November 16, 2023

Asteroid City, Roald Dahl shorts cinematographer Robert Yeoman, ASC

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman has been a consistent collaborator with director Wes Anderson since the 1990’s. Together, Bob and Anderson have crafted a signature visual style that combines meticulous set design, vibrant color palettes, and symmetrical framing. Each frame feels like a carefully composed painting, with every detail thoughtfully arranged to enhance the overall narrative.

Bob’s latest collaboration with Anderson is the film Asteroid City and a series of short films adapted from the writings of Roald Dahl. Bob was the DP for The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Rat Catcher and Poison. Both the film Asteroid City and the Roald Dahl shorts feature the actors speaking directly to the camera as in a stage play, and props and sets pieces are obviously moved in and out of frame. For the Dahl short films, most of the script is taken directly from Dahl’s writing, with the actors reciting the story to the audience. They shot all of the short films in England on two stages right next to each other. While the crew was shooting on one stage, the art department designed and built the stage next to it. Anderson’s pre-production process includes the creation of animatics to plan and visualize scenes before shooting begins. An animatic is a series of storyboard images edited together to give a rough preview of the film’s pacing and visual composition. Once the animatic is complete, everyone on the creative team is on the same page regarding the visual and narrative direction of the film. The art department then takes the animatic and turns it into a physical space. Since Anderson is so specific about how he wants his compositions to look, Bob usually uses a camera on a dolly track- a steadicam or a technocrane can’t get the same level of precision. They imported a special dolly track from Paris for shooting the Roald Dahl shorts. Because of the size of the track, some of the sets that had to slide open and closed were built so that they were slightly elevated from the floor. To accommodate the dolly, all of the lights had to be placed in the ceiling and were operated from a main control board. There were many rehearsals with the art and props department to get the set and prop movements right. The actors knew exactly where to position themselves in the scene just from the detailed animatics.

The film Asteroid City explores themes of grief, melancholy and disconnection. It melds together two very distinctive looks- the format of a black and white 1950’s era TV documentary in 4:3 aspect ratio about a play, “Asteriod City,” which is then intercut with the staging of “Asteroid City” in a sunny desert town, shot in widescreen with bright pastel colors and lighting. The town set was built from scratch, in a desert in Spain. To create the look, they chose to shoot on film, and Bob tested several different film stocks. He embraced the harsh, high contrast desert light as a character in the movie, even though it went against his instincts as a cinematographer. They made the pastel colors pop in the DI (digital intermediate), and gave it more of a low-contrast look. Though it was shot on a set, Anderson didn’t want to use any movie lights on Asteroid City. Instead, skylights were built into each of the buildings such as the diner and the motel office. The skylights were then covered with very thick diffusion so that the light was very soft and even. Under the desert sun, bounce cards and the occasional silk was used to throw more light on the actor’s faces. By contrast, they used a very complex theatrical lighting setup when shooting the black and white sequences. They used a lot of harder lights on dimmers, and shot on black and white film.

Bob finds that the less gear you have on a set coming between the actors and the director, the more intimate the experience. There’s always a huge crew for making Anderson’s films, but while shooting a scene, there are only about 10 people present. Bob enjoys that closeness and the team spirit of working with a small group on set.

Asteroid City is currently on Netflix.

Wes Anderson’s short Roald Dahl films, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Rat Catcher, Poison and The Swan are also available on Netflix.

Find Robert Yeoman: Instagram @robertyeomanasc

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