Set between the wars, The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of hotel concierge Gustav H and lobby boy Zero Moustafa as they become entangled in a plot to steal a priceless Renaissance painting. Visually spectacular – and brimming with director Wes Anderson’s trademark quirky touches – the film showcases a number of large-scale miniatures constructed by a Berlin-based team, led by Simon Weisse.
Weisse began his career working as a trainee with Richard Conway on Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He later worked on features including The Never Ending Story II and III, The City of Lost Children and Event Horizon. Over time, as new technologies steadily reduced the demand for traditional miniatures, Weisse and his crew moved into special propmaking. Recent films include V for Vendetta, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
I spoke to Simon Weisse shortly before the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel about his work on the film.
How did you get involved with The Grand Budapest Hotel?
The production manager, Miki Emmrich,
who I’d worked with on Cloud Atlas, came to me and said, “There are some people from America, and they’re wondering if there’s anybody who can still make miniatures.”
So I said, “Yes, I can do that. Who is it?”
Miki said, “Oh, it’s Wes Anderson.”
And I said, “What?!!’
Wes is really interested in the way models look. They look a bit old-fashioned, a bit artificial, but that works for the artistic look of this film. They did add some visual effects, and I think that’s okay. You shoot models, and then you use the new techniques to make them believable.
How much creative input did you have? Were you working from drawings provided by the art department?
We had a wonderful production designer – Adam Stockhausen – who did 12 Years a Slave. The concept artist was Carl Sprague. He did sketches for us, but we didn’t have exact plans. We had a very precise initial idea, but we also put in our creativity to make it work. That was nice. Wes was amazing – he knew exactly what he wanted. Sometimes we weren’t sure what was needed, so we just asked him the question, and within a few minutes we got the answer.
Tell me about the main hotel miniature.
The building itself is one-eighteenth scale. It’s about four metres wide and three metres high. When we speak about “models”, some people think it’s a tiny little thing. But it’s really quite big. If we’d built the hotel too small, it wouldn’t have worked for the camera. Things just look better if they’re bigger. Also, if they’re too small, they’re harder to build.
What’s the model made of?
Mostly wood. It’s very traditional. For the windows, we just made one original, took silicon moulds and cast them in resin. Along the roof, we had very thin decorations made from etched brass. There are also some statues – the only things we did on a 3D printer, using models we found on the internet.
Are there any rooms behind the windows?
Yes, there are rooms with lights in them. But they’re just photographs. They shot the film in a very nice old town called Görlitz, about 100 miles from Berlin, where they transformed an old department store into the inside of the hotel. We took pictures of the sets and glued the photographs in boxes behind the windows of our miniature. Easy!
How did you construct the Observatory?
We built the Observatory at one-twelfth scale. The building is timber, and the metal structure is soldered brass. The rocks are Styrofoam. I had two sculptors working on them – one shaping the rocks and the other doing the painting. For the snow we used very fine icing sugar. In the film, there’s a nice view of it in the landscape: a digital matte painting, with our model incorporated. It’s funny – even the background painting looks a bit like a model.
Where does the funicular railway fit in?
You have to take the funicular to go to the hotel, because the hotel is on the top of a hill, and the town is at the bottom. The slope of the funicular was steep – about 35° – so we built the whole thing on its side, and tilted the camera over as well, of course.
We didn’t have any drawings for the cars, so we found some pictures of funiculars on the internet. The car chassis are made mostly of brass, with various pieces like the wheels turned on a lathe; at that scale you have to do everything yourself. It was fun! The cars move on a very thin rod, which we pushed or pulled by hand. We did it that way because, if you have a rope or wire, there’s no real control.
What scale are the trees in the forest miniature?
About one-eighth scale. But you never know exactly with trees. We made the trunks from turned wood. Then we stuck real tree branches in the trunks. The snow on the trees was done by The Nefzers using snow from Snow Business. The snow on the ground is rolls of fiberfill, just like you’d use for sofa cushions.
Did you shoot the miniatures outside?
Yes. Wes Anderson and the producer Jeremy Dawson wanted everything to be shot in natural light. We had a studio ready in case of heavy rain, but we were lucky – in April last year we had sunshine every day.
Where are the models now?
We broke the hotel into twelve pieces to set it up for the premiere in Berlin. After that, it was packed in crates and went to New York. They wanted to exhibit the model at the US premiere, which was great for us. It’s a kind of recognition from the director and the producers.
The tram and the funicular went to the modelmakers who built them. I gave the deer on the mountaintop to the girl who sculpted it. But all the other stuff is just too big to keep. I’ve had some models from recent films go to museums. There’s quite a lot of stuff in the Musée Cinéma et Miniature in Lyon. That’s an amazing place. One of the spaceship models from Event Horizon is there – I was part of the team that built that.
Do you change your modelmaking techniques depending on whether the movie is shot on film, or digitally?
The Grand Budapest Hotel was shot on film. I’m not a cameraman, but I’ve been told that shooting models with a digital camera doesn’t work as well as traditional film. I don’t know if it’s true. Frank Schlegel – the visual effects supervisor for the model shooting – did the POV shots of the bobsleigh run with his Red camera, because the film camera would have been too heavy to run through the model. They worked well, because on the computer you have all these filters that make it look like film.
Is there one miniature shot in The Grand Budapest Hotel that you look at and think, “Yeah, we did a good job”?
The hotel itself worked well. They even used it for the poster, which is great. But I must say that the Observatory, on that mountain, is really fantastic. Also, all the simple shots we did with the trees and the bobsleigh. When I tell people that was a miniature, they say, “I thought it was digital!”
It’s a strange kind of compliment.
Yes, it’s much harder. I was in California two or three years ago, and met a lot of people I knew from before – all the old modelmakers – and saw all the shops closing down there. It’s a pity, but what can you do? Now I’m mostly doing propmaking, and I’m quite happy with that.
But sometimes modelmaking comes back. For The Three Musketeers 3D, we made models of the airships and they scanned them, because it was cheaper and easier to do that than to build the whole thing in the computer. And the film I’m working on now has miniatures, like The Grand Budapest Hotel. Some directors are fed up with too much CG, you see. They want something real.
Can you sum up your experience on The Grand Budapest Hotel?
It was fantastic, because we had a kind of freedom, and everybody was happy. To be honest, it’s one of the best jobs I’ve had these last few years. But jobs like this – they don’t happen very often now.
Images by Simon Weisse unless otherwise stated. Special thanks to Jeremy Dawson, Roya Vakil and Berton Pierce. If you’re a fan of traditional miniatures, check out Berton’s feature length documentary Sense of Scale.