While "Cloud Atlas" may be the most polarizing movie of the year (winding up on both year-end best and worst lists), there's no denying its ambition and beauty: it's the ultimate time travel movie about connecting and reconnecting and grappling with free will and destiny. And the production design plays a crucial role in defining the six periods that overlap the 500-year ripple.
However, it made sense both economically and logistically to split the "Cloud Atlas" production into two units, with designer Hugh Bateup ("The Matrix Reloaded," "The Matrix Revolutions," "Speed Racer") working with Andy and Lana Wachowski and Uli Hanisch collaborating with Tom Tykwer ("Heaven," "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," "Three"). Team Wachowski was responsible for Victorian 1849 in the South Pacific, 2144 in Neo Seoul, and the cataclysmic aftermath of 2321 (paired with the 2346 epilogue). Team Tykwer was tasked with 1936 in Scotland, 1973 in San Francisco, and 2012 in England.
The look and the logic were driven somewhat by the period each story was set in. The Victorian era was an all-encompassing and dominating style, according to Bateup, which in turn was connected to the sea and the landscape– all reflecting the master and servant relationship (played by Hugh Grant and David Gyasi).
"Adam Ewing [the idealistic San Francisco attorney played by Jim Sturgess] had the Jeux de Position, of the starchy Victorian era and the exotic Chatham Islands, interesting period interiors mixed with tribal and farm estate exteriors," Bateup reveals. "Sonmi 45, however, was drawing away from the world we know; original designs had to be formulated but with a thread of a connection to our existing world. By the time we reach Zachry [the damaged yet decent goatherd played by Tom Hanks], the threads are gossamer thin and a new world has been created from an apocalyptic event, with the survivors drawing on all means both natural and man-made, available to them."
For the Neo Seoul world where the oceans have risen above ground, the wealthy keep building higher and higher while the poorer communities below are under constant threat. "One doesn't have to look to far to see the connection between this dystopian world, and our own society, where some places are undesirable and frightening and far from the Utopia we would all like to live in," Bateup continues. "The sheer volume of mankind building layer upon layer of existence, whether it be physical or social: 'The weak are meat, the strong do eat.'
"Even though the world had suffered a cataclysmic disaster, and mankind had survived, we had to retain a gossamer thread with the previous existence, a connection, a continuity: the survivors drawing on the natural resources available to them, but also using materials that had logically survived the apocalypse: materials that we find so hard to recycle. A continuity of forgotten technology linked the two stories and allowed for an original design look without falling into the usual traps."
Meanwhile, Hanisch, who's worked with Tykwer on seven movies over the past 15 years, says this collaboration was joyful in it its balance of independence and close communication. The thematic imperative on "Cloud Atlas," of course, was connection, so they decided to mirror the actors' reappearances and alterations with the same elements, starting from changing the Belgium chateau of the composer Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) into a Scottish country manor to having it re-appear as the 'uglyfied' retirement home, prison-like Aurora House. Or recycling whole sets such as the Papa Song Restaurant from the Sonmi story into the Starlight Bar of the opening scene in the Cavendish story.
"The Music Salon of Ayrs Chateau had been the heart and soul of our work, as one always needs a center cell to start with, building everything around this," Hanisch suggests. "We didn't wait for the real (exterior) location to match with it, but decided to lose the grand formal shape of such a representative room and crumple it down, according to Ayrs' character.
"In fact, we have called the final shape of the floor plan a 'shrunken old man's penis,' filling it with dusty old family treasures from the colonies (Ostrich eggs), mixing it with just upcoming 'modern' elements from the arts (Paul Klee paintings and abstract sculptures). Cause Ayrs would have been very close to this kind of development at the time and also to differentiate it from the formally close Adam Ewing story."
Although clarity about the specific looks of each period was a major concern, sometimes they looked closer than they would've wished. For example, the laidback '70s was almost too contemporary-looking because it has fashionably become retro 40 years later.
"Cavendish's vengeful brother is my most favorite side character, especially the way Hugh Grant has performed it," Hanisch offers. "We were very troubled to find a good location around Berlin with an exterior pool and looking British enough. When I realized the way the scene was supposed to become grotesque, I felt it was much more important to make it look cold and hollow. It's quite a good example how a set can frame a character and tell you about him in no time: 'What a bastard!'"
In the end, Hanisch says working with two units in parallel provided its own bizarre connections. "When would you have a chance to have another designer within your project, sharing thoughts or concerns, or just pop by, asking, 'Hey, don't you have a spare living room for us?' it's funny!"