Corporate sabotage leads to an aviation disaster. “There is also an exploding airplane in the Luisa Rey story that we simulated and rendered entirely in Houdini using rigid body simulations for the bits and pieces breaking off and pyro for fire and smoke,” states Gellinger. “We modelled the plane in both flying and destroyed states to have control over even the smallest bits and pieces, something a fracturing tool could never provide. The huge advantage of rendering all of this through Mantra was consistent lighting on all CG objects, scattering of light through smoke volumes and direct reflections and lighting from the fire fluids.”
“The most complex character would be the hotel manager, played by Tom Hanks,” states Angela Barson. “He required some extensive work to get him to look natural as an older man. Originally the plates that we were given had the character with a bald cap and some visible glue joins around the temples, nose, mouth and neck. The challenge was to remove these issues while introducing sun spots and freckles for skin texture. Due to the nature of the way his head moved we required his head to be roto animated. With this animated model we were able to project on to it painted textures of his new skin. This was then composited and finessed with the main plate.” Prosthetic effects had to be seamless blended with digital enhancements. “With this type of work it’s always about the attention to detail. You tend to be working on areas which are the focus of the shot – a characters eyes or mouth – so the work has to be perfect. A lot of attention is paid to the subtleties of the skin grade and texture. We also had to continuously check the shots in sequence to make sure the consistency never drifted.”
“I came onto the show after it had been awarded,” states ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Russell Earl. “But I believe the scope of work grew and Dan had done some work with us on Speed Racer, so he thought we’d fit the bill. We wanted to be working with Lana and Andy so it was a great opportunity.” Video conferencing was conducted with Dan Glass. “We had CineSyncs with Dan where we would discuss what the shots should be and where they were headed.” The legendary visual effects company founded by George Lucas (Star Wars) and recently sold to Disney handled a small but dramatic portion of the movie. “ILM worked on the Skiff Chase Sequence, essentially, the bit where Chang and Sonmi are on speeding away on the skiff being chased by the enforcers.” A classic science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott (Prometheus) was used as a visual reference. “The look of Neo Seoul was described as ‘High Tech Blade Runner’. Dan Glass provided us with some concept art to use as a starting point. We looked at tons of different unique buildings throughout the world and used them for inspiration as well. We were building a future tech city with an Asian aesthetic, so we tried to include some traditional Asian architectural details in the city. We also had to develop the look of the transways, the sort of mag lev energy highways that the people of the city travelled on.”
“We didn’t share shots but did share assets and looks with Method,” remarks Russell Earl. “We built the digital doubles for Chang, Sonmi, and the Enforcers. We also built a bunch of the buildings and vehicles. Method supplied ILM with the Skiff and Gunship models. The hand off seemed pretty seamless on our side. Once we had the models with textures, we did our own look development and rigging as well as animation.” Practical effects had to be combined with the digital ones. “The biggest challenge was to make the dynamic camera moves work with the animation and blue screen plates that were shot. The plates were chaotic and the moves were dynamic. The challenge was to make the scenes believable, and to get the cameras and animation just right, as well as make the lights and the world they were travelling through fit with the lighting in the plates.” He states, “The ILM shots all had fully CG backgrounds. We also rendered the skiff in most shots as we wanted to better match the skiff lighting to the CG environments lighting. We had some shots where everything was CG including our hero characters. We also had multiple shots where we were doing blends from live action actors to our digital doubles and vice versa.” Some technological modifications were made to the visual effects process. “We were working in a new pipeline for us, harnessing Katana and Arnold. While the tools were new, we relied on the strength of the great artists here to realize the work.” Earl is pleased with the end result. “It was great fun to be a part of a project that had such passionate directors. Cloud Atlas is an epic movie that we were glad to have the opportunity to collaborate on. We had a great crew here at ILM and I am proud to have worked on this film.”
“Exozet Effects has offices in Berlin and at Studio Babelsberg directly opposite from the sound stage where the Wachowskis where shooting,” states Exozet Effects VFX Supervisor and Lead Compositor Falk Gärtner. “I don´t really know how our producer got them over exactly; there might have been some coffee bribes involved! One day they came up into the studio, we showed them around and they talked to some of our team. Then we received a test shot to work on that was a makeup touch up from a sequence. We were also asked to help with some of the post-visualization work after they were done shooting. The post-viz happened inside the production office and we were able to build up a very friendly relationship with them, helping out in every way we could. After completing the test shot and post-viz work, the visual effects production team was happy with the results of our work and started awarding us shot packages.” Gärtner remarks, “We mostly worked with Stéphane and then Dan would come in to sign off on the Final Approval of a shot with the directors. Stéphane was friendly the whole time and explained patiently in a lot of detail what they were looking for. Most communication was happening through CineSync sessions which was helpful for general feedback, but became more challenging when discussing single pixels and grain due to the lower resolution quality of quicktimes - in the end, it worked out well enough and all sides were happy with our final results. Stéphane and Dan were really specific about the level of quality they wanted to achieve as I’m sure they were under a lot of pressure to deliver the best quality possible to the directors. Overall, it was really good to be pushed that far – it really benefited the film and our team.”
“We did not specifically develop anything new,” says Falk Gärtner. The spline deform/planar track we actually adapted from some forum posts we found. We had to write two or three little scripts to make it work with our toolchain. We did use a complex liquid simulation tool for the blood sequences. We also had to ramp up and build an extremely fast pipeline with a lot of automatization inside our facility to handle the volume of work for the project.” The digital enhancements were achieved seamlessly. “The prosthetic fixes on Dr. Goose [Tom Hanks] were definitely challenging and worked out quite well. I personally couldn´t spot anything when I saw the movie the first time on the big screen and I knew where to look. The battle sequence in the far future was more fun to do. Doing realistic blood and having an extreme close-up CG arrow shot through the head of one of the Kona was quite satisfying. Also we developed a look for how these futuristic weapons would shoot – you know, that is stuff you always wanted to do when you first got into VFX, but rarely get the chance to actually do it for the German TV market.” Gärtner observes, “As one of the smaller vendors on the project there had to be a lot of trust from the production that we could actually pull this off in the quality they wanted. A lot of our shots went through in the first feedback round which was totally unexpected. We later heard that the VFX department, for the fun of it, had internal bets going on who will finish all their shots first. We ended up in the top 3 out of 15. Overall, the project was managed very well and we were always kept in the loop as to what was going on. The cooperation with Dan Glass, Stéphane Ceretti, Marc Kolbe and the whole production crew was on a very professional level with a lot of creative discussions and fun. We were fortunate to work on such an impressive project and we are ready to work on more of these exciting projects in the future.”
Cloud Atlas production stills © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Cloud Atlas VFX images © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved. Images courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc, Method Studios. Trixter, RISE Visual Effects Studios, Scanline VFX and Exozet Effects.
Many thanks to Dan Glass, Stéphane Ceretti, Matt Dessero, Geoffrey Hancock, Alessandro Cioffi, Florian Gellinger, Angela Barson, Clark Parkhurst, Russell Earl, Falk Gärtner and Ismat Zaidi for taking the time to be interviewed.
Make sure to visit the official websites for Cloud Atlas, Method Studios, Trixter, RISE Visual Effects Studios, Scanline VFX, BlueBolt, Lola VFX, ILM, and Exozet Effects.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.