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Immersed in Movies: Talking 'Cloud Atlas' VFX

Features
by Bill Desowitz
October 29, 2012 5:07 PM
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"Cloud Atlas" might not approach the VFX intensity or complexity of "The Matrix" trilogy or "Speed Racer," but it still required the same level of sophistication and flexibility that the Wachowskis demand. After all, you've got six stories about reincarnation spanning 500 years with the same actors in multiple roles; a mash-up of genres; and three directors split into two production units (with Andy and Lana sharing one and buddy Tom Tykwer tackling the other).

Fortunately, the Wachowskis were in the very capable hands of frequent collaborator Dan Glass, who served as senior VFX supervisor. Glass oversaw the VFX of their production unit while Stef Ceretti handled Tykwer's. Glass, who fittingly segued from one cosmic movie, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," runs the Method VFX studio where Ceretti works, and divided the work between Method's LA, London, and Vancouver facilities while also bringing in several other studios, including Scanline, Rise, and Trixter from Germany (the production hub was in Berlin), as well as Lola and ILM, among others.

"With the brilliant but impossible idea of trying to include the actors in multiple roles in every story just meant that everything was dependent on everything else," Glass suggests. "Early on, [first assistant director] Terry Needham said we could afford one day's slippage on one of the units on our 60-day shoot schedule. And on day three, Halle Berry broke her ankle. And what we thought couldn't happen, had to happen, which was they had to rejig everything. It threw a curve ball into what was already exceedingly challenging. They worked around it and added some visual effects shots. Her limp was a creative throw in. They came up with the idea that her leg gets shot by an arrow.

"From a visual effects perspective overall, it helped because there were so many ways to split it. The six stories made it exciting and interesting but it meant that we could divvy things up quite a lot. Because of the complexity, because of how quickly they wanted to get an edit and a temp version together, we involved quite a few companies. In the end, it meant a lot of [effort] in design, continuity, and administering all those things. But it also brought a lot of fresh ideas."

Not surprisingly, Glass says there was some playful sparring back and forth between the directors when it came to splitting up the sequences after sharing creative ownership during the writing. Ultimately, the principal visual effects stories fell to Andy and Lana. They looked after the first story (1849 in the South Pacific), and the latter two: the action-packed, sci-fi revolution in Neo Seoul led by Sonmi (Doona Bae), and the Zachry episode starring Tom Hanks and Berry after the fall, which contains a more primitive vibe.

"Sonmi had the most visual effects," Glass continues. "As with editorial, once you got into post, it made sense to treat it as one movie. There wasn't really one place to put it all, but so much of it was linked, especially the exteriors, so I arranged for Method to handle it. We set up a structure where they shared common assets. London did concept and matte painting, which naturally played to its strength. ILM was additionally brought in on the Sonmi sequence to handle the chase through the city, which comprised two dozen shots. We knew it was the biggest complexity in scale and that it would be needed early on for trailer material and we wanted someone with firepower. Scanline did the end of the chase in the Reservoir Tube because of their water expertise and because they were based in Germany. They also did the Slaughter House and the Hover Ship."

The Wachowskis had a vision of Neo Seoul where the oceans had risen and it poses an ongoing threat to the poorer communities that can't afford to live safely above the water. They came up with a concept working with artist George Hull of these great walls holding out the water and areas that are half-submerged with buildings poking out from underneath, and floating slum dwellings that have latched onto some of the structures. So you have these vast, scary canyons separating the upper echelon of society from the precarious dwellers down below.

"We talked about the feeling of 'Blade Runner' and Method helped make it more feasible," Glass adds. "As with any science fiction film, we had to develop a lot of technology, and the directors had the idea of this transit system that was floating almost in some kind of plasma. We created a logic behind it with the vehicles feeding off some central control system. We imagined that on the central control system everything ran at the same speed, but that's visually very boring, so we broke it up and created traffic jams, which was a lot more interesting.

"Our screen devices were called Orisons. We took the idea of a desktop being the space around you hovering on its own. But they wanted the screens to feel opaque but three dimensional inside them. In terms of weaponry, they conceived of a handgun with a comic book flash that has black dots coming out. That was inspired by Jack Kirby. We described it as extracting energy out of the atmosphere and creating areas void of mass."

Several characters experience transformations that are achieved mostly through prosthetics. However, Hugo Weaving's Nurse Noakes and Jim Sturgess' Hae-Joo Chang required some digital assistance. Lola, which did Skinny Steve from "Captain America," applied its masterful 2.5D warping technique to tuck in the jaw line and neck to make Noakes look more believably feminine, and Method in LA adjusted and replaced eyelids, eyelashes and the occasional eyeball without losing the actor's performance.

"The Wachowskis are very visual effects literate and had a good understanding of the challenges, but we would joke about it being their first location movie," Glass concludes. "For them, with the sun constantly moving, you of course have to think about that differently than when you're in a stage. And the way the movie came together, it was just being able to react with great speed because they needed good, representative material and for it not to impede their process."

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