Set simultaneously in the past, present and future, the dazzling epic CLOUD ATLAS illustrates how events and decisions made by people in one period can reverberate in unforeseeable ways across the timeline to touch the lives of others. It also suggests that individual lives continue their personal trajectories through the ages.
Souls reborn renew their bonds with one another, time and again. Mistakes can be rectified...or repeated. Freedom can be gained or lost, but is forever sought.
And always, love survives.
…A San Francisco attorney harbors a fleeing slave on a fateful voyage home from the Pacific Islands in 1849…A poor, gifted composer in pre-World War II Britain struggles to complete his magnum opus before the cost of a reckless act catches up with him…A journalist in 1973 works to avert an industrial disaster…A present-day publisher, on the eve of his greatest success, faces unjust imprisonment…A genetically engineered worker in the year 2144 feels the forbidden awakening of human consciousness…In the ravaged far-off future of the 2300s, a goat herder battles his conscience over what he has done to stay alive and a tenacious young woman endeavors to save her people...
Each scenario is introduced then unfolds alongside the others. Fluid transitions from one to another reveal the ways in which they are all linked…six parallel tracks fused into one.
Directors Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer took on the exciting, daunting challenge of presenting the best-selling novel in a visual context, constantly making innovative decisions…including filming simultaneously as one production with two crews. Tykwer worked with Production Designer Uli Hanisch and Set Decorator Rebecca Alleway SDSA, filming the 1936, 1973 and 2012 segments in Scotland and Germany, while the Wachowski’s collaborated with Production Designer Hugh Bateup and Set Decorator Peter Walpole SDSA for the 1849, 2144 and 2321/2346 segments in Majorca, Saxony and Berlin.
In a fascinating, vibrant and in-depth conversation, the two set decorators talked with SET DECOR re: the making of the film…first about the intertwined, inter-connected work they did together and apart, then in detail about their key sets.
SET DECOR: “Everything is connected…” How did this central theme of the film apply to the making of the film?
Set Decorator Rebecca Alleway SDSA: The subconscious and conscious links between people in their present and past lives, the repetition of the patterns and mistakes, sometimes growth through them…this was a really interesting concept for the set dec/art department, particularly how to visually make these links throughout the film…some subtle and some more obvious.
Set Decorator Peter Walpole SDSA: Totally agree. In the early stages of pre-production, we discussed the concept of ideas and their connections and how we would implement them. As time progressed, this became a subconscious action. We became caught up in the fact that “Everything is connected”.
SD: Please tell us about the range of genres, as well as time periods and how that applied to your set decoration choices.
Alleway: Each set had its own style and color encapsulating the essence of each time as well as the character. To name a few…
…The Ayrs story was set in 1936, but the manor house encapsulated the history of an old English house going back as far as the 18th century, the layers of set dressing reflecting those eras, as well as composer Vyvyan Ayrs’ [Jim Broadbent] life and passions. Although he was aging, he was forward thinking and his music was modern for the period. He was also married to a younger, chic 1930s lady, so I contemporized his surroundings with artifacts and paintings more fashionable to the time. Rich colors against aging backdrop, but becoming stronger as the young composer Robert Frobisher [Ben Whishaw] establishes his presence.
…We revisit the manor in the 2012 depiction of Aurora Country Estate, a retirement home created, as many actually are, by turning a stately home into a ghastly cheap semi-modernized facility with a sickly palette.
…Luisa Rey’s world [Halle Berry] was the epitome of a young 1970s feminist American journalist, played against the streets of San Francisco of that era and a nuclear plant at the edge of the city.
Walpole: Adam Ewing’s [Jim Strugess] 1849 segment had the Jeux de Position of the starchy Victorian era, the exotic Chatham Islands, a sailing ship and some very formal interiors…an exciting story to decorate with great existing reference to draw on.
The legend of Sonmi-451 [Doona Bae], however, was drawing away from the world we know to the near-future of 2144. Original ideas and concepts had to be formulated, but with a thread of a connection to our existing world.
By the time we reach Zachry’s [Tom Hanks] village in the year 2321, the threads are gossamer thin and a new world has been created from an apocalyptic event. The danger here was not to fall into or be influenced by other films’ somewhat analogous scenarios.
SD: This was a giant canvas, but it carried several intimate or “small” moments/sets as well. Please tell us about scale and scope. How did you deal with it?
Alleway: The scale seemed to grow as we went into more detail. I started with mood boards looking at the colors, character, period details and research. It was very important with the scale of a film like this for everyone to actually see what you were trying to achieve. Once the designer and director had viewed the boards and we agreed on parameters and some specifics, I could then organize my teams in London, Germany and Scotland.
