By CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Searchlight Pictures.
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By CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Searchlight Pictures.
Wes Anderson’s visually dazzling The French Dispatch harkens back to a pre-digital era when print magazines had wide readership and filmmakers relied on celluloid and optical effects. Writer-director Anderson’s movie is structured like an issue of The New Yorker magazine, and its visuals utilize color and black-and-white film, miniatures, practical effects, tableaux vivant, elaborate tracking shots, differing aspect ratios and an exceedingly busy art department. Yet, the Digital Age is also ever-present in the film. Which scenes have visual effects we wouldn’t suspect? Responds Editor Andrew Weisblum, “Well, the whole film. Every scene has VFX.”
Weisblum continues, “VFX becomes part of an ongoing tool for refining and tinkering with the film, both editorially and in terms of production design and all other details. It’s an essential role [in The French Dispatch]. It’s not meant to call attention to itself. It’s also not meant necessarily to be photoreal. It’s more of a design element.” He estimates there were “maybe four or five hundred” VFX shots. In addition, there is a three-minute, 2D-animated vignette that is part of a larger live-action story.
“There wasn’t a VFX department per se until late in the post-production process. It was primarily handled through editorial,” remarks Weisblum, who more or less filled the role of a visual effects supervisor, along with producer Jeremy Dawson, who had worked as a VFX supervisor before. “There was a lot of discussion on set with the art department and everyone else where we’d cobble together our different methodologies and ideas to come up with the ingredients to figure out the visual effects.” He notes, “RISE [Visual Effects Studios] worked with us as did Union VFX, Goodbye Kansas [Studios], the Artery in New York City and Red VFX, and then we had several in-house artists.” Robert Yeoman served as director of photography, Alexandre Desplat scored the music and Adam Stockhausen was in charge of production design. Steven Rales, Dawson and Anderson were the producers of the film, which is distributed by Searchlight Pictures.
Previs played an integral role in The French Dispatch. Weisblum explains, “The previs process was an animatic process along the lines of what we do on [Anderson’s] animated films. There is a set of storyboards from practically the whole movie that is built out and paced out and allows everyone to efficiently sort out what needs to be shot, what elements need to be shot, what sets need to be built, what minatures need to be built, what the methodology is. It’s not an elaborate 3D process; it’s more a 2D process to get across the ideas that Wes has in his mind than it is a technical exercise.”
The French Dispatch is a fictionalized version of, and tribute to, the venerable New Yorker as well as to France and French New Wave films of the ’50s and ’60s. It also celebrates the charms and seediness of the real-world small town of Angoulême, which was transformed into the imaginary French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, the home of the Dispatch. And, throughout, the film is enlivened by Anderson’s inimitable flair for the whimsical and the absurd.
Following the death of the Dispatch’s gruff lead editor and founder, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the magazine staff plans the final issue of The French Dispatch. The movie brings its four parts to life: a brief travel piece and three extended feature articles. The opening shots are some of Weisblum’s favorites. In an opening scene, a waiter from a street café scales several flights of stairs to the magazine’s offices to deliver a tray full of cocktails, absinthe and apéritifs to an editorial meeting. “In some ways I like the simplest stuff,” Weisblum observes, “like the [shots of] mixing the drinks and the Tati shot going up the building in the beginning, just because it was fun to play with timing like that and find all those quick little splits and morphs. That kind of tinkering was a lot of fun.”
The movie’s first “article” is a local excursion with travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), who takes us on a dizzying (and narrated) bike ride through the town, including the most colorful sections. “There were many shots in Owen Wilson’s Sazerac sequence that involved a combination of both miniature and live-action elements,” recalls Weisblum. “The subway shot. The background until we arrive at the rats [infestation] was a miniature. [While cycling, when he is] holding onto the truck before he falls into the subway station, [there was] a miniature background and then several layers of live-action cars and other moving elements. And several other shots had bits and pieces like that, but a lot of the tableau shots in that sequence itself were built of several different visual effects elements, different comps of cats, miniatures and different live-action plates to create a cityscape.”
The next entry is framed by a lecture given by writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) about the notorious artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), who achieves sudden fame while serving a life sentence for murder. His art has blossomed during his affair with the prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), his muse. Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody) is his obstinate and calculating agent. In the story, Rosenthaler’s art is being displayed to wealthy art collectors at the prison. There is a scene where his fellow prisoners break free and run into the art crowd. At one point, the actors stop in mid-motion. “It was all done practically,” states Weisblum, “but we sometimes merged several plates together. And some actors moved a little bit more than others who had to be slowed down or stabilized so they didn’t pop out as much. But generally the actors were just told to freeze.”
And, throughout the film, “when there was more than one person on the screen at once, you’ll see there’s a split screen there, or a morph. Or a re-speed. If you see two people, three people, four people and so on, everyone gets their own kind of approach, inside a shot and inside a frame, with lots of splits and timing adjustments. That’s something I don’t think anybody would ever be cognizant of,” explains Weisblum.
In the second story, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) works on a story about the student revolt, led by the moody revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). Part of it takes place inside a café where in one startling scene a wall beside them opens up to the street. “That is done primarily practically with a wall that slid open.
Everything else was there on set, but a lot of manipulation happened afterwards – from the timing of the wall suddenly opening to the re-design of the jukebox graphics to different signage on the walls outside. The timing of the boys on the mopeds driving through was changed. That’s all the kind of afterthought, manipulation and sculpting that happens to a shot when there’s generally some kind of practical base to its execution on set.”
And, lastly, writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) profiles the legendary chef Nescaffier (Steve Park). The latter is working his culinary magic in a police department’s kitchen (the commissioner is a devoted gourmet), when a gang of thugs kidnaps the commissioner’s beloved son. That chapter includes a three-minute, 2D-animated police car chase in the streets of Ennui-sur-Blasé, with “a style that is something between Tintin and Blake and Mortimer [comics series], an aesthetic that I really like,” says Animation Supervisor Gwenn Germain (Isle of Dogs). The animation was created in Angoulême, which was the setting for the film and is France’s second city for animation after Paris. “I didn’t know Angoulême before this experience. But I felt there was a special mood during the shooting and producing of the movie. We felt it was a conversation topic in the restaurants and bars, and people were excited.”
Germain adds, “The whole process of animation took around seven months. Two months of pre-production and five months of production. At the maximum there were around 15 people in the team. I was in charge of the art direction, the team management and the production follow-up. Every day, Wes Anderson had a look at the production. He was following this very closely.”
Germain comments, “He was only in touch with me, and I was in charge of translating his vision to the team. I guess he doesn’t want to have too many interlocutors. He needs one manager for each pole of the production. My role was to communicate his wishes to a production team. He doesn’t necessarily have all the technical constraints in mind, so my role was to balance between his vision and the constraints of the studio [time and budget]. But he has a true vision. He’s a great director with great ideas; he knows where he is going. Most of the time he has breakthrough ideas; we get surprised by these ideas, but at the end the execution proves he’s right. It’s quite impressive.”
The addition of the animation made The French Dispatch into an even more complex project. For Weisblum, the most challenging task was “just keeping track of all the moving pieces in a film like this that’s several films and design elements in one, making sure we’re all moving forward to completion.”