Being the cinematographer who’s had a heavy hand in cinema’s most distinct visual palette of the last 20 years, Robert Yeoman — better-known as Wes Anderson’s regular DP — need not have some new film for us to speak with him. He’s serving on the jury at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival, so while yours truly is still stationed in Bydgoszcz, Poland, a discussion was quickly arranged.
What follows is a mix of career overview and in-the-moment pondering, and in between these two is an explication of Yeoman’s many thoughts on visual expression — a matter perhaps best emphasized by how the nonchalant notice that he’d recently been in Prospect Park to shoot a commercial for the New York Lottery started a five-minute talk regarding that specific form. For that, as well as a closer look at the mind which has helped bring forth many of this century’s defining film images, read on below.
The Film Stage: How does something like that, shooting a commercial for the New York Lottery, come about? Have you done other things for them?
Robert Yeoman: No. It was a director who… basically, I get chosen by the director. The director was interested in working with me. In the old days, basically, the director would hire you, but now you have to go through a process where the advertising agency approves you, so they submit my name to the advertising agency and say, “We want this guy to shoot the commercial,” and then they make that determination — whether you’re “good enough for them,” I guess. [Laughs] So it’s kind of crazy, but that’s how it works.
I imagine you could just pull out your phone, go to your IMDb page, and that would be sufficient.
You would think that, but no. I was up for a commercial; then they said, “Well, the director wanted to hire you, but the ad agency said you don’t have enough dance scenes on your reel.” It’s like, “I don’t have enough dance scenes? That’s crazy.” They kind of want to see their commercial on your reel, in a way. It’s stilly, but that’s how these people think. Crazy world. It’s so crazy how these things work. It’s a different world now, and they have a whole process.
Is there anything about the commercial-shooting process that you particularly enjoy?
I actually have enjoyed it. What I like the most is that I’ve worked with some really interesting directors. I did this thing recently with a Swedish director, Andreas Nilsson, and I just worked with Derek Cianfrance on the New York Lottery; before that, I worked with Roman Coppola, who’s an old buddy of mine. You know, there’s a lot of very talented directors working in commercials, and, oftentimes, they’re a little bit handcuffed by the agencies and maybe frustrated by them — but, for me, I’ve been fortunate to really be able to work with some really fun people who are very creative. I just did something that I really enjoyed.
It’s kind of a… I look at it as making a short film. You’re trying to make a short film, and then the ad agency will come in and put their stamp on it, but, that said, it’s a pretty quick in and out. It’s usually somewhere between two to five days, or six days. It’s very intense in that period ,but I’ve enjoyed it very much; it’s been fun. In some ways, it’s a nicer lifestyle than a movie, because you don’t have to go away for six months. It’s an abbreviated commitment of your time, so you have more time in your life to do other things — spend time with your kids — and you get to go to fun places.
I imagine that doing the quick work is like stretching a new muscle.
Yes. Everyone has their own idea — something new and different — so it gives you an opportunity to try things new, oftentimes. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out; but, generally, it does. Like I said, it’s nice to be around someone very creative for a short period of time and be collaborating for a few days. For me, it’s very exciting and fun.
I’m always interested when people with a specific background participate in a jury relating to it. You’re on this Main Competition panel, so I ask: when you judge a film on a cinematographic level, how do you approach that? Given that you have your own visual sense and ideas, is there the need to strike a balance between them and what a movie offers?
Certainly, I have my ideas. I come from a much more disciplined formal background than younger people today. We came from film, and it was a very disciplined way of looking at things, and I think that, with the digital cameras today and iPhones, it gives the opportunity for anybody to go make a movie. In the old days, it was so difficult. So I think a lot of the younger people lack the discipline that we had from a cinematography standpoint, and other aspects as well. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. When I see a movie that I might think is kind of sloppy, I don’t mean to reject it; I wonder if that’s part of the aesthetic or if they just didn’t know any better. Sometimes, it’s a combination of both; sometimes, it’s one or the other.
