Cloud Atlas: The VFX
Cloud Atlas is a drama, a mystery, an action-adventure, and romance epic told in six discrete but interwoven stories that span 500 years and a dozen main characters that re-appear in each new story. What makes it even more complex is that a handful of lead actors -- Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess among them -- play multiple roles in the film, each era's character connected in some way to the one that goes before and the evolution of each character tied into his or her actions in each era. As the tagline goes: Everything is connected.
Nowhere is that more true than with the visual effects that depict and enhance the characters and their environments. The movie's complexity is reflected in the behind-the-scenes infrastructure: two directorial teams (Tom Tykwer and the siblings Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski), each with its own cinematographer (John Toll, ASC and Frank Griebe) and VFX supe (senior visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, Method Studio's Chief Creative Officer, and visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti). Visual effects companies worked on Cloud Atlas, including Method LA, Method London, Method Vancouver, Method Design, Industrial Light + Magic, Rise FX, Scanline VFX, Black Mountain, One of Us, Trixter, Lola VFX, Bluebolt, Exozet Effects, ARRI Digital Film, and Gradient Effects.
Creative COW got an opportunity to speak with Glass as well as the teams at Method Los Angeles, Method London, Method Vancouver and Method Design (which created the movie's main titles) to dig into the details of how they handled their share of the effects.
Gorgeous concept art for Cloud Atlas. One of the most challenging aspects of Cloud Atlas was the fact that every story required new assets.
Glass has worked closely with the Wachowskis for many years, starting with The Matrix Reloaded (2003). "Typically, when they come up with new projects, I'm looped in and given the scripts," says Glass, who reports that the Wachowskis held a summit on Cloud Atlas in Berlin two-and-a-half years ago, which he attended along with the cinematographers, production designers, producers and ADs. "Although the movie was financed for $100 million -- a huge sum of money -- it was still incredibly tight and ambitious for what we were doing: six smaller films inside a big one with a very high caliber cast. We had two units running in parallel in different countries and the actors flying back and forth."
"I love doing projects that are on the knife's edge," he adds. "You feel slightly scared but excited that you're doing something genuinely different and new. This project is that. It's a cinematic experience and a really different kind of film. You can't compare it to anything else, and it was enormous fun to do."
With Glass as the principal visual effects supervisor, the production was divided into two main units and Method Visual Effects Supervisor Stephane Ceretti was brought on board as visual effects supervisor for the material directed by Tom Tykwer. Both Glass and Ceretti also followed the material they supervised on set through the post process. "Stephane was absolutely critical and a key component to the movie, but I retained oversight," explains Glass.
2144 Neo Seoul
From the beginning, Glass knew that they'd have to find some way of splitting the work. "The simplest way of thinking about it was that there were six different stories and each story had its own challenges," he says. Three of them are set in the past -- 1849 The South Pacific; 1936 Scotland; and 1973 San Francisco -- and these were shot practically as much as possible and enhanced with CG details and an occasional matte painting. Another story takes place in 2012 England, and the two remaining ones in the future: 2144 Neo Seoul and 2321 and 2346 Hawaii.
Initially the filmmakers thought they might need 500 visual effects. "We knew that number would grow," says Glass. "But it doubled, ultimately becoming 1,056 shots." Glass says he picked the facilities he worked with through a combination of "personal history with some facilities that I know well and trust" and special expertise. He chose Scanline, for example, due to the company's work with digital water (300, Poseidon), and ILM to execute a complex chase scene that also needed design input. The Method facilities were picked because of Glass' close association with them and the team, whom he trusted.
From Glass' point of view, one of the most challenging aspects of Cloud Atlas was the fact that every story required new assets. "In a typical film, you might have a few discrete environments that you repurpose," he says. "In Cloud Atlas, there are very few moments that we got to repurpose anything…and it's nearly a three hour movie with six stories. We had to retain a consistency with all the things going on and handle many, many individual designs needed for the movie."
Because a handful of lead characters played six roles, prosthetics played a major role in the movie. According to Glass, the amount of prosthetic work led to the directors' decision to shoot in film. "They felt that digital isn't sympathetic to skin tones," he says. "You have to be very careful how you handle color work so the skin doesn't seem artificial." The prosthetic work also ended up being an area of intense collaboration between practical and digital artists.