Working on so many sets and periods, with much of the furniture being collected from all around Europe, I found that having extensive dressing lists and detailed mood boards was integral to keeping a clear vision and dealing with both the scale and volume of sets. Each set had many layers from which many of the more intimate moments stemmed. As layers were built, more intimate details were revealed.
Walpole: I also started with mood boards, looking at the color, character, period…and futuristic details. I then would create original ideas to complement the design for the Somni and Zachry stories.
Rebecca and I compared our ‘looks’, making sure that the palette sat comfortably with us both. As Rebecca has stated, it was very important for the scale of a film like this for everyone to see what we were trying to achieve, so that once the film was finished and cut together, it flowed visually as well as dramatically. Similarly, we built sets in several countries. For both of us, it was a logistic challenge. I think we both found that the small, intimate sets were as challenging as the grand and larger ones, due to the subject matter of the script.
SD: Tell us about palettes.
Alleway: There was a palette determined at the beginning of the film, so that a color theme flowed throughout the movie. For example, hues of red were used to describe the more intimate and loving moments of the film, linking the stories…the direct opposite being the harsh over-bright plastic-red of the loveless Papa Song. The brown, worn, muted palettes were to describe the old and decaying elements, with the wallpapers and textures hopefully marking the essence of which actual period you were in. Then, each story had its own unique style and color tones to capture that particular period and the emotional state of the character.
Walpole: It was particularly challenging at the beginning with the 1849 Ewing story, the tropical locations were so very vibrant and impossible to change, the sea and sky are blue and the flora and fauna are green. There’s not a great deal one can do with this!
SD: You worked in tandem, with separate crews and sets, and many of your sets shot concurrently. What were the pros and cons of this?
Alleway: This was one film with two art departments and shooting crews. We shared everyone else, so we all knew what the other team was working on throughout the film. Having one production and office was hard work for the production, but for us it was essential for continuity and clarity. The schedules were coordinated by the production office, which worked well…we shot in the studio together and were away on location at similar times.
Mood boards, concepts drawings and visuals were discussed and looked at when we had regular meetings. All directors, production designers, set decorators and art directors would meet together on a regular basis throughout the whole film. We tried to make sure that we maintained an overall vision, concept and thread.
The only difficulties came when any of the actors became ill or injured. Rescheduling a leading actor with two shooting crews was, obviously more difficult and put both crews and us under quite a lot of pressure. We were suddenly prepping sets that had been scheduled for the end of the shoot, at the beginning! The main characters’ sets were built at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin. I found myself in a situation where some of the biggest sets were brought forward, and we had to work around the clock to get things made or shipped from London or Europe.
Walpole: Same goes for me. The moment Halle Berry broke her foot, nothing was ever the same again in the scheduling world. It affected both our shoots…mine in Mallorca, Berlin and Saxony. And, logistically, when you are bringing dressing from other countries, goods can only travel so fast. Not only did we work around the clock, there were a few sleepless nights! Every day could be a new challenge in logistics and rescheduling!
SD: How much interaction did you two have as filming proceeded?
Alleway: We tried to meet regularly to talk about theme connections and design, but of course when filming began, we didn’t manage to meet as frequently. We spent the prep trying to confirm which direction we were both heading.
We shared sets, stages, prop stores and the prop-making workshop. We prepped, dressed and shot in the same spaces, so the communication on a visual level was there throughout the whole film.
Walpole: Whilst the intensity of the film increased…and the ever changing schedule…when we were in full flow most of our meetings happened as we passed in the prop rooms, stages and standing in the rain on the way to dress another set.
SD: Please tell us also about collaboration with your director, your production designer, your crew…
Alleway: The directors, designers, Peter and I met when we could to talk about the overall vision of the film and the details. The designers ran architectural shape themes throughout the whole film…each space had a connecting shape and reflection. They collaborated on set builds and the re-use of sets, which Peter & I would then re-dress.
Of course, the details of my stories were discussed with the designer I was working with in my team, Uli Hanisch, and director Tom Tykwer. However, I was always aware of the Wachowskis’ influences and vision, and that we were all making this amazing film together.
Most of our stories were set in the UK or the States, so Uli trusted me to bring my experience [Editor’s note: Alleway was nominated for an Academy Award for THE DUCHESS] and a wealth of research to the table. It was a large research list, consisting of many things from the 19th & 20th century…also America in the ‘70s, socially, politically & artistically…the Avant-garde world of the 1930s…the 1950s…
With detailed dressing lists, ground plans and mood boards, I set my team to work to help me find the perfect pieces for each story. Being clear about the direction and having good visual references helped me to communicate much more easily to my teams—especially those on the German side, who had different skills, backgrounds and aesthetics!
