Gareth Spensley Re-teams with Wes Anderson for Asteroid City

July 20, 2023 Jul. 20, 2023

Senior Colorist Gareth Spensley knew when he embarked on the grade for Asteroid City that he would be working with a director who is keenly focused on every aspect of the look of the film. The colorist had graded Anderson’s much-loved previous outing, The French Dispatch, and he knew this project would be just as creatively fulfilling.

Frequent collaborators Jason Schwartzman, Adrian Brody, and Edward Norton were joined by the star power of Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Carrell. Asteroid City is set in the 1950s American Midwest, where an eclectic group of precocious children, their parents, and military personnel converge to celebrate the children’s scientific accomplishments but end up dealing with much more than they bargained for. 

“The creative brief was to create a nostalgic feel of 1950s cinema through a strong pastel palette,” says Spensley, who began the grading process by designing a LUT which was applied to dailies by Co3 Dailies Colorist Doychin Margoevski.

Asteroid City contained a mix of color sequences (in widescreen 2.40:1) and black and white scenes (in 1.37:1) and was shot on a combination of color and black and white film stocks even though most filmmakers today shoot color and convert to BW in post. “Wes wanted the film to shift from the saturated sun-bleached color sequences to stark black-and-white,” Spensley says, “marking out the difference between dreams and reality.”

Shot by Robert Yeoman, cinematographer on all of Anderson’s live-action movies, Asteroid City was photographed on film, which has been the duo’s practice since the director’s premiere feature Bottle Rocket in 1996. Yeoman used Kodak stocks — Vision 3 5213 color negative and Double X black-and-white stock, essentially the same formulation used on hundreds of films dating back to its introduction in 1959. ​The unique period feel, Spensley notes, partly flows from the imaging medium itself. “When you shoot on film these days, especially when you go for a high saturation look, you get a distinctive feel. Film colors naturally saturate in a very different way to digital colors.” 

​Production Designer Adam Stockhausen built Asteroid City in the middle of the Spanish desert. His work included a motor court motel, diner, gas station, and mountainous rocks that appeared far from the distance due to being built in forced perspective out of materials such as molded plywood. 

​For both stylistic and workflow reasons (Anderson likes to work with a very limited crew), the director wanted to let the sun serve as the primary, or only, illumination source for everything shot in Asteroid City. Yeoman shot exteriors with little more than some bounce to bring out the actors’ faces. Interiors, such as the diner, made use of sunlight through skylights covered by light diffusion.

Spensley recalls Anderson referred to several movies that had been shot in similar conditions; the 1955 drama Bad Day at Black Rock (directed by John Sturges and shot by William C. Mellor) and Wim Wenders’ 1984 character study Paris, Texas (shot by Robby Müller), as well as a book of Wenders’ photography, called Written in the West. Referring to makers of these two reference films, Yeoman told a Kodak publication, “They were not afraid to shoot in the harsh midday sun in the desert and actively used that as an expressive element in their stories.”

As Anderson told the Observer about the film’s color scheme,”‘ We had an unusual look that we ended up with for the movie. It’s sort of pastel. At the beginning, we were thinking more technicolor, but it didn’t feel right. We went more toward something without contrast, something that sort of washes by. Even though they’re soft colors, they’re probably a bit more forceful. It’s a bit more saturated than life.”

Always grateful to work with someone possessing Anderson’s deep appreciation for the many ways color influences mood and storytelling, Spensley sums up, “Working on a Wes Anderson film is certainly a dream job for a colorist.”

Asteroid City is now in theaters and on demand. For more information about the film, click here.