"The make-up team did magnificent work, a phenomenal job," says Glass. "We discussed with them things they could save time on doing that we could handle, and the collaboration worked well." A good example of this is in the 2012 England story where Hugo Weaving plays a formidable female nurse. "There was quite a heavy prosthetic on him," says Glass. "But the thing with prosthetics is that it can feel like a layer on top of someone's face. Lola VFX did a trick they used to create skinny Steve in Captain America: they shrank Weaving's head to better fit the body, especially the jaw line, warping it and painting back any missing areas. The result also helped to feminize the jaw structure. Small but effective tricks like this make it convincing. And yet it was subtle work; it wasn't a question of trying to make the actor unrecognizable."
The three Method facilities played a major role in creating Neo Seoul, a futuristic flooded Seoul that is central to the movie's fifth story. "It's a world that doesn't exist as well as technology that needed to be created from scratch," says Glass. "We looked a lot at Blade Runner as an influence, so there's a certain dank, dark, not very optimistic look to it. It's an authoritarian regime, which is a key part of the story, so the look fits into that idea." Method LA's 203 effects included a gun ship, flying police vehicles ("skiffs"), a prison truck, digi-doubles and numerous environments.
Method LA first received plates in the beginning of February, says Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Dessero, with an initial deadline to wrap up the shots in mid-July (although work eventually trickled into August). "We received some nice concept paintings that gave us an idea of what the world looked like," he says. "But we also ended up designing a number of the worlds and getting them approved by Dan Glass, the Wachowskis and Tykwer."
Those included establishing shots of Neo Seoul as well as its seedy lower city, the prison, and the safe house where Chang takes Sonmi. "It was a diverse mix of work," says Dessero, who reports that they relied on Maya for modeling and riggings; Houdini for volumetrics and FX; The Foundry's Mari for textures; Maya mCloth for cloth sims; Photoshop for matte paintings; Nuke for compositing. "The biggest challenge was building such complex environments in the seven-month time frame. The shots we did were big and complex, with lots of detail and movement."
Click images for larger view.
With regard to prosthetics, Method LA also enhanced and cleaned up the prosthetic used to make actor Jim Sturgess into Chang, the Asian activist who frees Sonmi. "We replaced his entire upper face with eyelashes and eyelids, cleaning up inside Nuke and ZSpace and tracking with PR Track," says Dessero. "We preserved as much of the 2D plate as possible, built a nice model and brought it into Nuke in 2D space, unwrapped the head and the camera move data, did our clean up in UV Space and rewrapped the texture onto the model."
Creating the world of Neo Seoul was a collaborative act with Method LA, Method Vancouver, Method London with additional input from ILM and Scanline among other facilities. "Dan [Glass] wanted the world to look futuristic, not contemporary," says Dessero, who said that the walled city of Kowloon in China was one reference. "Yet there are a couple of buildings to remind you of the past, such as the 1930s Swansea building. We imagined a futuristic RV park where people can dock their homes on a tree base, so we ended up with these very organic shapes and floating houses, with cables hooking them up. They wanted an even more futuristic look than Blade Runner while keeping the grittiness of that movie."
Neo Seoul is built very high above the flooded plain, with the richest people living on the top floors and the sub-stratum -- located on the middle floors -- where the pleasure dome of sex and drug dens are. "In this world, we had to build three views, and in one sequence, we corkscrewed all the way down to the lower parts of the city," says Method LA compositing supervisor Jeff Allen. Dessero reports that a set piece shot in Germany provided the rooftop and one story up. "We built the whole view looking out and the main building with the set piece dropped in as well as the corkscrew view," he says. "We did a lot of design and built a lot of geometry. We'd send rough sketches back and forth to Dan and production and the models. We had very little time to sell the feel of this seedy part of the city, and there was a lot of look-dev for one-off shots. It was great for us to get an opportunity to help design this world."
