How the 'Grand Budapest's Oscar-Nominated Team Animated That Amazing Ski Chase

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most ornate and intricate movie yet from famously meticulous filmmaker Wes Anderson. So it’s a bit ironic that one of the film’s most memorable scenes was the result of some last-minute experimentation.

Near the end of the Oscar-nominated film, which is set around a resort hotel in the fictional alpine republic of Zubrowka, our hero concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) engage in a high-stakes ski and bobsled chase with the gangster Jopling (Willem Dafoe). It’s one of the film’s most innovative scenes, thanks to the work of producer Jeremy Dawson (who is nominated for Best Picture) and production designer Adam Stockhausen, who got an Oscar nod for his elaborate work.

“When we first got the script, [that scene] was this big black hole,” Dawson told Yahoo Movies. “At one point Wes was like, ‘Maybe we’ll get a great place to shoot it…but we probably won’t do as good a job as James Bond would do.’”

The film, which was shot in Germany, hearkens back to a lost era of grand Central European design. Since many of those buildings were destroyed during the two World Wars, the exterior of the Grand Budapest was actually an ornate miniature. Dawson said that as they were designing the models they’d use for the hotel, the idea to use the same technique for the ski chase began to dawn on them.

The team experimented on a soundstage with some improvised sets and props, including little pine trees from a nursery and some white paper. “We took the camera and mounted it on a little skateboard wheel, and we pushed it through this series of trees,” Dawson explained. “We said, ‘This is just a guy testing in a warehouse, and it looks pretty cool.’”

Stop Motion Animation

After the test, Anderson and Co. decided that stop motion animation, which they used to great effect on 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, would be a great way of getting the wide, bird’s-eye view shots (see above and below) that would be impossible to do with live-action.

Stockhausen’s team created realistic miniature sets that were actually very low tech and made from styrofoam, cotton, broomsticks and tree branches, which worked to support the intricate choreography designed by Anderson that took months to pull off.

They also made miniature versions of the ski trams, the mountaintop observatory, and the ski jump. Overall, along with the exterior of the hotel and other models, there were over 20 miniatures in the entire film.

On set with the miniatures, The Wes Anderson Collection, Abrams Books

The stop motion was set against video taken out in the Alps, shot from a helicopter by one of Dawson’s assistants. “That was some of the deep deep backgrounds,” he said. “We shot everything on white and we were able to add a little bit of mountains, which were composited in the background of the animation of the skiers.”

“Wes was very specific, he’d say, ‘When the skier jumps out of the trench he’d do a shimmy and he does a little side-step,’” Dawson remembered. “We had to animate all that and each of it is done frame by frame. We had a guy working animating for probably a month, just animating those pieces in a basement in London.”

The Live-Action Shots

Supplementing the miniatures and stop motion were live-action shots of the actors on skis (Dafoe) and in a sled (Fiennes and Revolori). The design team made larger sets, up to about ten-feet long, where the performers could simulate downhill racing in front of a moving camera.

Those dead-on shots were then given the miniature background plates and mountain video composite backgrounds, to add some consistency.

“There wasn’t one consistent scale for each shot,” Stockhausen said. “The determining factors for it were really the camera necessity; for instance with the bobsled tunnel, the physical space, that can only get so small because the camera has a certain size to it. The bobsled run is in a comparatively much larger scale than the ski jump.”

Planning for the miniatures began right after Christmas in 2012 and shooting continued until June. Add on more months of post production and frame-by-frame animation, plus the special attention that Anderson paid to tiny details like the splintering of the skis, and the short sequence ended up taking almost a year to complete.

“Probably Wes could see it in his mind’s eye, but even me, coming from a visual effects background, I was like, ’Okay, are we doing something that we’re just going to have to re-do?’” Dawson said. "But it came together so well, I was really happy with how it gelled as a final result.“

Photo credit: Grand Budapest Hotel © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation