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April 2014
Issue: October 1, 2012

Workflow: 'Cloud Atlas'

By: Daniel Restuccio
HOLLYWOOD — Cloud Atlas, the award-winning multi-dimensional narrative written by David Mitchell, has been rendered into an epic, visually-stunning movie experience by three renowned directors: Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy). This unique collaboration reportedly earned the film a seven-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. 

The movie’s editor, who is based in Germany at Digital Editors Postproduktons GmbH, Alex Berner, had never worked with the Wachowskis before but edited Tykwer’s 2006 film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. “He suggested me as an editor,” Berner notes. The Wachowskis didn’t ask about his approach or philosophy of editing. “They watched my movies, and we had a dinner to see if the vibes were good, and to see if we could go though such an intense production.” 

Berner (pictured, right) says they all knew immediately that Cloud Atlas was going to be something very special, and that it might be “very tough” due to the budget, schedule, ambition of the project, and the fact that there were three directors on the movie at the same time. 

There were 60-plus shooting days, mostly in and around Berlin, in addition to a few weeks of shooting in Scotland and Majorca. Berner, working on an Avid Media Composer, started on his first assembly at the end of August 2011. Longtime collaborator Claus Wehlisch assisted with post during the early stages of editing the movie. “Because it was such a difficult script I decided to edit things basically the way the script was.” 

Berner had to cut two units worth of footage a day. The Wachowskis directed one unit and Tykwer the other. “It was really a challenge. Twice the material you would usually get every day.” 

Contrary to some of the descriptions of the film, Berner says, “It’s not six stories that are interrelated; that’s not quite right. That was something we discussed very early. I know it feels like this, I know it seems like this, but like the book, it’s not intended to be six stories interwoven. The idea from the very beginning was that this whole thing would play as one movie, which involves that certain emotional story parts that would be missed in one story would be delivered through the other stories. It does take a moment to realize this is what makes the movie so interesting.” 

EDITING

After principal photography was completed, and Berner finished his first-pass assembly,  he and the directors looked at the movie reel by reel. They found that “the scenes as scenes were in the right shape, and that things flowed the right way and that it had the right sort of cutting pattern.” 

They started immediately to “fiddle around” and try things out. “Because we knew that when we did go to the cutting room it would be a big puzzle, the script was a great guideline.” Yet they knew they would have to “play with the scenes and see how we would put them together. If you knew one story needed these emotions, we would check around and see where we would have those emotions, (and then) add them to the end of the scenes. So we tried that for a week and we said, ‘This looks really great.’” 

This intriguing style has less to do with plot per se and more to do with emotional continuity. “It could be how two people get to know each other, get more involved,” describes Berner. “We would start off with a scene that tells you this is going to happen. These two people have this kind of relationship, we would cut to two other people, to another story basically, and show how things evolved there.”  So the relationship continued in the next scene, it was at a different stage, “but emotionally connected to the previous scenes.”  

The collaboration between the directors, according to Berner, was virtually always in sync. The overall understanding was that all three directors had the same idea, the same vision, and “we all participated in the same game from day one. It was as if ‘we’ have done this.”

VISUAL EFFECTS

As might be expected Cloud Atlas, dazzles the viewer with intricate visuals supervised by visual effects veteran Dan Glass, who is based at Method Studios in Los Angeles. 

Glass says the VFX work was pretty focused. “There were a few sequences that we knew were going to be predominantly or very heavily CGI.” What was more relevant is the variety of things that had to be imagined. The movie, he says, “is very rich in ideas and visual invention,” not just the visual effects, but the art direction as well. “There was a tremendous amount of concept design. You constantly have to conjure new material in order to satisfy the needs of the story.” 

In producing over 1,056 visual effects shots, Glass oversaw a global band of VFX studios that included Method Studios in LA, Vancouver and London; Industrial Light & Magic; Trixter Films; Lola Visual Effects; Gradient Effects; One of Us; Bluebolt; Rise Visual Effects Studios; Scanline; Black Mountain; Arri VFX; Exozet and a small Berlin based in-house team of two compositors. 

