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Makeup Artists Talk Challenges of 'Cloud Atlas': Multiple Characters, Movie Stars Hanks & Berry, Yellowface & Political Correctness

Thompson on Hollywood By Amy Nicholson | Thompson on Hollywood November 1, 2012 at 2:00PM

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.

Halle sketch
Tom Parker's sketch of Meronym

“Ben Whishaw appeared in the Sonmi story as a cameo and I didn't know until the day before, so it was a mad scrap trying to find prosthetics which fit him and worked,” says Woodhead. “Susan Sarandon flew in just for a week of filming and we didn't get a chance to live-cast her until she got there. The day after she arrived she had to go on set as a little Indian man. No prosthetics at all had been prepared, so I had to raid the drawer and find various bits and pieces I could put together to change her gender and change her ethnicity.”

Changing genders—like, say, turning Hugo Weaving into the wicked Nurse Noakes—is much more detailed than slapping on long hair and lipstick. Slight differences in head shape and neck size unconsciously register as feminine and masculine, forcing the make-up artists to transform their actors' bone structure with prosthetics.

“It's very subtle, but if you were to walk down the street and saw a man dressed as a woman, you'd think 'That's a very masculine-looking woman,'” explains Parker, “A man's skull is basically more Neanderthal—the brow is much more pronounced.” And so Weaving settled into the make-up chair where Parker did several test runs before finally hitting upon the right way to soften his features.

In fact, throughout the film, Weaving spent more time undergoing facial prosthetics than most of the rest of the cast for one reason: his distinctively wide eyes.

“The eyes are the one thing you cannot change,” says Woodman, “At the end of the day, the actors still have to see and move their eyes.” So instead of changing the eyes themselves, the two designers hit upon the idea of tweaking the proportions of the face in order to make his eyes look different. “Old Georgie for instance [Weavings' post-apoloclypse Devil], because Hugo's so wide-eyed, I expanded the width of his forehead to make his eyes look smaller and meaner. And the Korean eyelids [in the Sonmi segment] again reduced the size of his eyes, so he'd look different.”  

Those eyelids have caused controversy, of course, with Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, criticizing Woodman and Parker for believing that to turn Caucasian and black actors into Korean, “They only had to change their eyes, not their facial structure and complexion.” Accusations of “yellowface” have hit Hollywood ever since 1935, when Luise Rainer won an Oscar for playing the Chinese heroine of “The Good Earth.” Did “Cloud Atlas'” three directors and two designers know they were walking into a cultural minefield?

“We were very aware of that, of course,” insists Woodman. He says it's important to recognize that these characters are living over 130 years from now in 2144 Neo Seoul. “What we anticipated was that in the future, countries and states would become more homogenized, so it wouldn't be absolutely necessary for anybody to be 100 percent any ethnicity. It could be a genetic mishmash of many cultures, so we didn't feel that it would be treading on Asiatic toes too much by turning Europeans into Asians.”

And, as Woodman adds, “Cloud Atlas'” fluid approach to race flows both ways.

“We do it the other way around when Doona Bae plays the Irish wife in the first story, and when Xun Zhou plays Tom Hanks' sister in the future. It's a two-way street, so we really felt we weren't being politically incorrect. We were just mixing it all up in the way that the story suggests: that we are all connected, no matter how different we are.”

The actors were onboard for the risk—even the risk to their vanity.  

“There's no make-up artist who could possibly say no to this job—and no actor, either,” says Parker. “When I turned Xun Zhou, one of the most famously beautiful women in China, into a young man. I said, 'What do you think of it?' She said, 'I think it's horrible. I hate it. But oh my god, I love it, too.'”

This article is related to: Cloud Atlas, Academy Awards, Features, Cloud Atlas, Art Direction , Tom Hanks, Halle Berry

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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.