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Here's How Wes Anderson Uses Matte Paintings in His Incredible Set Designs

Many of the 'Grand Budapest Hotel' sets were actually meticulously-detailed large-scale paintings. We talked to Simone de Salvatore, the man behind the invisible hands that created them.
Images courtesy Simone de Salvatore

Many a Wes Anderson-watcher has wondered how the filmmaker can manage as many meticulous details as make their way into his movies. Often, he goes so far as to use stop-motion, miniatures, and matte paintings to ensure that his visuals match the visions in his mind's eye. Simone de Salvatore is the man behind the matte paintings in The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film whose many Oscar nominations include Best Picture, and Production Design, the the category that includes de Salvatore's work.


Having designed matte painting backgrounds for other films, including Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer, de Salvatore was prepared for the rigorous, sometimes repetitive work that comes with such detailed set design. But the process was by no means a pastel-frosted cakewalk: "I would say the quickest matte painting probably took one or two days, while the most challenging one, which was the reconstruction of the hotel in the 1960's, took me more or less three weeks," de Salvatore tells The Creators Project. To make the titular hotel, for instance, he had to arrange digital models of every pillar, window, and spire like a massive, high-stakes puzzle, and that was way before the actual process of making it look real.

Thankfully, the rigorous structure employed by Anderson was a boon, more than a challenge for this process. "Wes knows exactly what he wants and how to communicate it," de Salvatore explains. "Even though sometimes we had restrictions on our own creativity, I have to admit it was easy to give him what he wanted." We spoke to the matte painter about his dynamic with Anderson's team and how a project like this affects his personal work, as well as more details about his creative process.

How long does it take you to make one of these paintings?

It's hard to tell how much time it took to make each painting because I was always jumping from one to the next, depending on the daily priority. I would say the quickest matte painting probably took one or two days while the most challenging one, which was the reconstruction of the hotel in the 1960's, took me more or less three weeks. I would say that the average length of the process for each painting was from 3-4 days up to one week, always depending on the feedback from Wes.


Walk me through your creative process.

I'd like to talk about the matte painting for the hotel in the 1960's: I was provided with a miniature but I had to rebuild it digitally. I had a huge library of pictures of single elements taken from the miniature so at the beginning I thought it wouldn't be that complex, I had all I needed. But when I started working on it I realized I had to rebuild the whole structure piece by piece, window by window and there was no guarantee it would look real in the end. The only solution was just to be patient and keep building up. After I completed the main structure of the hotel I had to take care of the whole area in front of it. Once every element was into place I realized that the whole picture looked flat in terms of light and shadows, because the pictures I was provided with had no directional light, which was good for the reconstruction but not for the final photo realistic look of the image. At that point I asked my VFX supervisor Gabriel Sanchez if it would be a good idea to create a quick 3D model of the hotel so that we could illuminate it digitally. So once the model was made (by Nicolas Pellkofer) I played with it in Photoshop trying to combine it with the matte painting. I painted in highlights and shadows all across the structure in order to give more volume and make it stand out. It was definitely a good decision to use 3D to achieve what Wes was looking for and in the end, thanks to the hard team work, we were very satisfied with the final result.


How did you land the job?

I remember that few months before I started I sent my resume and demo reel to Luxx Studios in Stuttgart. They had my material in their archives for a while and then when they started the collaboration with Look Effects they passed it to Jenny Foster and Gabriel Sanchez, who had recently arrived from Los Angeles to work on the film. They contacted me asking if I was interested in joining them to work on the project for two months and a half. I had no idea of what kind of film it would be but I've always liked Wes Anderson's movies and style so I was really happy to accept their offer.

Wes Anderson is known for being very hands on in every aspect of his filmmaking. How directly did he work with you to achieve his vision?