Sequence lead Brian Delmonico explains that three big matte painting tiles form a single 3D scene of Neo Seoul. "Eleven shots were in this world, so this was an easy way to bring all the cameras in and render all those background," says Delmonico. "Since we had the geometry, we also used it for VFX passes. All that was taken to Nuke where I fine-tuned it. We put interactive lighting passes on the geometry, with waving banners, rice paper lanterns blowing around, and I'd incorporate it on the 3D tile. We also animated traffic, little movement for cars, to give it life and motion."
"We had to develop a traffic system, since there were over 1,000 cars in the shot," adds Dessero. "We had to make sure they didn't collide, and then render them together with interactive passes of headlamps and taillights."
In another sequence, Chang and Sonmi are escaping the prison in the back of a truck and end up in the external portion of the prison yard, where Enforcers, including completely CG police on skiffs, capture them. According to Allen, the prison yard interior is fully CG. "They wanted a sparse feel," says Dessero. "It's a very open, giant cement structure, and we used lighting cues and volumetrics such as searchlights to give it scale." Allen notes that the bleak environment was a challenge. "The biggest challenge was to find the color scheme and a sense of scale," says Allen. "The simpler the environment, the harder it was to create."
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Because Neo Seoul is full of signage, Method LA also had a large library of animated neon signs. Matte painter Chris Sanchez helped develop and design a lot of the world, including the neon signs, and he and Delmonico placed them in appropriate places in Neo Seoul. "We rendered interactive lighting passes for the neon back onto the geometry, so there was a lot of back and forth in the team," says Delmonico, who notes that Kevin Sears was part of this team that handled the signage and its interactive lighting passes.
Method LA and Method Vancouver worked together to execute the safe house, where Chang takes Sonmi to hide from the Enforcers. Features include virtual displays of floating cherry blossoms and the Orison screens, a futuristic floating computer with multiple screens controlled by gestures. "We did 50 screens that required multiple picture-in-picture content," says Dessero. "For example, Sonmi goes to the computer and looks up the history of the planet, women's suffrage and reproduction and absorbs it all like a sponge. Production provided the video and stills but Method Design provided the interface, and it was all comped and projected with Nuke. In any one given shot, there could be 20 screens."
(L-R) DOONA BAE as Sonmi-451 and JIM STURGESS as Hae-Joo Chang. Features created for the safe house where Chang takes Sonmi to hide from the Enforcers include virtual displays of floating cherry blossoms and the Orison screens, a futuristic floating computer with multiple screens controlled by gestures.
"Visualizing the graphic look of computer interfaces was difficult enough," says Method Design Creative Director Steve Viola, who notes that Method Design also created the film's main title. "We did not want to simply design something ultramodern for today and leave it at that. We wanted to develop an operating system that could inform the animations of the graphics as well. Details like that add so much more realism and weight to the reality of each shot and scene."
Viola notes that the Wachowskis wanted to "draw distinctions between the style of graphic systems, grounding them in a firmer reality for each unique scene. "For instance, if we are looking at graphics set in a government installation, they would need to have a utilitarian and somewhat uninviting overall layout and style," he says. "Contrarily, when someone is using a personal computer in his home, those graphics would have to be more inviting and stylish."
Method Vancouver created the environments outside the windows of the safe house. "When they arrive, Sonmi has a couple of quiet moments looking outside the window when Chang explains how old Seoul flooded," explains Method Vancouver Visual Effects Supervisor Geoffrey Hancock. "The entire section is green screen and they're standing on a scaffolding piece that we extended digitally on both ends to match up with the CG buildings, and we created a CG matte painting, like a cyclorama, all around them."
Sonmi has a quiet moment looking outside the window while Chang explains how old Seoul flooded. The entire section is green screen. Soon, they will make their way out onto the scaffolding piece that we extended digitally on both ends to match up with the CG buildings. Click images for larger view.
Neo Seoul's slums, in the lower part of the high-rise city, were a collaboration between Method Vancouver and Method London. Early on in the production process, Method Vancouver built numerous low-res 3D buildings to create the older part of the city near the harbor. "We wanted a lot of layering, repairs and renovations to give it age," says Hancock. "We began with basic 3D models; the idea was to create one world that would satisfy all the different camera angles. We had views from each direction, and we figured if we could come up with the building blocks of all the views, the scene direction would be clearer. When it started coming together, we increased the model resolution and did a lot more modeling of the floors, windows and all the details hard to put into matte paintings, such as balcony railings and antennae and AC ducts." Once all the details were placed onto the building, the entire huge scene was shifted out of mental ray into V-Ray for rendering which, says Hancock, provided more "speed and quality."
