know it’s kind of a theatrical way of doing things, but I love it when we do that kind of stuff, change lights in the middle of the shot. I didn’t know what the spaceship was going to look like and Jeff Goldblum plays the alien in real life. But the animated alien: it’s always a little bit different than how I anticipated it. I saw pictures of what they were going to do, but just how the alien moved and things, it was a little different than how I imagined it was. It was great. I love what they did. I wasn’t involved in any of that stuff. Just the lighting I enjoyed the most.
You’ve worked with Wes Anderson for a while now, and as a viewer we’ve really been able to see him hone the precision of his vision. With each new film, and especially The French Dispatch, there is a huge breakthrough in being able to do more and more with the visual language of the film and playing with structure. From a cinematographer’s perspective, do you enjoy being able to push the boundaries further in terms of what you’re doing?
Yeah. It can be nerve-wracking at times. Wes really pushes everybody to work outside of the box and find new ways of doing things. I don’t know if it’s human nature, but you kind of lapse into ways that you’ve done before and you know that that’s going to work, but that’s not how we do things with Wes. [Laughs] It’s always that we have to find new ways of doing things with Wes. So like equipment or whatever––we can’t use the tools that we normally would do. We’re always being pushed to find new ways of doing it, so it gets you out of your comfort zone. But I think in the process of doing that you kind of discover something new and it becomes a much more creative way.
The other thing that has happened is that when we first started shooting movies, everything was in-camera––everything. And now I think because [Wes] did those animated films, we’re shooting more elements that will be combined with something later. We never used to do that before. So it’s things like “Oh, we’re going to put this in the background.” Or forced perspective with a miniature or things that we never would do before. I learn a lot on it because a lot of these things I’ve never even done before. So it’s a learning experience, but in the end I think you come up with something that’s a little more special than if you just kind of did the tried-and-true way of doing things.
I know you probably don’t talk much about it, but with The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar coming up, it was some reports he’s even started casting for a new film. Do you have any idea when it may start production?
I mean, it’s later this year, so I’m out of the loop on that one. But he works; he’s a workaholic. I’ll give him that. We jumped right from Asteroid City into the Henry Sugar thing. We were in Spain and then we went to England. He works harder than anybody; he’s just always got something going on. I’m a little more like: take some time off and enjoy my life. [Laughs]
Asteroid City opens in NY and LA on June 16 and expands wide on June 23.