It's true, Wes knows exactly what he wants and how to communicate it. He has his own design team who constantly gave us concepts and styleframes representing his specific ideas, from the smallest detail like the design of a barbed wire to the exact disposition and number of towers on a building or the precise size of a window compared to a wall and so on. Even though sometimes we had restrictions on our own creativity, I have to admit it was easy to give him what he wanted because it was already represented very well in the reference images that he gave us. My final thought is that he is a true visionary and this very organized way of letting me know his ideas made it a real pleasure to work with him.


How do you think the choice to use matte painting affects Wes Anderson's style of storytelling?

I think it does it in a very positive and visually enriching way. I guess that all the Wes Anderson's aficionados know that a big role in his unique style is played by miniatures. For this movie I think he brings his style to the next level but always keeping its magic untouched. In my opinion neither the only use of miniatures nor the creation of matte paintings alone made the difference, but the combination of the two. In most of the shots you won't find a matte painting without a miniature and vice versa. Most of the time, when I was working on single shots, it was not easy to understand how this bizarre combination would work in the end, simply because you can't see the big picture at that early stage, but after I watched the movie I was completely blown away, the final result had gone far over my expectations. I think he didn't simply decide to give it a try with matte paintings, he knew exactly what he was doing and he knew that this choice would have affected his style in a way that to me looks magical

What was a particularly challenging moment working on Grand Budapest Hotel and how did you overcome it?

I started working on the film when the shooting was already over, but I can tell you that there have been challenging moments anyway, even though they were not on set. The best way to overcome them was to communicate as best as possible with the other members of the team. Communication for me is the key to solve or sometimes even prevent problems. The team, the supervisor and the producer were all amazing and we enjoyed a lot spending time together, in the workplace and outside. It was definitely through friendship and communication that I was able to overcome also the biggest challenges. At the end of the day, even though we were working a lot and I saw the beach twice when I went back to Italy to see my family, I think that was an unexpectedly beautiful summer.


How did working with Wes Anderson/his production design team affect your approach to designing the paintings? Did you learn anything new from the experience?

It was definitely refreshing to work with Wes and his team, I had never had an experience like that before. Until then I was always used to approach the design/matte painting process in a different way, always testing what works better, having to do a lot of versions, some more complicated than others, becoming at times very confused. What changed for me in this case is how easy it was to follow the detailed instructions and still have some control over my works. I learned a lot from this experience, but design wise the most important thing that I realized is that the best design comes out when behind it there is functionality. So often we see in nowadays films design of buildings or landscapes or props that are made just to look cool, but in the end they leave you with nothing. The biggest success for me was the fact that we created spaces that tell a story, places that on their own are able to speak. I like to call them "narrative spaces". The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of them, with its simple but appropriate and functional design, it makes me want to live there for a while. And that's the best feeling that a set designer, in general, could give to the audience.

How is your personal work affected by making matte paintings for film sets?


My personal work so far has always been very connected to the professional one. As a matte painter for feature films you can't help always looking for perfection and pure photo realism in every painting, because they expect you to deliver very high quality products; so it's hard to detach from that mentality, even when I'm alone in my office, working on my personal works. But now I want to change this, I want to find more freedom in what I do.

What other projects do you have going on? What's next for you?

For this answer I can continue with my last one; given the desire of becoming more free in producing nice pictures and design spaces, I've decided to jump on book illustrations for a while. Some time ago I was contacted by a fellow 3D artist, Marc Pascò, who asked me if I'd be interested in developing a fantasy book called The Cloud Shepherd, taking care of the visual aspect of course. I accepted and soon we'll start a crowdfunding campaign to make this happen. I think it's the best opportunity for me to find pleasure also in the pure, restrictions free and not photo related process of painting. In the meantime I'm always working as a freelancer here in Munich on some commercials and developing my own visual story, but there's still a long way to go.

De Salvatore, as well as the rest of the cast and crew of The Grand Budapest Hotel, will find out how their work stacks up against the best of 2014's films at the Oscars this Sunday, February 22nd.


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