Wes Anderson’s style explained

Anderson’s color palettes are one of his visual calling cards – but there’s a lot more to his work than just vibrant characters and production design. And so we’re going to examine Wes Anderson’s symmetrical editing, from Rushmore to The French Dispatch, but first, let’s define symmetrical editing.

What is symmetrical editing?

Symmetrical editing is a style of editing where one or more elements is matched between shots. This goes beyond simple match cuts to include blocking, staging, and timing as well. Symmetrical editing is not mutually exclusive from continuity editing or disjunctive editing, but rather a stylistic extension of either temporal techniques.

Elements of Symmetrical Editing:

  • Composition
  • Blocking
  • Staging
  • Pattern Events
  • Rhythm

Primer on editing techniques

Symmetrical editing is just one type of editing – there are countless more. Want to learn more about film and video editing techniques? Check out our next video, where we break down examples from The GodfatherThe Matrix: Resurrections, and more.

Continuity editing is an editing system that’s meant to maintain time and space. Conversely, disjunctive editing is an editing system that’s meant to disrupt time and space. These techniques are known as temporal techniques because they refer to the time and place of a film world. Symmetrical editing can be used with either technique, as it’s not reliant on progressive or regressive plot mechanics.

Symmetrical editing: shot reverse shot

Since the beginning of cinema, filmmakers have used a technique called “shot reverse shot.” What is shot reverse shot? For an answer to that question, check out our video below.

Shot reverse shot is a film coverage technique that shows a shot of one subject, then reverses the view with a shot of another. For example, these shots are often made at contrasting angles; i.e., over the shoulder right, reverse to over the shoulder left. However, Anderson often does something very different – he often aligns his subjects in the center of the frame.

Wes Anderson Symmetry Shots in The Royal Tenenbaums

This isn’t just a gimmick tool for Anderson either; symmetrical framing in shot reverse shot is a crucial part of his directing style.

Anderson uses this strategy with a variety of shot sizes, from medium to close up, to everything in between.

So, if you want to edit like Anderson, don’t be afraid to match symmetrical shots. Use different shot sizes to give viewers varying degrees of closeness to the subjects. And you can easily practice at home with two subjects – create a 180 degree line with your subjects on opposite sides.

Shoot subject one face-on, center frame. Then shoot subject two face-on, center frame. And voila, you’ll have a symmetrical shot reverse shot.

Wes Anderson Symmetrical Shot Sizes in Isle of Dogs

Symmetrical editing: pattern events

You’ll find pattern events in many of Anderson’s best movies, including Moonrise Kingdom. For example, Anderson takes something as simple as walking along a straight path and turns it into a lesson in symmetrical editing. The mirrored blocking and staging and how it visually aligns Sam and Suzy.

This example is remarkably simple, if not for its benign blocking then for its basic staging. We call this example symmetrical because the framing of subject one (Sam) mirrors the framing of subject two (Suzy). Anderson effectively works from an extreme long shot to a full two-shot through the use of symmetrical editing.

Elsewhere, Anderson uses pattern events as a method of “setting juxtaposition.” In this scene, Anderson uses a game of phone tag to bring us around the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Each sequence leads to a symmetrical shot with a nifty iris effect.

The process of getting to each shot could be regarded as symmetrical as well; for in the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel, concierge and lobby boy are as central to the plot as they are to the frame.

Pattern events are used all over cinema, from training montages to interrogation scenes. This example from Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day shows that repetition can be an effective tool in symmetrical editing. You’ll notice that Ramis changes the framing of the clock over the course of the movie, bringing the camera closer and closer to its ticking digits.

Wes Anderson’s metric montage

What does Wes Anderson and Soviet Montage Theory have in common? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. Soviet Montage Theory – a film movement that took place in Soviet Russia during the 1910s, 20s and into the early 30s – outlined five steps for montage filmmaking.

One of the five steps is “metric montage,” which is defined as matching shots by cutting at a certain number of frames. For example, any two or more shots that are consecutively cut at the same exact number of frames is regarded as an example of metric montage.

In today’s cinema scene, metric montage has all but gone out of style. However, some directors are keeping the technique alive; Anderson is one such director.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson mostly sticks to metric montage for the title card introduction of each major character. Some theorists suggest that the symmetrical nature of shot composition distracts from the metrical flow.

Metric montage is a style of montage that’s meant to mirror the meter of a musical score. There’s no doubt about it: when used effectively, metric montage gives a movie a fluid type of flow. Anderson expertly uses metric montage in many of his films.

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