The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou


Wes Anderson’s status as an auteur has perhaps accorded him with the ability to construct a particular and keen scheme of seeing, that has now become a visual signature in contemporary cinema. Wes Anderson’s visual style is particularly iconic in his symmetrical compositions and flattening of space, in which most of his interior spaces are designed as ‘doll-house’ sets, allowing his camera to swiftly move horizontally and vertically from one space to another.

However it is Wes Anderson’s reliance on flat lighting techniques and lack of shadows that combined with his ‘doll-house’ set design, seem to create a shallower depth of field. Combined with his use of bold and contrasting colours and shades, Anderson’s cinematic vision mirrors the flattened dimensionality similar to Japanese Ukiyo-e prints that also use colour and pattern to consume pictorial space, in order to not only create an aestheticised view but also to appropriate the relationship and contrast that space has to the characters that inhabits it.

As Zissou traverses his ship, the Belafonte, the camera tracks in revealing the entirely model of the ship and a cross sectional view is used to show the interior, before Anderson introduces each of the rooms through individual establishing shots. The effect on the viewer is not one of shock or confusion, but in the vein of modernist filmmakers like Godard. Anderson doesn’t seek to estrange the viewer, but reveals the artifice of his production in a way that serves to conflate his own film with the films inside the narrative.

Perhaps the key difference that makes Wes Anderson unique from the rest of my case studies, is his close collaboration with art direction. While he is known for his consistent use of relatively warm hues that are often aligned to earthy tones, he has also been praised for his practice of colour coordination. In working with set design, and costume, Anderson creates spaces curated with select colours, expressed in higher saturation that helps to create his visual style of hyperrealism.

In his fourth film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, follows the story of an oceanographer Steve Zissou with his crews wanting to take a revenge on a possibly nonexistent Jaguar Shark, believed to have killed his dear friend. Mark Friedberg, the production designer, designed the colour palette and also searched for a ship with a unique shape and style, which was specifically requested by Wes Anderson.

As the film is shot on a 35mm, by Robert Yeoman, has chosen Ektachrome reversal stock as their default film stock in achieving a saturated look in Life Aquatic. It produces a form of grain and high-contrast feel that creates a nostalgic look, which is quite close to natural warm and yellow tone. This delicate choice of colour from the set design to even the film stock are able to create a cohesive look to the film, adding to texture, temperature and time to the spaces within the ship.

It is no surprise that Anderson’s Production Designer, Mark Friedberg has used very precise colour calculations in getting the exact colours for the sets. Despite the seemingly limited choices of colours used, these colours were in fact curated accordingly to match the mood and content of the story. The use of tools such as the colour wheel and pantone scheme are examples of ways that I can work with the set designer to create colour schemes (complimentary or analogous) depending on the type of hue harmony that I want to create.

When constructing space through cinematography, the images are usually seen very full and yet well balanced. However, upon closer study, most of the actors seem to within tight spaces and close to the camera, and yet it does not instill a sense of claustrophobic discomfort. Perhaps this was due to how Anderson uses symmetry to compensate for the visual constriction, through an ease of visual balance. Here Anderson displays a true manipulation of space in his films.