So I try not to impose my own aesthetic on the thing and just accept that of filmmakers. If the style is run-and-gun, half the shots are out-of-focus, there’s no lighting, I used to think, “Oh, my God, this is horrible,” but now I say, “Okay. Is this part of what they were going for?” I don’t know, so I try to be open to what is going on today and realize that there’s a shift in how movies are being made, for sure. In some ways, I welcome the fact that people now have the opportunity, because, when I got out of school, to make a movie was expensive. You had to go rent expensive cameras and buy film and process it and the editing was expensive. Now, you can shoot a movie on your iPhone and edit on your computer. I think that’s a good thing. It gives people more opportunity to make their films. I try to open myself up to those possibilities.
Are there certain contemporary tools you’re curious about, e.g. iPhones and Go Pros?
I’ve shot with Go Pros on commercials, and we even used them, sometimes, on movies. The problem I had was that, when we would cut them in with footage, they kind of stood out. But the iPhone, I actually shoot little videos on all the time. I have this app, the 8mm app, and it makes things look black-and-white and of the time. My daughter was doing a school project, and I suggest she do it on the 8mm app. She did and it came out beautifully. I’m not sure I would feel comfortable shooting a movie to be released in the theater on my iPhone, but it’s getting to that point where the technology is changing so rapidly that, not too long down the future… I think there was a movie shot last year on the iPhone.
Yeah. Sometime down the future, people will be doing it all the time, I guess. [Laughs] I don’t know. I love that kind of stuff; I think it’s great.
Are there certain things in cinematography that you especially cherish?
Lighting, I think. I appreciate good lighting, and I can generally tell within the first minute of a movie — if not even faster — if I’m going to like it visually or not. The choice of lenses and compositions… like I said, it’s often, maybe, from the very first shot, but certainly within the first minute, you can show me the first minute of a movie and say, “So what do you think?” And I think I would know, at that point, “I’m really going to like the way they shot this,” or, “This doesn’t really appeal to me too much.” A lot of it just has to do with where you put the camera, how you’re composing, how you’re lighting it. All those elements work together.
I mean, I like to start with, “What is the shot?” Whenever we are shooting a movie or commercial, it’s like, “Let’s figure out what the shot is before we do anything else,” and then we can light it; then we can art-direct it and do all the other things. That, to me, is the starting point, and the most important thing is, “What is the shot?” Some people have a very good instinct of where to put a camera and some people don’t. Even here, in this festival, it’s been interesting, because some of the movies are very beautifully shot, and some I haven’t been so crazy about. It has to do with the director and cinematographer, and how they choose to tell their story.
With Wes Anderson, you’ve been part of what is perhaps film’s defining visual style in the last 20 years — the most recognizable, if nothing else. I’m curious about autonomy, and how much you value it. Do you have a preference for a director’s way of communicating their visual ideas?
Everybody’s different, and, in Wes’ particular instance, he has a very specific vision. I might work with another director where they would give me total autonomy and say, “How do you want to shoot this?” I’ve been on many sets where they’ll say, “What are you thinking here?” And I say, “Well, I was thinking this and that and put a dolly here and a camera here.” They go, “Oh, that sounds great.” Whereas Wes has a very clear idea how he wants to shoot something. That has been arrived at through a process where we have a long prep period and we go to every location, with a finder with this, and we hone in very much, exactly, what we’re going to do, so, when we show up, there’s a very clear game plan of how we’re going to shoot. I like them both. Obviously, I like the opportunity to totally do my own thing and call the shots, but, with Wes, you know going in that this person has a very distinct vision — not only from a cinematography standpoint, but art direction, set design, music, acting, everything has been so tightly controlled by him.
That’s a given, and so my role is to bring what I have to bring. I’m constantly suggesting things, and he can take it or leave it. He pretty much lets me do the lighting the way I want — he might make comments — and just kind of do what we can to bring what we have to help him achieve his vision. In the end, I love all his movies; you end up with something you’re part of. Particularly working with Wes, every movie is not just making a movie — it’s kind of a life experience. It encompasses your whole life much more than other directors. A lot of directors, you go to work and get in your car and go home. But that’s not the way it is with Wes. Your whole life is just centered around this movie, and he sets it up that way. In some ways, it’s a whole lot more rewarding.
