'Cloud Atlas'
December 19, 2012

'Cloud Atlas'

Using CG to create the past, present, and future in Cloud Atlas.
Everything is connected.

That is the premise of the epic VFX-based feature film “Cloud Atlas,” from acclaimed filmmakers Tom Tykwer and Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix” trilogy), based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell. Dan Glass served as visual effects supervisor.

Drama, mystery, action and enduring love thread through a single story that unfolds in multiple timelines over the span of 500 years. Characters meet and reunite from one life to the next. Born and reborn. As the consequences of their actions and choices impact one another through the past, the present and the distant future, one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and a single act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

The film stars members of an ensemble as they appear in multiple roles as the story moves through time. 

An ambitious and dazzling epic spanning five centuries, "Cloud Atlas" explores questions about life and purpose that humanity has contemplated since the beginning of conscious thought. Encompassing a range of genres and set simultaneously in the past, present and future, "Cloud Atlas" illustrates how events and decisions made by the people in one period can reverberate in unforeseeable ways across the timeline to touch the lives of others.

A San Francisco attorney harbors a fleeing slave on a fateful voyage home from the Pacific Islands in 1849...a poor, gifted composer in pre-World War II Britain struggles to complete his magnum opus before the cost of a reckless act catches up with him...a journalist in 1973 works to avert an industrial disaster...a present-day publisher, on the eve of his greatest success, faces unjust imprisonment...a genetically engineered worker in the year 2144 feels the forbidden awakening of human consciousness...and in the ravaged far-off future of the 2300s, a goat herder battles his conscience over what he has done to stay alive. Each scenario is introduced, and then unfolds alongside the others, while fluid transitions from one to another reveal the ways in which they are all linked.

It soon becomes clear that these are not separate stories, but moments captured from a single flow and weaved into a mosaic. 

The CG Factor

Glass, chief creative officer at Method Studios, was fully immersed in the movie since its inception, and, along with Method’s Stephane Ceretti, served as the overall visual effects supervisors for the production. 

Together, they oversaw the creation of the film’s effects, produced by 11 vendors in addition to the crew at Method, which handled the most shots of all the studios. Method’s three locations (Los Angeles, Vancouver, and London) handled nearly 400 shots and was the main vendor on the Warner Bros. release.  

Ceretti states, “We made the most of Method’s international network and shared shots across our three locations that were split up by key sequences. Method Studios in London contributed concept design work for the movie's art department as well as finished matte paintings for several environments, including the ‘destroyed city’ scenes within the film. The Los Angeles and Vancouver locations created numerous environmental sequences, and their CG models and motion graphics assets were shared internally and also passed on to other vendors such as ILM and Scanline.”

Method’s Los Angeles team was responsible for creating the fully CG establishing shots of the futuristic city Neo Seoul along with dynamic fight and escape sequences. They also created various CG vehicles and the digital facial makeup re-touching work on Chang—played by Jim Sturgess, who is made to look Asian for a segment of the film.

Matt Dessero, Method’s VFX supervisor in LA, notes, “The city-environment establishing scenes were key shots for our artists in terms of scope and artistic involvement. We were given some concept art at the beginning of the project but were able to contribute to the creative direction in terms of designing the skiffs, gunships, ray-gun blasts, water-like energy field of the transway and the architecture itself, which is a believable development based on modern cities in the world today.”

Geoffrey Hancock and Olivier Dumont supervised the VFX work that passed through Vancouver, which included the creation of over 100 3D buildings referencing Asian architectural styles for the Neo Seoul vistas. These elements were shared among the Method Studios network and appear in a number of scenes, including the telescoping plank sequence and the iconic shot of Somni as she crouches in front of the gunship with the sunset in the background.

Digital Environments

The “Cloud Atlas” story not only spans time, but location as well—many of which had to be revised using computer graphics: 1849 in the South Pacific, 1936 Scotland, 1973 San Francisco, present-day England, 2144 Neo Seoul, and 2321 After the Fall and 2346 Hawaii.

All told, there were well over 40 different environments created for the movie, according to Glass, with Neo Seoul being the most challenging. “Neo Seoul was the single largest challenge, as there is so much to design when you are creating a city of the future, everything from architectural styles (fusing Asian and Western design), traffic and transport systems, computer interfaces, communication devices, all the way to advertising graphics, animated wall designs, door opening mechanisms,” he says. “That while trying to keep it fresh and non-derivative. One of the things we pushed very far was a level of detail and grime that helps the overall look feel convincing.”

