Getting Cosmic with Cloud Atlas
Dan Glass is no stranger to either the Wachowskis or cosmic movies. Thus, he was able to segue from Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life to Cloud Atlas knowing what to expect and drawing on his previous experience with the sibling directors on The Matrix trilogy, Ninja Assassin (which they produced) and Speed Racer. However, Cloud Atlas was a different challenge entirely, with six stories about reincarnation spanning 500 years featuring the same actors in multiple roles (headlined by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry); a mash-up of genres; and three directors split into two production units (with Andy and Lana Wachowski sharing one and buddy Tom Tykwer tackling the other).
Fittingly, as chief creative officer of Method Studios, Glass was in a position to divide the VFX production supervision with Stephane Ceretti of the London facility while at the same time making full use of Method's capabilities in LA, London and Vancouver. But logistically it also made sense to bring in a host of other VFX studios, including Rise FX, Scanline VFX, Trixter, Black Mountain, Arri, Lola, Bluebolt, Exozet, Gradient, One of Us, and even ILM for a spectacular chase sequence.
"We spent three weeks working with the script as a group trying to understand how we might cost and approach the movie itself," Glass recounts. "No small feat, of course. I often felt that the [assistant directors] probably had one of the toughest jobs in terms of the most insanely complicated schedule you could probably conceive. With the brilliant but impossible idea of trying to include the actors in multiple roles in every story just meant that everything was dependent on everything else. Early on, [first assistant director] Terry Needham said we could afford one day's slippage on one of the units on our 60-day shoot schedule. And on day three, Halle Berry broke her ankle. And what we thought couldn't happen, had to happen, which was they had to rejig everything. It threw a curve ball into what was already exceedingly challenging. They worked around it and added some visual effects shots. Her limp was a creative throw in. They came up with the idea that her leg gets shot by an arrow.
"The six stories made it exciting and interesting but it meant that we could divvy things up quite a lot. Because of the complexity, because of how quickly they wanted to get an edit and a temp version together, we involved quite a few companies. In the end, it meant a lot of [effort] in design, continuity and administering all those things. But it also brought a lot of fresh ideas."
After some good-natured sparring back and forth between the directors, the Wachowskis ended up with the first story [1849 in the South Pacific], and the latter two: the Sonmi [Doona Bae] revolution in Neo Seoul, and the Zachry [Tom Hanks] finale after the fall.
Sonmi had the most visual effects. "As with editorial, once you got into post, it made sense to treat it as one movie," Glass continues. "The Somni was the largest portion of work and there wasn't really one place to put it all, but so much of it was linked, especially the exteriors, so I arranged for Method to handle it in LA, Vancouver and London. We set up a structure where they shared common assets. London did concept and matte painting, which is their specialty. ILM was additionally brought in on the Sonmi sequence to handle the chase through the city, which comprised two dozen shots. We knew it was the biggest complexity in scale and that it would be needed early on for trailer material and we wanted someone with firepower. Scanline did the end of the chase in the Reservoir Tube because of their water expertise and because they were based in Germany. They also handled the Slaughter ship and the Hover ship."