Photoshop Tutorial: Achieving the Wes Anderson Effect in Film Stills

A few weeks back, I grumbled about having a hard time getting to the theater to see Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s latest film. I finally found time a few days ago. Not surprisingly, I loved it. Also not surprisingly, all of the usual Wes Anderson tropes are present. There’s one particular trope I’d like to talk about today, and I’m also going to give a quick lesson on how to achieve the look using Adobe Photoshop. Then I’ll give some examples.

The specific Wes Anderson trope that I’m referring to is the aged look and feel that he gives to most of his films. I don’t think he applied it in Bottle Rocket (1996), and I don’t think he applied it in The Life Aquatic (2004). But he has applied it to every other film he has made, most prominently in Moonrise Kingdom. What I’m referring to is the yellow filter, and the slight graininess that he adds*. It makes you, the viewer, feel like you’re in a theatre in 1970 watching a film. It’s a neat effect. Here’s how you can achieve it in Photoshop.

The first step is to find a proper screen capture from a film. The older the movie, the less it’s going to work because older films have that look naturally. I’ve found that films from after 1990 work best. Also, you don’t really want to use a screen capture that’s darker. The stronger the blacks are in the image, the more the effect will be lessened. Conversely, the more white there is in the image, the better it will work because the neutral white will pick up the yellow that you’re about to add.

The warming filter

Once you’ve found a proper screen capture, open the image in Photoshop. There are several ways to apply a yellow filter in Photoshop. My preferred method is using their pre-set warming and cooling filters. At home, I work with Photoshop CS3 (don’t judge me for being outdated; think of me as a Photoshop hipster). You can find these by selecting Image > Adjustments > Photo Filter. I find that “Warming Filter (81)” works best because the color chosen is a very deep, rich yellow, sort of a step towards sepia. The pre-set density is 25%, but I think that’s far too weak to match the strength of Wes Anderson’s yellow filters. So I beef it up between 80 and 90%. With any image, you’ll have to play with it a little to see which percentage works best. Also, be sure that “Preserve Luminosity” is checked.

Add Noise

The third step is to add a little bit of grain to it. There are a few ways to do this as well. My choice is to use Photoshop’s Noise filter. You can find that by going to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. The window will pop up and you’ll have a few choices to make. I prefer the Uniform option rather than Gaussian. Be sure that “Monochromatic” is checked. Then, you’ll have to choose the amount. The more pixels you have in your image, the larger you’ll have to make the amount. For the images I’m about to show you, they’re 540 pixels wide. It really varies from image to image, but I found that the perfect amount of subtle noise (you don’t want to overdo it at all) was between 2 and 5%.

And that’s it. If you have Photoshop and you’re still learning, that’s how you can take any image and make it look like a screen capture from a Wes Anderson movie. And in the interest of full disclosure, Wes Anderson is hardly the only filmmaker to use this effect. He does it rather consistently and he’s most associated with it, but just about any filmmaker can and will use similar effects for period pieces. It’s not even always a yellow filter. One of my examples to follow is from Avatar (2009), a film that was drenched in blue filters.

*Note: At least part of how he achieves this look is mise en scene stuff. His props, the way the characters are dressed, and all of the background elements match the 1960s and early 1970s. I can’t do anything about all of that with these photos. 

20 Comments

Filed under Movies

20 responses to “Photoshop Tutorial: Achieving the Wes Anderson Effect in Film Stills

  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing this. I’ve seen tutorials where you have to change the Levels, Color Balance, etc. Yours is much easier.

    • Levels and Color Balance definitely work, and you can also use Curves or even Selective Color. I’d say that if you’re working with a high-res image and you plan on printing it, you’re better using those other methods. But for a quick and dirty 72 dpi image of a film still, and you don’t plan on reproducing it very large, the warming filter works just fine.

  2. Interesting! I’m such a newbie when it comes to Photoshop but I love to work images and give them a great finish. Thanks for the tips!

  3. :D Awesome. Just even thinking to post about this. LOL

  4. Very cool John! I monkey around with filters on my iPhone but have yet to do much with them using DSLR photos on my home computer. And by the way, I downloaded Gimp. Now I just need to figure it out!

    • Our conversation the other day is what prompted this article, sort of.

      I wish I could help with Gimp but I really don’t know enough about it.

      • Quite allright! The fact that you pointed me in the right direction (and for the right price) was a huge help. Now I need to find the time to work with it.

  5. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    Strangely enough, I never thought about Wes Anderson doing this, but the preview for Moonrise Kingdom came on this morning and I said, “this must be a Wes Anderson movie.” I didn’t really think about the coloring, I just immediately knew. The Coen Brothers did something similar on Oh Brother Where Art Thou.

  6. Ahah, a design AND film post in one, brilliant John!! I guess I haven’t seen enough of Wes’ movies to know his style but too funny to see them applied to different movies. You da bomb, man.

  7. Peety Draws

    Really cool! Love that you tried it on a still from “There Will Be Blood.” One of my ultimate fave movies.

    • Me too. I have to go back a long way to find a movie that impressed me as much as TWBB. It worked out well with the yellow, too, because it was a period piece and had lots of sand and dead sky.

  8. If there is a person existing that are both great at blogging and PS,that’s you,John.I think you nail the characteristics of WA films,this is so nice that I might install PS on my computer and try one myself!

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