Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) shows off one of the models of the sets from her plays in The Royal Tenenbaums
There are few filmmakers with as distinctive a style as Wes Anderson. The slow motion, the soundtracks, the symmetrical composition, the detailed art direction — the man even has a signature font. And one of his favorite tricks is to use a tracking shot to travel through a carefully constructed and choreographed scene, creating a giant diorama that audiences can peek into. It’s a sensation that’s led him to build sets with cutaway walls for some of his films, to better glide from room to room.
Here’s a look at how that shot has popped up in most of his movies, and how it shows off the crazy spaces in which his characters live, work, and play.
The title institution in The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s most dollhouse-like yet — whenever we see it from the outside, it’s as a model perched on a constructed mountain, like a look at someone’s landscape of miniatures. Anderson’s most deliberately artificial-looking film takes on the darkest subject matter in his career, its whimsical story haunted by war and violence. Being a hotel, the Grand Budapest is broken up into guest rooms and workers’ quarters that are in the same building, but that are rarely shown as part of one continuous space. So the best tracking shots go to Ralph Fiennes’ dashing concierge M. Gustave, who moves through the entirety of the hotel (and, while he’s there, prison) with the same confidence. He’s introduced in the shot above gliding through the chambers of a suite, overseeing Madame D.’s (Tilda Swinton) departure.
Scoutmaster Ward’s (Edward Norton) trek through Camp Ivanhoe in Moonrise Kingdom reveals what a tight ship he runs, even as the Khaki Scouts’ vintage activities wouldn’t all be up to snuff in the present day. Lanyard? Sure. Fireworks construction and motorcycles? Not so much. The long tracking shot emphasized the brisk military precision with which Ward oversees the camp, though his thoroughness doesn’t stop Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) from going on the lam.
Anderson’s only animated film could be described as made up of only dioramas, which is one way to look at stop-motion. The shot above showcases the surprisingly comfy space the resourceful animals have made for themselves underground after being driven from their homes by the farmers. Live piano music, multi-course dinners, punch? The only apparent downside is that there’s no cell phone reception.
The standout shot in Anderson’s India-set The Darjeeling Limited comes from an attempt by the three Whitman brothers (played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) to communicate their complex feelings to their mother (Anjelica Huston) and each other without words. What unfolds, to the sound of The Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire,” is a slow pan along an impossible train that houses people from their journey and their respective pasts, including the ex (Natalie Portman) of Schwartzman’s character, unseen in the rest of the movie, and Bill Murray as the businessman who’s a sort of stand-in for the Whitmans’ late father. Even the man-eating tiger plaguing the countryside gets a space onboard the train that encapsulates the siblings’ emotional state in a dreamlike moving space.
For The Life Aquatic, Anderson and his team built a cross-sectioned version of the Belafonte for the shot in which Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) introduces his boat to the audience. The lights come up, and the camera tracks from room to room on the ship, moving through walls to show off the bustling sauna, the kitchen, the cutting room, the albino dolphin scouts swimming below, and more. It’s an ingenious, highly stylized way to show off the vessel that’s not only Zissou’s home, but his stand-in, venerable and impressive, but definitely having seen better days.
This shot toward the end of The Royal Tenenbaums sets up a very involved tableau that it pans through, uniting the previously divided characters in one long take and showing many of them at their (sometimes hard to spot) best. There’s Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) finally ‘fessing up and getting recognized for his work; there’s Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) helping smooth over the damage; there’s Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) and his son assessing the accountant’s side of the accident; and there’s Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) trying to make up with his son. The shot brings together the Tenenbaum family and all their friends and lovers, demonstrating visually how they’ve become a tenuous whole again after years of resentment and hurt.
Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, doesn’t look all that much like his others in terms of how it’s shot, but with his second, Rushmore, he was already playing with the complicated tracking shots that he’d come to use so often. The conversation between Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) in her classroom is followed by a camera dollying along outside the windows and fishtanks that frame them. Inspired by the fish and hoping to win her heart, Max later attempts to build a school aquarium he hasn’t gotten approved, and the shot that shows all the action going on at the groundbreaking looks very familiar — the camera moves through a set-up that may not be as tricky as some of the ones to come, but it’s still perfectly composed.
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