Walpole: CLOUD ATLAS was my fourth film for Lana and Andy Wachowski and my second with Production Designer Hugh Bateup. The value of this is that we are all very familiar with how we all work. The previous films I did for the Wachowskis were also shot in Berlin, so over a period of time, I have been able to build up a great crew who all embraced CLOUD ATLAS with energy and enthusiasm…and it’s a film they still all talk about with great affection.
I was able to bring my knowledge of the Victorian period to the table for the 1849 Ewing story and invest in research of the sailing ships of the day.
The other two stories were a little different as they were new worlds to create. Hugh and I had been involved with establishing other worlds before…Hugh for THE MATRIX, myself with STAR WARS. Although neither of these had a direct influence on the Sonmi or Zachry stories…and we made sure they didn’t(!)…we had a comfort about jumping into the future. It was wonderfully creative to explore new and exciting ideas and put them to the directors.
An example of one detail would be regarding the look of the Kona warrior horses in the Zachry story. What would the Konas do with what they had to work with? Would they have armor made from recycled materials? And what could we afford? The distinctive costume and makeup design for this cannibalistic tribe led me down a path…something scary, fearsome and symbolic that would complement both costume and makeup. We made up the horses to look like skeletons—simple and effective!
SD: How many crews did you each have? How large?
Alleway: Peter and I shared a vast prop-making workshop and a very large team, but of course, Peter was making a lot more dressing than I was and I was hiring more, so it worked out well. We also shared a prop store/storage space, but had individual teams to take care of everything. I had a permanent team of 10 dressers and then a large team of dailies/day-players. We then both had individual assistants, coordinators, buyers and assistant buyers. I employed carpenters, drapery-men and painters on a free lance basis when particular jobs needed executing.
My main team was German and I wanted to try to make it work with a local crew, since that is where we were based. I also had a team for the UK/Scottish shoot and flew back from Berlin to have meetings with them when I could. Some of the furniture came from the UK for the set builds, so my team in London was crucial in helping with the shipments. I found that creating large period sets in Berlin at times challenging without my regular crew…and, naturally, my German team had different ways of doing things, some better and some not! Both teams worked incredibly hard, and my only regret is that I didn’t take an assistant decorator to Germany.
Walpole: Although the biggest independently financed film ever made, we had to be very economic with all our resources…the money doesn’t go far when you have a story of such scale with 6 threads/themes to it!
My main team was also from Germany, as I mentioned, an excellent team, who knew how I worked and what I expected. Rebecca’s task was much harder.
I was able to set up the model prop-making workshop which we both shared. Similarly to Rebecca, I had teams working on my location sets and a small team in the UK, where I sourced a fraction of what Rebecca did, due to the fact that I had new worlds to create and started from scratch with the resources available in Germany.
SD: Tell us about shooting on location…
Alleway: I have shot in Scotland many times before, so knew what to expect and have many resources there. Berlin was new and interesting and I quickly realized it was limited for certain things. When we shot on location in Berlin, with the exception of a few locations, we would build a set within the space and change the décor.
We shot most of the exteriors in Scotland, and had limited time to turn everything around. In one day, I dressed six different exterior locations with the shooting crew on my tail. It was a great relief being in the studio where we had time and space for the interiors.
Walpole: The problems we both experienced were the logistical planning of being based in Berlin and shooting on overseas locations. I was regularly traveling from Berlin to Mallorca, Spain…back to Saxony, southern Germany…and then back to Berlin. Mallorca is a small island that takes forever to travel around, due to the twisty road system. And we had locations on every corner of the island, made even more interesting by the fact it is a very popular holiday destination and we were there at the height of the season. Then it would be back to Berlin and a 4-hour car journey down south to Saxony! But it all worked…for both of us.
SD: How much prep time did you have?
Alleway: About 11-12 weeks prep.
Walpole: I think this is about right…what I do remember is that it went very quickly!
SD: Were there particular surprises, either bumps in the road or serendipitous delights?
Alleway: The only bumps in the road were the schedule changes. Because I had so many different pieces coming from different places, it was tough. I did have a very good British and German crew who worked incredibly hard to keep on top of everything.
Serendipitous delights…there were many! I had never shot in Berlin before, and since we couldn’t bring everything from the States or Britain, discovered some amazing companies and hidden gems.
A small family-run lampshade company, for instance. This meant that I could find fantastic bases for the lamps for and from the 1930s and ‘70s, and design the shades. This is always a problem when you are searching for period lamps…you can never find any decent shades because they always look too torn and shabby or don’t exist. So I designed the shapes, chose the fabric and colors for all the lamps in Ayrs’ house and in all the Luisa sets, which I hope gave everything a specific and accurate feel for each particular period. Of course, I did a huge amount of research before sitting at the drawing board.