On the last few films, he gets a small hotel in Germany or India, and the actors live there, he lives there, I live there, the production designers, and, every night after work — we own the whole hotel; there’s no on else there — there’s a chef, and we all go down and have dinner together. It’s a tight ship; it’s very much a family atmosphere. As opposed to particularly, Los Angeles, you drive to work, you shoot all day, then you drive back home and have nothing to do with anybody. So it’s a totally different experience, as far as immersing yourself into the process of making the film.
Criterion release all of Anderson’s films at some point, even if they’ve been released on Blu-ray a few years prior. With Moonrise Kingdom, for instance, I wonder how the mastering process for a disc would work if there’s already a very good version in existence.
Yeah. I think a lot of that has to do with the extras. I’m not sure if the actual movie has changed that much, but they have a lot of behind-the-scenes types of things that they add to it. There might be subtle changes in the color timing. I just did the Criterion for The Squid and the Whale. I watched the movie — I hadn’t seen it in so long — beforehand, and I really tried to keep it true to the original thing that Noah Baumbach wanted to do there. I remember, we did a photochemical finish — we shot 16mm — and I wanted to do a DI, Noah Baumbach said, “Oh, you’re just going to clean it up and make it look perfect. I don’t want that.”
I realized, when I saw the film back then, that he was 100% right, so when we went in to do the Criterion, I resisted the temptation to fix everything; I kept it a little rough, like how we shot it. With Wes, it’s the same thing. It’d be interesting, because I haven’t done a comparison between the Criterion and the Blu-ray. If anything, they might make subtle, little improvements on the Criterion. It has a lot to do with the extras they put into it. For me, it’s always an honor when Criterion says, “We want to do one of your movies,” so, if I’m available to help color-time it, I will do it for sure — like the thing with Squid.
Is it a good experience to rewatch something such as that, which is more than ten years old, or do you have the moments of seeing every possible mistake? Are you self-critical that way when watching your work?
Yes and no. In the case of Squid, I hadn’t seen it in so long. When I watched it before doing the color-timing, it was kind of emotional for me, and I said, “This is a really good movie!” [Laughs] I was just trying to enjoy the film, and I did. I hadn’t seen it for a long time. I rarely watch my own movies anymore, but sometimes I’ll go back and put on an old movie just to watch it; sometimes I see my mistakes — “Oh, boy, I wish I would’ve done that” — but, more often than not, I just kind of go with it and enjoy it. Particularly in the Squid situation. I really enjoyed it, watching the actors and the story. It was fun.
The Anderson films have been paid tribute to in so many ways, from illustrations to people dressing up as the characters for Halloween. Do you take note of that stuff? Is it charming?
Yeah. It’s kind of flattering that they do that. At my kid’s school, sometimes people dress up as the Moonrise Kingdom kids or the Royal Tenenbaum kids. So, yeah, it’s kind of flattering, especially since Wes has had such an influence of pop culture and people’s styles and things. For me, it’s nice to see the film lives on and his vision is influencing so many people in so many different ways. I enjoy that — the Zissou hats and things. I kind of get a laugh out of that, if anything. It’s great fun. The Gwyneth Paltrow character in The Royal Tenenbaums… a few years ago, it was Moonrise Kingdom, and a lot of kids were dressing up like that.
Are you working on his new stop-motion film?
No, they’re doing it in England. Totally in England. I won’t be doing that one. It’s a specific kind of stop-motion thing that they do that is not my deal. Wes didn’t ask me to do it, and I don’t know if I would feel comfortable doing it. This one they’re doing now is very involved, and Wes is in England right now, doing it. So we’ll see. [Laughs] I actually really like Fantastic Mr. Fox; I thought it was great. Fantastic movie.