How Wes Anderson Uses Miniatures to Create His Aesthetic: A Primer from His Model Maker & Prop Painter

If you haven’t yet seen Wes Ander­son­’s new movie Aster­oid City, I rec­om­mend doing so not just in the the­ater, but in a seat as close to the screen as you can han­dle. You’ll feel more enveloped by the desert land­scapes (the Span­ish desert, stand­ing in for Ari­zona), but you’ll also be bet­ter placed to appre­ci­ate the detail of all the minia­tures that fill it. Over his past two and a half decades of fea­ture films, Ander­son­’s sig­na­ture aes­thet­ic has become ever more Ander­son­ian. This has many aspects, one of them being an inten­sive use of mod­els: real, phys­i­cal mod­els, as opposed to dig­i­tal visu­als cre­at­ed entire­ly by com­put­er. In the new Vox video above, mod­el mak­er and prop painter Simon Weisse, vet­er­an also of Isle of Dogs and The French Dis­patch, explains the how and the why behind it

Aster­oid City opens with a train cross­ing a vast, parched expanse, pass­ing along­side (or through) the occa­sion­al rock for­ma­tion. Any view­er would assume the train is a minia­ture, though not every view­er would imme­di­ate­ly think — as revealed in this video’s behind-the-scenes shots — that the same is true of the rocks.

In both cas­es, the “minia­tures” are only so minia­ture: the rel­a­tive­ly large scale offers a can­vas for an abun­dance of paint­ed detail, which as Weisse explains goes a long way to mak­ing them believ­able onscreen. And even if they don’t quite look “real,” per se, they con­jure up a real­i­ty of their own, an increas­ing­ly cen­tral task of Ander­son­’s cin­e­mat­ic project, in a way that pure CGI — which once seemed to have dis­placed the art of minia­tures entire­ly — so often fails to do.

The video quotes Ander­son as say­ing that audi­ences pick up on arti­fi­cial­i­ty in all its forms, whether dig­i­tal or phys­i­cal; the film­mak­er must com­mit to his own arti­fi­cial­i­ty, accept­ing its short­com­ings and exploit­ing its strengths. “The par­tic­u­lar brand of arti­fi­cial­i­ty that I like to use is an old-fash­ioned one,” he adds (but needs not, giv­en his undis­put­ed rep­u­ta­tion as the auteur of the retro). Christo­pher Nolan, a direc­tor of the same gen­er­a­tion who has an entire­ly dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­i­ty from Ander­son, also goes in for large, detailed minia­tures: most­ly build­ings that blow up, it seems, but his choic­es still show an under­stand­ing of the kind of phys­i­cal­i­ty that even the most advanced dig­i­tal effects have nev­er repli­cat­ed. If he’s seen the alien space­ship that descends on Aster­oid City (the men­tion of which no longer seems to count as a spoil­er), he must have felt at least a touch of envy.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Wes Ander­son Movie Sets Recre­at­ed in Cute, Minia­ture Dio­ra­mas

How the Aston­ish­ing Sushi Scene in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs Was Ani­mat­ed: A Time-Lapse of the Month-Long Shoot

An Archi­tect Breaks Down the Design Details of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Why Do Wes Ander­son Movies Look Like That?

Wes Ander­son Explains How He Writes and Directs Movies, and What Goes Into His Dis­tinc­tive Film­mak­ing Style

Blade Run­ner’s Minia­ture Props Revealed in 142 Behind-the-Scenes Pho­tos

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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