The filmmaking team of Lana and Andy Wachowski is best known for writing and directing The Matrix trilogy. The visual and verbal ideas in those films have become part of a zeitgeist, had a lasting effect on cinematography, and, not incidentally, brought in upwards of $1.5 billion at the box office.
The Wachowskis cannot be faulted for resting on their laurels. Their subsequent project is the colossally ambitious Cloud Atlas, which is based on David Mitchell’s complex, best-selling 2004 novel.
Mitchell, called a modern-day James Joyce, has been quoted as saying, “As I was writing … I thought, ‘It’s a shame this is unfilmable.’” The tale is comprised of no fewer than six separate, intertwining storylines that take place in different time periods ranging from the 1800s to the distant, post-apocalyptic future. There are action-adventure, romantic, sci-fi and comedic elements. Some characters seem to reincarnate later. Sometimes actors play multiple characters of different genders or different races. The cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and Doona Bae.
To help tackle the sprawling project, the Wachowskis enlisted director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run; Perfume: The Story of a Murderer). Cinematography duties were divided between two co-equal “first units,” one with longtime Tykwer collaborator Frank Griebe behind the camera and the other with Oscar-winner John Toll, ASC (The Thin Red Line, Braveheart, Legends of the Fall). Toll’s task was to help the Wachowskis film the first, fifth and sixth storylines, while Griebe and Tykwer simultaneously undertook the remaining threads.
Prior to Toll joining the project, Griebe performed extensive tests, in part to determine the right format and lens combination. Eventually the filmmakers settled on the Super 35 film format with Master Prime lenses. Most of the scenes were filmed in 3-perf mode, but plate shots and others bound for compositing were often done in 4-perf to allow repositioning in post without sacrificing resolution.
“Because some male actors play females, and vice versa, and for certain other story reasons, we have extensive makeup and prosthetics in the film,” says Griebe. “We tested a lot of different lenses, and we always looked at film side-by-side with footage from the latest digital cameras. Things just looked better on film. With digital, you see everything. You see all the details in the face. It feels synthetic. There’s no life in the picture. Film also has grain. We did a lot of research on adding grain to digital images, and it looks good, but it’s just not the same as real film grain.”
Griebe says that while digital is right for certain projects, he would always prefer to shoot film. “There is always change in the movie business,” he says. “But film looks more organic. The decision should be about how it looks, and about the circumstances under which we will be shooting. I admire films like The Master, shot on 65mm and The Dark Knight Rises, shot on IMAX. That makes a statement.”
Toll joined the Cloud Atlas production after the decision to shoot film had been made, but he was in agreement with that choice. “I was happy to hear that Frank had done tests and we were shooting on film,” he says. “In addition to the aesthetic and makeup issues, the logistics of the schedule were very demanding. Our unit started on location in Mallorca and we shot on board ships and in fairly rugged, mountainous terrain there, as well as in remote forest locations in southern Germany. Shooting in those environments, I was much more comfortable with the flexibility of film cameras, and the reliability of film emulsion technology. Knowing that I could just pick up a film camera, put it anywhere, and expose with certainty the way we’ve always done was important to me.”
One theme of the movie is the connectivity and common challenges of humankind through history. Considering that there were three directors and two cinematographers, along with six different eras spanning five centuries, there were concerns about how to make the film hang together as a whole.
Toll notes the unique level of collaboration on the project. The Wachowskis and Tykwer developed the project, wrote the script, oversaw the production design, and directed the film as a very close, unified team.
“We almost had to think of Lana, Andy, and Tom as one person,” says Toll. “This approach extended to all aspects of the production. During prep, we talked extensively about how to somehow visually connect the stories in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed. To emphasize the commonality and the inter-connection between individual characters, we never seemed to land on one specific idea that worked for the overall project. The film takes place over 500 years in completely different environments. The production design and art direction, while being extremely impressive, was primarily unique and specific to those periods. Frank and I were using the same film emulsions, shooting with the same type of lenses, and had a similar approach – a kind of a rich, dramatic, natural style. We were able to see each other’s dailies and keep track of how the stories were being realized, but at one point, I just accepted the idea that if we just made each segment of the film look as visually impressive as possible, things would work out.”
The primary film stocks were KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, and KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213. For helicopter and other daylight plate work that required maximum resolution, Toll used KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203.
“I found the use of a variety of film emulsions to be essential for flexibility for different times of day,” says Toll. “5213 was wonderful in high-contrast, midday situations, but I would switch to 5219 for late-in-the-day, lower light scenes. I also like to play with the blue layer, pull an 85 and expose but not correct out the blue. I prefer to do that as opposed to trying to time it in. The 50D material was also a great asset for plates and wide vistas for the extensive VFX work.”
For scenes that unfold in the energy industry in 1970s San Francisco, Calif., Griebe established the period in part with fluorescent and neon lighting. He signaled contemporary time by mixing color temperatures. For the 1930s settings, he tried to stay with tungsten sources.
Scenes for the fifth segment, which portrays a highly technical, futuristic world, required many visual effects shots. Corporations have completely taken over the world, and look-alike clones work as their employees. Contrast this with the first segment, which is set in the 1840s and follows a young lawyer who travels from the South Seas to San Francisco in a four-masted schooner.
Post-production and color timing was handled at ARRI’s lab in Berlin. Griebe supervised the grade over the course of three weeks with his colorist, Traudl Nicholson, and the directors joined in during a fourth week.
Toll was working in North Carolina on Iron Man 3 during this period, but was able to see a final cut of the film in a screening room there and send timing notes to Griebe and Nicholson. “I asked my camera crew to join me in the screening,” he says. “I had told them nothing about the film and asked them to give me an honest reaction to it and the fairly unfamiliar type of film structure. I saw this as my own private little focus group, and they really enjoyed it. After the screening I even gave them a short quiz just to be sure they weren’t telling the boss what he wanted to hear. It was fantastic really.”
Audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival agreed, giving the film a 10-minute standing ovation at its world premiere.
Toll points out that the film was financed independently, and that the Wachowskis sought Mitchell’s approval of the script and the restructuring of the story before making the final decision to go ahead.
“There seemed to be nothing commercial about their commitment to this story,” says Toll. “Getting it going was a monumental effort made possible only by their level of commitment and passion. I think this is the same reason many of us have become filmmakers. When I received the offer to join them in making this different and unusual type of film, I said ‘Why not, let’s go make a movie!’”