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Cloud Atlas

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With a storyline that many would consider ‘unfilmable’, David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas was adapted for the screen thanks to the books popularity and the directors’ unwavering ambition to visualize such a complex tale. The majority of critics agree that Matrix directors Lana and AndyWachowski, plus German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, have tackled the six loosely connected storylines with flair and have praised performances from the extensive, Oscar-winning cast. Method Studios, contributing as the main visual effects vendor, were proud to be a key part of this three hour-long film that justifies being called ‘epic’.

Flitting through space and time, Cloud Atlas tells the tale of characters and events inexplicably linked from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century through to a distant post-apocalyptic future. Method produced numerous VFX heavy sequences for the stories surrounding the characters of Sonmi and Zachry, which demanded the most effects work.


Having been appointed overall VFX Supervisors for the production, Method’s CCO Dan Glass and London based VFX Supervisor Stephane Ceretti, were fully ensconced in the film since its conception. Together they oversaw 11 vendors in addition to Method Studios crews in Los Angeles, Vancouver and London.

“The project was unique from the outset and, whilst 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 talents of the teams at our vendors across the globe”, comments Glass.

Making the most of Method’s international network, the 338 effects shots were shared across the Los Angeles, London and Vancouver studios and split up by key sequences.  Olivier Pron, Philippe Gaullier and Paul Chandler from Method London contributed concept design work for the movie's art department as well as finished matte paintings for the show. Both the CG models and motion graphics assets created by Method were shared internally and also passed on to other vendors such as ILM and Scanline.


Sonmi, a genetically-engineered fabricant (clone) lives in the city Neo Seoul, a dystopian Korea. Method were responsible for fully CG establishing shots of the city along with dynamic fight and escape sequences, the safe-house interior and exterior environment, the futuristic ‘Orison’ hologram device, various CG vehicles and digital facial makeup work on Chang – the English actor Jim Sturgess who is made to look Asian for this section of the film.


The city environment establishing scenes were key shots for the Method artists in terms of scope and artistic involvement. Matt Dessero, VFX Supervisor in LA notes “These shots are what concept artists and matte painters dream of working on. The action takes place in 2144 and at this point in time the city is made up of layers with the original, decaying slums at the bottom and modern high-class developments built up on top. Only a few close-up shots contained sets so the majority of the environments in the finished film are fully CG with projected matte paintings. We were given some concept art at the beginning of the project but were able to drive 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”.


The prosthetic make-up used on the character Chang needed to be digitally cleaned up in every scene with some shots needing more attention than others. The actors face was modeled in 3D and using Nuke, Maya and Z-brush, unwrapped, re-touched and composited into the shots combining 2D UV space and CG elements. One particular sequence, featuring a close up of Chang’s face, required fully CG eyes to replace what was captured in camera. Dessero comments “We needed to find the right balance between making the English actor look Korean but yet allow the audience to recognize the actor from his earlier appearance in the film as an American traveler. Faces are always a challenge to work on and these shots needed a lot of fine tuning and really pushed our development of a robust facial clean up pipeline”.


In several action packed scenes, a relatively small section of the environment shot on set (often just a floor against a green screen) needed to be integrated into a CG environment with added smoke, tracer fire, lasers, explosions and melting metal. To be consistent throughout, the FX artists needed to ensure they seamlessly matched the on-set SFX explosions with CGI elements.

Stephane Naze, VFX Supervisor in London notes “Keying the green screen was frequently complex due to the on-set smoke, explosions and stroboscopic flashes in the foreground. It was quite amazing to compare the original plates and with the final results, and seeing how much production value we added in post.”

 Another explosive effect Method worked on was the "Kirby Dot gun" (also known as Kirby Krackle). This was styled on the legendary comic artist Jack Kirby`s technique for illustrating explosions and energy. Naze comments “The effect consists of varied sized black dots, filled with energy, light and lens flares – all of which produce a visually strong impact. It was not easy to adapt a static 2D comic book style effect into something with volume and animation. It was a fun challenge to interpret the vision imagined by the Wachowski’s and Tom Tykwer.”


Zachry, played by Tom Hanks, is a tribesman living a primitive existence in post-apocalyptic Earth. Whilst containing futuristic elements, this world was made to look feudal and the Method crew created a number of large matte paintings for this part of the story which included the ‘destroyed city’ scenes.


Method Design created the main title of the film along with a number of motion graphics elements used throughout the feature including the heads-up displays for the vehicles and weaponry plus the touch controlled Orison displays.

Creative Director Mike Sausa notes,Visualizing the graphic look of computer interfaces in the future is difficult enough. We did not want to simply design something that looks ultramodern and leave it at that - we wanted to develop operating systems that influenced the animations of the graphics as well.  Details like that add so much weight to the reality of each shot and scene.”

The design team worked with Dan Glass and Matt Dessero to identify the various environments that each computer system, signage graphic or information display existed within the film.  It was essential for the designs to sit comfortably within the contexts of these environments. Further creative direction came from the Wachowski's and Tykwer who wanted to draw distinctions between the styles of graphic systems for each scene.  For instance, graphics set in a government installation needed to have a utilitarian layout, whereas a personal computer’s interface needed to look more inviting and stylish.

In terms of the title graphics, Senior Creative Director Steve Viola comments, "The creative brief from the filmmakers involved us figuring out an interesting way of getting from a super-wide cloudscape seamlessly down to the shot of the ship. The typography of the title itself went through many iterations, while the graphic integration of the six lines remained a great constant thread - a number that echoes throughout the film. Ultimately, we ended up with a very well balanced title with serifs, sans-serifs, flourishes, and graphic lines which complement the complexity of the story."


Matt Dessero, VFX Supervisor in Method LA summarizes “Along with overcoming the technical challenges of the VFX work, the most rewarding experience for me on this film was the amount of creative input Method were involved with. We were supplied just enough concept art to understand the worlds we worked on, but we spent a great deal of time refining the details – tiny neon signs, exhaust fumes, the way vehicles moved for example. When we presented ideas that the directors liked they made it into the film and helped bring the imagined environments to life. It’s amazing to have that level of creative input on such a stunning film and this made working on the project a great experience all round”.


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