Sonmi makeup
Tom Parker's sketch of Sonmi

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry have starred in a combined 88 films, so when tasked to transform two of Hollywood's most familiar faces, “Cloud Atlas'” hair, make-up and prosthetics designers Jeremy Woodhead and Daniel Parker had only one place to start: the nose.

“The nose is one of the easiest little make-up tricks,” says Woodhead. “It's one of the least mobile areas of the face and it's relatively easy to make it look real because the nose doesn't flex and move in the way that cheeks or jaws or foreheads do. You can change the balance of a face considerably even by a 10% change in the size of the nose.” And so Halle Berry slipped into a broad and tattooed nose to play an 1849 slave, a Roman nose for restless 1931 housewife Jocasta, and even a casually pierced nose to stroll through a present-day party scene as an Indian beauty in a sari, while Tom Hanks disguised himself with a series of bulbous, broken and crooked honkers. But even noses have their perils.

“When an actor's wearing prosthetics on his skin, he's going to sweat even more and that poses a problem,” says Woodhead. The worst case scenario is total facial collapse. “We were out with Tom Hanks on a boat and there's a scene where he takes his glasses off. It go so hot that the inside of the prosthetics melted, so when he took the glasses off, the nose came with them—that was not my favorite moment on the film, I have to say.”

Still, even with their supply of false noses, wigs, and teeth, there was a limit to Woodhead and Parker's make-up masquerade. With a reported $102 million budget riding on 'Cloud Atlas,' Warner Bros. and their directors Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski knew that they needed the recognizable star power of Hanks and Berry in their marketing. Which, as Parker explains, put the two designers in a complicated position.  

“You're being asked, 'We want you to disguise Tom Hanks, but people must still realize that it's Tom Hanks,'” says Parker. And not everyone agreed on where that line was drawn. Hugh Grant's Kona war chief—a nightmarish concoction of a bald cap, mohawk, radiation burns, body tattoos, body paint, and blood—had to be scaled back in order to be at least slightly recognizable as the dapper Brit, and even less flagrantly fantastic designs were sometimes almost too effective.

“When Tom Hanks was playing Dermot Hoggins, the Irish gangster who writes the book in contemporary time, he had a broken nose, balding head, massive scars, but he still looked like Tom Hanks as far as I was concerned,” says Parker. “Then on set at this party scene, Tom [Tykwer],  said, 'All those people who were standing around Tom, can you please go back to the same positions where you were?' They all looked at him and said, 'Tom Hanks was here?'”

Zachry sketch
Tom Parker's sketch of Old Zachry

“To hang the picture on these big names, it was sort of agreed that there would be one part for each of them that would be much as they are,” adds Woodhead. “You had to give all of the characters a unique identity, but not suppress the actors' faces with the make-up. It was a bit of a balancing act.” Luisa Rey, Halle Berry's centerpiece role as a 1970's investigate reporter, and her post-collapse semi-primitive Meronym, were set aside to be her identifiable faces, while despite the ragged robes and face tattoos, Tom Hanks' futurist Zachry was the two-time Oscar winner's most recognizable hero. Though, as Woodhead admits, “The old age make-up in that section takes him further from the Tom that he is now to the Tom he may well be in 40 or 50 years time.” Minus the disfiguring scar, hopefully.  

“It suits me to work by the seat of my pants,” says Parker, of the short six weeks prep time he and Woodhead were given to create nearly 100 individual looks for their leading characters—plus the extras. “It got my heart pumping, my blood rushing, and my head into gear thinking, 'How are we going to do this?'”

To start off their brainstorming, Parker (who designed Tykwer's three segments) and Woodhead (who designed the Wachowskis') met in Berlin and divided up defining details like hair and eye color so that there would be no visual overlap between their six segments. “We had to,” says Woodhead. “We worked out what we were doing to who so that we didn't have two blonde Tom Hanks—'I'll do a redhead here, you can have a sandy one, and I'll have a brown one there.'”

They also plunged into their imagination to fully conceive of their six different time periods. For example, to play the futuristic Meronym, Halle Berry's swollen cranium and network of wires was more than just a riff on Japan's ghastly “bagelhead” trend. Rather, Woodhead thought deeply about how people of her era might communicate.

“What I was trying to do with those is anticipate that not that far into the future, we won't have cameras, we won't have mobile phones—everything will be implanted under the skin. So all those little wires under the skin are to suggest that we've evolved and no longer need those handheld devices because everything is activated by brain impulses,” says Woodhead. If audiences don't pick up on the science behind her disfigurement, he's still content to have seized upon the motivation behind it. “The film is full of little details like that that aren't explained.”

But with two units, multiple shooting cities, and a merciless schedule (“It was a crash-bang-wallop of a film,” sighs Woodhead), it was impossible to prepare for everything—especially last minute casting decisions.