The obvious structure of six stories was their first way of evaluating how to distribute the effects shots. “It was both a very difficult movie and in some ways a simpler movie to break into sections because the nature of the content is six different stories that are really unrelated, at least visually,” recalls Glass (pictured, right). “That automatically chopped into six.” 

The second set of criteria was all the visual effects character work. “The actors playing different roles in all the stories, each of them, at least once, requires a level of prosthetic or make-up work,” relates Glass. “When you lay on very heavy prosthetics, one of the things that it does is add spatially to the size of someone’s skull.”

Lola VFX took a trick out of what they had done for the Steve Rogers character in Captain America. Glass says, “We said, ‘Okay, let’s build the prosthetic and then we’ll just shrink the head back down so that it looks more normal.’ In the process, you can re-proportion it slightly, so you can give the jaw line and other features a slightly more feminine feel from an underlying actor that is actually male.” 

The next biggest challenge was trying to build, design and imagine Neo Seoul, a city in the far future and give it a coherent look. There was also a big chase sequence that takes place in that future city. “We wanted to make sure that went somewhere that had the fire-power to do that,” recalls Glass. “The time frame was going to be quite tight. We approached ILM, and they were fantastic. They wanted to be involved in the project, so they took on that chase section. 

“There were a tremendous number of one-off designs and needs that had to be addressed, and all the work that goes into imagining them, visualizing them and then making them.”

One-off designs? Typically, says Glass, you design a CG environment, a place, or a building, and it will be seen from multiple angles in the scene. “The core work of designing that and detailing that is typically done one time. It can be used and reused in the film. In this movie there are very few instances where you’re in the same place for very long. We are having to create new views and new designs, have new effects, new requirements on a frequent basis.” 

For the entire production, “our basic resolution was 2K,” explains Glass. “We did scan some things at 3K and 4K on a few occasions. Some of the work was done at very high resolution to ensure that we had the quality and detail. We had several shots where they were in 8K based on things that were behind things. When you’re actually spending time looking at some great detailed vista, that’s when you want to maximize and put the attention into the higher resolution detail.”

When it came to sharing files between companies Glass says, “We tried to keep it as clean as possible. It’s never fun or easy to deal with the sharing of things, but it’s typically inevitable at some point, given the complexity of how things all interrelate.”

The biggest area where there was sharing was when there was work to be done on the characters. “Like the Chang character,” describes Glass. “His character is in many, different set-ups and scenes, some of which were with ILM for the chase sequence and at Method for other shots. 

“What we try to do is do the work effectively on the base plates, provide the base elements for the work. So rather than making sharing overly complex, it’s really feeding a new element into the set-up a company already had. There are a few instances where it was more complex than that. Instances where we were sharing assets, so that the model was built, and it was used and seen in different situations.” 

Pushing the envelope on this movie, says Glass, wasn’t about any particular focus on a technology, but more how to creatively administer and run a project of this complexity. The budget for the film was approximately 100 million, one of the highest budgeted indie movies ever. Glass notes that insurance and bonding costs among others knocks that down considerably. From a sheer production standpoint for the scope and level of the effects work the accomplishment is quite remarkable. 

“We were tackling something that was colossal in ambition and scale,” reflects Glass. “The movie is about two hours and 45 minutes long. It covers six stories in different time periods. You have so many things that you’re juggling, we effectively had three directors, but two teams of directors that were operating in two different continents. It had two crews operating in parallel on different continents, different countries we were shooting. It has a lot of complexity from that point of view just bringing it to the screen. Just keeping all those things and trying to progress with design and keep continuity across the look of things wherever applicable. It was a very exciting project overall.”

“I am very lucky,” concludes Berner. “Something like Cloud Atlas comes along and you think, ‘Wow, is it possible that there is something that could show a bigger, broader, wider spectrum of your work than ever before.’ There is. Cloud Atlas is romantic; it has the adventure story; it has the love story; it has the thriller aspect; it has the humor. Six stories, and you have to turn this all into one movie, and it’s great to have this feeling I have when I look at.”