Wes Anderson’s Secret Weapon: The Camera Moves of Sanjay Sami

Wes Anderson’s Secret Weapon: The Camera Moves of Sanjay Sami

“Sometimes the crazier the method, the happier he is,” he added of Anderson.

Sami has worked on Anderson’s commercial projects and every live action film since “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), when he impressed the filmmaker by devising a way to fit a dolly into the narrow old rail cars they used as a set: he mounted a hidden track on the train’s ceiling.

To achieve Anderson’s vision, Sami must often run at full speed, weighted down with gear — a Steadicam, which he also operates, is over 60 pounds — spin around and come to an abrupt, dizzying halt. “It’s 10 or 12 hours of very, very physical work,” he said. “It’s not just endurance — you need a huge amount of strength to be able to stop and start those moves, or you’re going to hurt yourself.”

So he has an exercise regimen of daily resistance training specifically for an Anderson flick. “I used to play rugby, and a lot of the rugby training crosses over,” he said.

Before he got into movies, Sami was an industrial diver and underwater welder, working on oil rigs. He got his start in the film industry during a marine contractor strike, when a friend invited him onto a set. “I saw this traveling circus full of crazy people who come together briefly, make a movie. And then it’s another film — same circus, different clowns,” he said. “I loved it.” (He also has a degree in political science — a fanciful enough background that he himself could be a Wes Anderson character: the Life Aquatic, and on the Rails, with Sanjay Sami.)

Collaborating with Adam Stockhausen, Anderson’s production designer, and Robert Yeoman, the cinematographer, Sami — whose official title is key grip, the head of his department — has an unusual amount of input. “He’s sort of a producer for us,” Anderson said. “He helps us figure out how we’re going to get things done. And he’s a good manager of people. So his voice comes into the discussion in a way that has nothing to do by pushing a dolly.”

Sometimes the simplest-seeming shots are also the most difficult to create. For a carousel scene in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” using a real ride wouldn’t match Anderson’s slightly surreal concept. Instead, they built a circular track with a pie-shaped platform atop it, and more tracks atop that. It was capped by a skateboard-style dolly, for the carousel horse. Once it rolled into the frame and the actress Saoirse Ronan hopped on, two off-camera grips clamped it down. “And then we started pushing the whole pie-shaped wooden piece on the circular track,” Sami said. The moment lasts barely 40 seconds, but it “always stands out to me, because it was the beginning of some of the more complex things that we started doing.”

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