From Method LA’s perspective, the entire Neo Seoul landscape is synthetic. “We relied on CG buildings in the foreground, projected matte paintings in the mid-ground, and matte paintings in the distant background,” says Glass. 

Every scene required rough CG, sometimes simple boxes, to layout and help realize the shots. Every shot has animating signage, some full CG, others simple animating cards. Every shot has background vehicles and/or bots flying around. The crew added lanterns and banners blowing in the wind, CG clouds, waterfalls, people. The only thing artists didn’t add was the proverbial bird, and this was because birds would not have survived all the pollution of Neo Seoul.   

“Many environments in Neo Seoul are entirely CG as so much of the architecture and transport systems were custom. We referred to a lot of futuristic contemporary architecture but the nature of the Asian influence and organic vertical expansion of the city being literally built on itself meant we had to design and create most structures,” explains Glass. 

As Dessero notes, every scene Method did in Neo Seoul had its challenges. “The prison break was difficult because of its sheer size and simplicity,” he explains. “Building scale into the neo-brutalism style (large blocky forms constructed in concrete) was tough. To overcome this atmosphere became important. Raytracing also helps; every piece of geo in this sequence is reflected back into itself.”

The Substratum Fight was difficult, as well, because of the amount of detail and design that went into building the cityscape. The Method crew spent a fair amount of time coming up with architectural concepts and designing the Substratum section of Neo Seoul. The base idea was that old buildings are retrofitted to allow for new buildings to be built on top. “In the final shots, you can see the delineation of 300 years of dirt and grime versus the new retrofitted buildings that have 100 years of filth,” he says. “Duct work intertwines with the old and new. Cables steal power from surrounding buildings. Not to mention the signage, banners, lanterns, clouds, steam, duct exhaust, robots and vehicles, that all animate to bring this cityscape to life. It is a very unique look.”

The team had to ensure that each location that was created stood apart from the next. “Dan and the directors wanted a unique look for each establishing scene. To do this, we would design a custom set of hero buildings for each location (The Prison Yard, Prison Exterior, Substratum, Neo Seoul Introduction, and the Neo Seoul Reveal to Sonmi),” he says. The group was able to repurpose the techniques used from sequence to sequence, but not the models. The end goal was to make the discoveries of each location to feel fresh and exciting. All of this work was designed and executed in a little over seven months.
On Location

In addition to Neo Seoul, the artists added several CG structures into otherwise practical plates: the power plant across a bridge filmed in Scotland in the Luisa Rey story, the destroyed city behind the ridge in the Zachry story, the Satellite Communication Center at the top of the mountain.

 “In the 1970s story, we also had to create the nuclear power station—as not surprisingly we weren't able to find permission from an existing station to shoot even reference there,” Glass notes.

There were a number of other CG-heavy sequences as well: the break from the prison completed by Method LA, the skiff chase through the city completed by ILM and the final sequence of that chase that takes place in an underwater tube which was completed by Scanline Munich. Though shown only briefly, there are full CG slaughterhouse shots by Scanline that are pretty gruesome. Rise FX completed the sequence where Luisa Rey is driven off the bridge and sinks under the water, which involved a CG bridge, Volkswagen Beetle and underwater environment.

Having so many different locations and periods in a single film was no easy feat for the VFX artists. “As you can probably imagine, the whole movie took some time to get your head around,” explains Glass. “We somewhat simplified the process for the VFX facilities by splitting work out by time period so that they could focus on particular areas. One of the big challenges was the sheer number of places and time periods that are visited only once or very briefly in the movie yet needed to be fully fleshed out and credible,” he says.

To maintain a consistency, Glass notes, “we continued to evolve looks using concept and matte painting work in order to facilitate the process and regularly shared material back and forth with companies that were involved in similar areas of the movie.”


While the movie does not contain any digital characters in the expansive definition, there were digital doubles of the enforcers (police) for shots handled at Method LA. ILM supplied the first pass of the enforcer to Method. The model and textures were solid, according to Dessero, “but we knew we would need him to hold up at a medium/high level of detail as some of the greenscreen photography of the enforcers limited our shot design, and performance-wise, did not cut with the surrounding shots.” To increase detail, the Method artists ran cloth sims and also spent a bit of time dialing in his look-dev to get a fair amount of material variation. 

Ultimately having the higher-resolution enforcer was a good thing because the animators were able to choreograph the enforcers’ performances, which made for a more believable edit.   

While not a digital character per se, Glass points to the digital gunship in the Sonmi world, which he says is close to some form of digital character. “We designed it to be like a mechanical bird that could flex and extend its wings in flight,” he adds.

