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Immersed in Movies: Uli Hanisch and Hugh Bateup Talk 'Cloud Atlas' Production Design

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 19, 2012 at 1:30PM

While "Cloud Atlas" may be the most polarizing movie of the year (winding up on both year-end best and worst lists), there's no denying its ambition and beauty: it's the ultimate time travel movie about connecting and reconnecting and grappling with free will and destiny.
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Doona Bae in 'Cloud Atlas'
Doona Bae in 'Cloud Atlas'

While "Cloud Atlas" may be the most polarizing movie of the year (winding up on both year-end best and worst lists), there's no denying its ambition and beauty: it's the ultimate time travel movie about connecting and reconnecting and grappling with free will and destiny. And the production design plays a crucial role in defining the six periods that overlap the 500-year ripple.

However, it made sense both economically and logistically to split the "Cloud Atlas" production into two units, with designer Hugh Bateup ("The Matrix Reloaded," "The Matrix Revolutions," "Speed Racer") working with Andy and Lana Wachowski and Uli Hanisch collaborating with Tom Tykwer ("Heaven," "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," "Three"). Team Wachowski was responsible for Victorian 1849 in the South Pacific, 2144 in Neo Seoul, and the cataclysmic aftermath of 2321 (paired with the 2346 epilogue). Team Tykwer was tasked with 1936 in Scotland, 1973 in San Francisco, and 2012 in England.

The look and the logic were driven somewhat by the period each story was set in. The Victorian era was an all-encompassing and dominating style, according to Bateup, which in turn was connected to the sea and the landscape-- all reflecting the master and servant relationship (played by Hugh Grant and David Gyasi).

"Adam Ewing [the idealistic San Francisco attorney played by Jim Sturgess] had the Jeux de Position, of the starchy Victorian era and the exotic Chatham Islands, interesting period interiors mixed with tribal and farm estate exteriors," Bateup reveals. "Sonmi 45, however, was drawing away from the world we know; original designs had to be formulated but with a thread of a connection to our existing world. By the time we reach Zachry [the damaged yet decent goatherd played by Tom Hanks], the threads are gossamer thin and a new world has been created from an apocalyptic event, with the survivors drawing on all means both natural and man-made, available to them."

For the Neo Seoul world where the oceans have risen above ground, the wealthy keep building higher and higher while the poorer communities below are under constant threat. "One doesn't have to look to far to see the connection between this dystopian world, and our own society, where some places are undesirable and frightening and far from the Utopia we would all like to live in," Bateup continues. "The sheer volume of mankind building layer upon layer of existence, whether it be physical or social: 'The weak are meat, the strong do eat.'

"Even though the world had suffered a cataclysmic disaster, and mankind had survived, we had to retain a gossamer thread with the previous existence, a connection, a continuity: the survivors drawing on the natural resources available to them, but also using materials that had logically survived the apocalypse: materials that we find so hard to recycle. A continuity of forgotten technology linked the two stories and allowed for an original design look without falling into the usual traps."

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Cloud Atlas, Production , Interviews , VFX


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.