Method Vancouver did lighting simulations with basic textures and rendered five different angles, within this wide panorama. "We rendered up and down, left and right, and each of those had three or more depth layers," says Hancock. "All those layers went to the matte painting. Over a number of weeks a team of four matte painters put in all the aging details. In the meantime, we modeled, textured and lit two or three hero CG buildings. We didn't intend to matte paint them because they'd be seen from too many angles. With the added scrutiny of them being close up, we wanted to keep them in 3D as long as we could."
Dawn in Neo Seoul was also the source of exploration. "The direction from the Wachowskis was that dawn in Neo Seoul isn't a pretty or happy moment," says Hancock. "How do we show sunrise through that pollution and grime? The color palette ended up on the yellow-green-blue spectrum rather than anything too pink. Until we could satisfy the mood of that shot, we spent a lot of time." Art director Olivia Dumont spent a great of time working on this, says Hancock, and the facility collaborated intensively with Method LA and Method London as well as ILM.
Satisfying the mood of a pollution-tinged dawn was achieved with a color palette on the yellow-green-blue spectrum. Click image for larger view.
Just as the movie's six stories were inextricably connected, so were the visual effects that told those stories, and Hancock notes how that impacted the work. "Ordinarily, you can cross shots off the list in advance," he says. "It was challenging psychologically for everyone to have everything not finalled until the last week or so. You'd get a shot looking good and another artist working on the shot would be directed to make changes, which meant we'd have to update our work. It was daunting to go into the final weeks with 50 shots still outstanding."
Cloud Atlas Method Studios
The sixth and last story is that of Zachry (played by Tom Hanks), which takes place in a post apocalyptic world in which people live in a feudal existence. Zachry's community is visited by a race that has retained some old world technologies and comes in a floating ship to search an old satellite communication center atop a craggy mountain. Both the the floating ship and the satellite communication center were created digitally; the exterior of the satellite communication center was created by Rise in Berlin, the interiors by Method Studios London and the control room by One of Us in the U.K. "The most complicated shots were when we're in the observatory," says Method London Visual Effects Supervisor Stephane Naze. "It was difficult to extract the greenscreen and the shots were quite tricky to do because of the explosions and fire."
Method London also created the very dramatic opening shot of the story: a focus on the star-studded glittering galaxy which pans to Zachry sitting around the campfire watching the sparks that shoot off into the dark. "It's a shot of 2,000 frames," says Naze. "We put in a galaxy, stars, a shooting star. When Zachry is talking, the idea was to have sparks with unreal behavior, to feel that something abnormal is happening. These were important shots to the Wachowskis, who are very much into details. They were very precise about what they wanted. The idea was to match the opening shot, so the movie is a loop, and they wanted a style that's a little bit magic."
In fact, Naze got notes from the directorial team on how to move or offset sparks on a frame-by-frame basis. "They like the tiny details," he says. "They have a vision and they put it to the maximum. They're very precise and know what they want, and that's why it's so interesting to work with them. It's amazing to work with directors who care about the details to such a degree. You enter the world of the Wachowskis."
Anyone who's seen Cloud Atlas can agree that the viewer does indeed enter the fantastical world of the Wachowskis and Tykwer, one peopled by unforgettable characters, complex stories and fantastical environments. For that, we have the trio of directors and their talented team of VFX artists to thank.
(L-R) DOONA BAE as Sonmi-451 and JIM STURGESS as Hae-Joo Chang in the epic drama "CLOUD ATLAS," distributed domestically by Warner Bros. Pictures and in select international territories. © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. in The United States of America and Canada
TOM HANKS as Dr. Henry Goose in the epic drama CLOUD ATLAS, distributed domestically by Warner Bros. Pictures and in select international territories.
© 2012 Cloud Atlas Production GMBH and X Filme Creative Pool GMBH
© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.