 Moreover, because the ensemble cast had to assume various roles, that meant that for one of the stories, Caucasian actor Jim Sturgess was cast as an Asian. Dessero explains how that was accomplished. “As with all the makeup approaches, we started out with a prosthetic base. In terms of [the character] Chang, this worked only for background or more out-of-focus shots. Anything closer required substantial digital assistance.”

To this end, the Method LA team basically tracked a 3D scan of the actor's head and built a projection map from photographed skin textures. The re-projection was primarily achieved through UV space utilizing (The Foundry) Nuke's 3D capabilities, which helped minimize the back and forth between 2D and 3D. As the artists smoothed out the makeup imperfections, the plates became a bit soft, however. To help compensate for this softness, every shot was delivered a full CG bty pass that included all the standard render layers and ISO mattes. 

The compositors could extract the spec and reflection maps from the CG bty pass and add them back over the cleaned-up face. In most cases, the group added CG eyelashes and eyes, although they always tried to keep his real eyes from the original performance, Dessero notes.

And Chang was not the only character who required a digital makeover. In fact, most of them needed at least some minimal cleanup assistance to tidy up edges or seams. Hugo Weaving plays a large-framed English nurse, and while the prosthetic work was fantastic on its own, the additional volume it added to the head, plus the inherent male structure of the actor's face, benefited from some "digital thinning," bringing more femininity to the look overall. 

For the two Asian actresses, Doona Bae and Xun Zhou playing Caucasian roles, VFX modified the facial structure around the eyes slightly and adjusted the eye color, bringing life back to the contact lenses which can sometimes be overly still in close ups.
A Unique Project

 There’s no question that “Cloud Atlas” is a unique film that called for unique solutions. “I don't think anything compares readily to this movie which was a great deal of its appeal,” says Glass. “In terms of actual approach to the VFX, every film is somewhat unique but it's ultimately about adapting to a filmmaker's needs and finding the most resourceful way to translate that into images that don't fight the content for prime position but instead support the story.”

To accomplish the work at Method, the artists used Autodesk’s Maya, Side Effects’ Houdini, The Foundry’s Nuke, Pixar’s RenderMan and Chaos Group’s V-Ray in its pipeline.
Dividing the Work

As for the other sequences, they were split to play best to the strengths of each team but the useful aspect from the production side was that many assets needed to be shared between the offices and so it helped a great deal to have that be a largely internal process, maintains Glass. Some assets were also ported to ILM and Scanline for their work.

The three Method Studios worked on deliberately separate sections in order for each to retain a sense of ownership over their material but collaboration was key for shared assets and overall aesthetic.

There, a total crew of around 175 across the Los Angeles, Vancouver and London facilities worked on the production. Most of the work was completed within a six-month timeline.

One of the lines upon which work was divided was by story, though a few vendors tackled shots in more than one.

In addition to multiple vendors, this movie had three directors. Logistically having three directors added a lot of complexity as at times they were on different continents during shooting and post production, but creatively they were incredibly in tune, so we didn't experience any indecision on a chosen direction, Glass notes. “In some ways it almost helped since any necessary deliberation between them would result in a more committed decision than you sometimes see from a single director!” he says.
So how did this project compare with other movies that Glass has worked on in terms of scope and complexity? “Personally, I've tackled films large and small, from 100 shots to 2000-plus, and it's that very variety that keeps it interesting,” he says. “Working on independent films as I've done the last few years has been a tremendous experience in terms of the creative process though you are typically more limited in the affordable ambition.”

Without question, the most trying part of the project was designing and realizing Neo Seoul, Chang's Asian makeup enhancement and the overall complexity of wrangling six narratives with two production crews across several countries, Glass points out. 

Yet, in the end, it was worth the effort. “We pushed very hard for exceptional detail from the CG generally and the cityscapes in particular,” says Glass. “We rendered with V-Ray to achieve accurate light modeling, the many neon signs accurately reflecting and bouncing light around the environments. Compositing was pushed very hard to incorporate many, many layers of elements in the pursuit of a stylistic realism.” 

Adding to Method’s overall involvement in the film, Method Design created the animated main title typography along with a number of motion graphics elements used throughout the film including the heads-up displays for the vehicles and weaponry plus the touch-controlled Orison displays.

Dan Glass summarizes: “This was a hugely intricate film and our Method crews created beautiful work while collaborating seamlessly together over three countries. The project was unique from the outset and while drawn to it creatively, the complexity of fitting the pieces of the story together went well beyond the narrative structure. It proved to be a worthy challenge for all involved and we couldn’t have pulled it off without the great talent of our own Method team and that of all our vendors across the globe.”