symmetry, style, and imperceptible space

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SYMMETRY, STYLE, AND IMPERCEPTIBLE SPACE
A FORMAL ANALYSIS OF THE HOUSE IN WES ANDERSON’S MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)

The set of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is riddled with discrepancy and fallacy which are carefully disguised to the viewer through a magical play on symmetry and style. Through a spatial analysis of the interior and exterior sets this narrative will uncover some of the hidden spatial and visual tricks which Anderson has used to achieve such a seamless composition.

To start, imperceptible interior space is disguised through a linear method of filming. In several of the opening sequences the camera pans from one end of the set to the other while maintaining a fixed field of view, allowing the viewer to experience the set as if it were a moving diorama. As walls move closer, the level of detail becomes more clear, and as walls move back the space opens up to become a stage for characters to interact with one another. In every shot the desired atmosphere is clarified through the precise placement of nostalgic trinkets and whimsical artifact. Similar to a magician’s skill for distraction, these visual diversions tactfully disguise the fallacies of the set design. These imperceptible spaces are clearly visible on the exploded axonometric diagram of the interior set. (page 9) When the viewer looks carefully at a scene, illustrated clearly in Sequence 01 for instance, there is a space behind the built-in bookshelf (located between frames ‘b’ and ‘c’) which does not belong to either the central stair to its left or the reading room to its right. Given the shape and style of the house this void is highly unlikely to exist as negative space within the exterior façade. Likewise, an invisible or unperceivable room exists in Sequence 03 located behind the bike leaning against the wall. The space behind the wall has no entry or exit visible to the camera and it seems unlikely that it would be accessed from Walt’s office. Anderson’s use of art direction and set design, along with his method of linear filming allow the viewer to enter the house one-directionally, not dissimilar from a moving diorama. As a result, many of the spatial thresholds which presumably exist beyond the visible set are left up to our imaginations to articulate.

Another inconsistency in the set is the incongruent relationship between the interior volume and the volume contained by the exterior envelope. Through spatial analysis it becomes clear that the fabricated interior set is not a replica but an artificial recreation of only what the viewer might expect. However, because there are almost no shots continuous from the interior to the exterior, except through windows, the viewer relies heavily on the stylistic relationship between the nostalgic atmosphere of the interior and the style of the exterior to join the house into a cohesive set. Similar to most movie sets, the spatial requirements for filming tend to limit the extent of each shot and, in addition, Anderson’s desire for linear filming requires a continuous camera track to be uninterrupted by changes in floor elevation or other elements within the house. As a result, the opening scenes and their respective sets (visible in the subsequent diagrams) are created in isolation, filmed in isolation, and then stitched together sequentially in post-production. Like a three dimensional puzzle, these interior sets have been modelled and sewn together in a combination which best aligns with the exterior envelope (visible in the exploded axonometric diagram on page 11.) It is clear that only a portion of the interior aligns within its contained exterior volume. Most importantly, the interior volumes which are not shared by the exterior would never be visible to the viewer because of the careful transitioning of the camera through select windows. In this regard, once the viewer enters inside the house, they are trapped in a fabricated realm until the director pulls them out.

To smooth the inconsistencies within the sets, Anderson’s skillful use of symmetry allows the viewer to easily make the link between the interior and the exterior of the house. As mentioned, very few shots transition from the interior through to the exterior. In fact, the only element congruent in appearance from inside to out is the window and it is most often done with the easily recognizable shape found on the old lighthouse tower. This transitional tactic is clearly visible in Sequence 02, where Suzy, from the comfort of the seat located beside the sash window, peers through her binoculars out into the stormy waters. The scene then cuts and the camera rotates 180 degrees, looks back at Suzy gazing through the window, and slowly zooms out to give us a full view of the house and its close proximity to the shore. The illusion is that the camera has moved through the pane of glass. The reality is that the pane of glass represents the division between two sets with different spatial boundaries.

Anderson characterizes the house’s exterior façade to exist in a time somewhere between its late Gothic Revival style (when it began operation as a lighthouse in 1886) and its current (heavily renovated) artificial Shingle style. Similar to his ambition for a nostalgic interior rich in atmosphere, the same level of precise art direction has been applied to the house’s exterior. However, in doing so the director uses an amalgamation of stylistic parts and surface treatments to further emphasize what may be classified as a Shingle style house. That is to say, the purity of the sought after style is unauthentic in its execution, although not entirely by choice. The house’s true representation becomes blurry for two main reasons. First, the Conanicut Light House has been renovated and had several additions (Fig. 3) which have significantly altered its original form. (Fig. 2) In its original state, the lighthouse tower stood alone and was only connected to the remainder of the two-storey house from its north side. Since then, renovations have added an enclosed space to its east and a covered deck to its west. Secondly, the director’s addition of artificial façade elements make the house appear larger than it really is. Clearly illustrated by Sequence 02, the set design included an enclosed volume which connects the house to the old brick fog signal building making it appear as if the three volumes are all connected. All of these discrepancies become unnoticeable to the viewer due to the subtle spatial and geometric similarities between the interior sets and the exterior façade.

To push his devious spatial tricks one step further, Anderson takes the notion of the Shingle style and inverts it within the interior set. Technically speaking, it is well known that lapped shingles are used as an exterior cladding material due to the positive lap which prevents water from travelling behind the wall. Shingles are seldom used as an interior finish because there is rarely a need to shed water from the inside of a building. Perhaps this whimsical playfulness of material stems from Anderson’s acknowledgment of the Frankenstein-like discrepancies within the Conanicut Island Light’s artificial style, or perhaps it is a result of his search for a specific atmosphere. Nonetheless, visible in the games room at the bottom of the diagram in Sequence 05, and also in the living room at the right side of Sequence 04, warm greyish-brown shingles are used to clad the interior walls. This ironic play in material is interesting as one could easily replace the lapped shingles with wood paneling and the interior set would look very similar to many of the interiors found in Shingle style homes like the ones theorized by Skully in The Shingle Style and the Stick Style.

Some of the most interesting qualities of Moonrise Kingdom are exemplified by the wondrous relationship between the movie’s fictitious setting and its counterpart as a very real place. This play between genuine and artificial elements works its way into many facets of both the set, as previously illustrated, and the plot. For instance, the violent storm which is set to take place three days from the start of the film, in the year 1965, loosely references a devastating storm which occurred in April of 1911 around the same area during the Conanicut Island Light’s operation. This coincidence is likely intentional. In short, it is safe to say that in the set of Moonrise Kingdom things are not always what they appear to be. Just as any great director would have it, skillful curation and art direction allow the viewer to enter a magical world without ever discovering the mysterious secrets behind the wizard’s curtain.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Bachand, Robert . 1989. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May. New Jersey: Sea Sports Publications.

  2. Kochel, Kenneth. 1996. America’s Atlantic Coast lighthouses: A traveler’s guide. Clearwater: Betken Publications.

  3. Scully Jr., Vincent J. 1971. The Shingle Style and the Stick Style. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

  4. Worthylake, George . Winter 2004. “Conanicut Lighthouse, RI .” In The Keeper’s Log.