By John Barlow, March 2020
2014’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ marked something of a career high for the hipster’s perennial favourite auteur director (and career advocate of shooting on film) Wes Anderson. With its Fabergé egg-like approach to telling the story of the unlikely friendship between concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), and lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), at a hotel in the fictional war-torn central European state of Zubrowka, the film is widely heralded as Anderson’s best work to date.
There’s a great deal to admire about ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. From the clipped, exquisitely timed performance of Ralph Fiennes; to the Oscar winning balalaika infused soundtrack; to the signature Anderson tropes of the pastel colours, meticulously designed dolls house-esque sets, mise-en-scène story-telling and rigorously balanced and regimented framing; and so much more. The film attracted copious positive reviews and went on to garner numerous award nominations.
However, to cinephiles with an interest in a very particular niche of film’s heritage, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ has a distinctive quality that sets it apart from Anderson’s other films. Namely, its highly unconventional use of different aspect ratios during its 1hr 40m running time. Whether in the cinema or at home, we’re used to watching films that are presented (and usually also shot) in one consistent aspect ratio. In 2020 this is most often in either the 1.85:1 ratio (often referred to as ‘flat’ and identifiable by relatively thin black bars top and bottom of the picture on contemporary widescreen displays) or a ratio in the 2:35.1 to 2:66.1 range (often referred to as ‘CinemaScope’ or just ‘scope’ and identifiable by wider black bars top and bottom of the picture). In ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, Anderson makes use of no less than three ratios, switching between 1.85:1 and 2:35.1, and also presenting much of the film in the boxlike 1.37:1 ratio (often referred to as ‘Academy’ and identifiable by wide black bars left and right of the picture).
Aspect ratios are closely associated with particular periods of cinema history, with the periods primarily determined by technological innovation or aesthetic trends. The 1.85:1 / ‘flat’ ratio was particularly popular in big budget Hollywood productions of the 1980s and 1990s, as demonstrated by films such as ‘Terminator’ and ‘Jurassic Park’. 2:35.1 to 2:66.1 / ‘scope’ was introduced with the advent of anamorphic widescreen technology in the 1950s and featured widely in films of that decade, through the 1960s, and into the 1970s as the film industry used the format to battle the rising popularity of TV. 1.37:1 / ‘Academy’ was an early standardised picture ratio agreed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and approved by the Society of Motion Picture Engineers in May 1932. It remained the standard ratio until the advent of scope in the 1950s. Anderson’s concept for ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ was to take advantage of these historical associations and utilise all three ratios to better tell his triple-layered story.
By far the most important of his various filmic and literary influences for this project was the work of Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, and perhaps in particular, Zweig’s melancholic 1941 memoir, ‘The World of Yesterday’. In ‘The World of Yesterday’, Zweig laments the passing of prewar Europe, a deeply nostalgic world of sophistication swept away by the turmoil and barbarity of conflict. Zweig’s layered narratives nest stories within stories, re-telling and re-imaging old memories, and weaving disparate elements into concentrated, gripping works.
In an act Anderson himself described as “basically plagiarism” (jokingly, at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival), Anderson distilled the essence of Zweig’s oeuvre into ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. With the film’s narrative playing out over three different historic periods, in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ we have a very Zweigian structure. The film opens with the ‘Author’ character in 1985 telling the story of how Zero in turn told him (the Author) the story in 1968 of how he (Zero) came to be in possession of the hotel after joining as a lobby boy in 1932. Anderson frames each period of the narrative with its historically appropriate aspect ratio, switching between flat, scope and Academy throughout. When we watch ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, the proportions of the frame help take us out of the present and into the worlds of Gustave H, Zero and the Author as much as the costumes, script, lighting, soundtrack and other considerations do. This simple yet distinctive and superbly effective approach transforms the otherwise relatively mundane act of a director selecting an aspect ratio for their film into a device for successfully reimagining Zweig’s writings in filmic language.
Five years on from the release of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, another auteur director and career advocate of shooting on film, Quentin Tarantino, similarly utilised (in a critically and financially successful film) mixed ratios to help transport his audience into different historic contexts.
Tarantino’s ode to late 1960s Tinseltown, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, was one of the stand out ‘films on film’ of 2019. Set in 1969 Los Angeles, it follows actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as the pair struggle to come to terms with a changing Hollywood. The ninth production of Tarantino’s career, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ was a return to form after the (relative) disappointment of his previous release, the 2015 western ‘The Hateful Eight’. Taking over $370m at the box office on a budget of around $90m, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ received 10 nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards. A very respectable return for the director and Sony Pictures.
Tarantino once again turned to his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Robert Richardson ASC to photograph his latest production. Tarantino handed Richardson a new challenge, shooting for multiple ratios, and, in a step beyond Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, using multiple formats.
It’s interesting to speculate the extent to which Tarantino may or may not have been inspired by Anderson’s experimentation with multiple ratios. He is on record as having stated “‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is not really my thing, but I kind of loved it. The fact that I wasn’t a die-hard fan before made me even more happy that I could finally embrace him [Anderson].” We know that both directors are avowed supporters of shooting exclusively on motion picture film. Both directors also share a common obsession with the aesthetics and filmic values of bygone eras, the 1960s and 1970s in particular.
Like ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ includes scenes variously presented in scope, flat and Academy ratios. The sun drenched, colour saturated scenes of late 1960s L.A. that comprise the main body of film are presented in scope. The clips from fictional film-within-a-film productions with Rick Dalton, the western tv series ‘Bounty Law’, the episode of ‘F.B.I’., and the Italian made ‘Operazione Dyn-o-mite!’ are all in Academy. Another fictional Rick Dalton film, the World War II set ‘The Fourteen Fists of McClusky’, is presented in flat.
As mentioned above, Tarantino, however, goes a step further than Anderson in also utilising different film formats. Most of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is shot on 35mm, but some scenes are also shot on the smaller Super 8mm gauge (including short scenes of an off-duty Rick socialising in Italy) and 16mm Kodak Ektachrome (including some poolside shots at Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski’s home).
Tarantino has spoken in many interviews about how ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ recreates his childhood experiences, of L.A., Hollywood films, TV, and of music. His vision for his productions is famously precise and meticulously detailed. Scenes shot on small gauge film or presented in historic formats may always have been an integral element of his vision for this production even before the first plans were committed to paper. Richardson had successfully shot productions with multiple formats earlier in his career: ‘JFK’; ‘Nixon’; and the Tarantino scripted ‘Natural Born Killers’. Perhaps this was a deciding factor? We may never know. Tarantino may, or may not, have envisaged using different ratios and formats for ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ entirely independently of whatever Anderson happened to be doing a few years previously. It’s certainly not a direct inspiration that Tarantino has thus far mentioned. Despite it being interesting to speculate about a possible connection, it currently remains just that, speculation.
So the degree to which ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel”s multiple ratios influenced ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”s ratio and format choices is debatable. We can however certainly say that the approaches discussed in this blog imbued these respective films with an undeniably strong immersive quality, as well as a level of period authenticity that the use of VFX alone still struggles to achieve.