When I was looking for a drapesman to do upholstery and make all the draperies for the Ayrs sets, particularly the large music room and the bedroom, I was introduced to a painter and to a costume-maker from Berlin. They have to be the best crew I have ever had to “age & dirty” fabrics! This is a hard job to get right, it can look heavy-of-hand or too obvious. We produced many samples and then the drapes were sanded down, made threadbare and aged. I was delighted with the results. They really looked like they had been hanging in the house for a century. The same aging worked with the Chippendale English sofas…
For the Luisa Rey story, which takes place in 1973 San Francisco, one of the sets is an illegal US factory full of Mexican workers making stuffed toys. I made a dressing list and plan of the set, and then realized that I needed to dress about 120 sewing machines to make this look authentic! My team and I discovered a company that had an old East Berlin factory full of amazingly old sewing machines…American & European machines dating as far back as the ‘50s. This sort of place doesn’t exist in the UK anymore and was a real find.
Walpole: And I discovered a whole new world of talented people for the Sonmi and Zachry stories. A casual worker would create something unique from plastic bottles and rope, or weave nylon to create covers and blinds…a woman doing macramé, but with totally different materials…glass-makers thinking outside the box, taking some of my ideas and then making shapes that defied gravity!
SD: Could you please tell us about commitment?!! Particularly in regards to a project like this…
Alleway: My commitment started the moment I knew I was going for an interview. I had read the book years ago, so before I flew to Berlin to meet the designers, I spent 3 solid days reading it again. A film like this required 110% commitment, which was easy to give because it was such an amazing book, script and film.
I think because of the philosophies of the film, everyone, from the directors, actors and technicians to the artists on all levels, had a sense that we were working on something very unique and special. To paraphrase a leitmotif of the film, we were all bound to each other…to do a great job, big or small. I hope that this would resonate with others.
Walpole: My sentiments entirely. Commitment comes with every production one starts. CLOUD ATLAS, however, had a different feeling, emanating from Tom, Lana and Andy, which everyone seemed to embrace. It was infectious. I have never worked on anything quite like it and I became totally absorbed. For me, it was a totally unique experience and one I will cherish forever.
SET DECOR extras....!
For revelations of interwoven motifs and recurring symbols see below!
For more about the sets click here for a detailed PDF
interlace & recurrences
Throughout the film, themes and characters are interlaced…there is the motif of eternal recurrence. References were deliberate, set dressing or symbols might reappear in some form in other periods, other settings. In experiencing the film, one might notice…
Moriori/Maori-style statues representing cultural memory:
First appear on Chatham Island 1849
Re-appear in Zachry story 2321 as totems in a cairn meadow
The statues were part of a Maori exhibition within the museum set in the 1973 Luisa Rey story.
Luisa Rey’s 1973 apartment had masks with Maori influences
Miniatures of these statues were dressed into Ayrs 1936 music room
1849 Adam Ewing story, particularly his home & on the ship
2321 Zachry’s village in Sloosha’s Hollow
2346 Zachry & Meronym on another planet
2012 Cavendish story…logo for old people’s home…on the gates, doors, paperwork
An oil painting of Sloosha’s Hollow hangs in Haskell Moore’s 1849 dining room
The frieze in Horrox’s 1849 dining room is also used as a pattern in the Somni story’s slums of 2441
A photograph was taken of the 1849 plantation “slaves” working the fields, with the ship in the background. The image appears as:
an old etching in the Frobisher hotel 1930s
a 1970s print in Sixsmith’s hotel
a rather modern print in Cavendish’s 2012 old people’s home bedroom
Recurrence of the egg form:
Papa Song fast food chain 2144 – Egg-shaped seating, logo
Ayrs 1936 - Egg sculptures from the Victorian period + his travel mementos
Factory 1973 – The manufacturing of toy yellow chicks in eggs
Cavendish office 2012 – Framed egg prints
2141 orison: Recording device of Sonmi's interrogator, the Archivist
Aquarium…and undulating underwater shapes:
2144 Neo-Seoul: Papa Song restaurant has water floor encircling tables & reception as if walking over a shallow Koi pond
2012 London: Starlight bar has floor-to-ceiling circular aquarium as the back-bar for London high-rise publisher’s party
The Papa Song set was redressed for the Starlight publishing party, thus the sets were connected in both theme and shape
2144 Seoul: the original city has been flooded over, submerged
1849 Pacific isle: The evil Dr Goose digs up detritus from past cannibal tribe…teeth, in particular
24th c Hawaii: Kona cannibals kill and consume Zachry’s tribesmen
1936 Ayrs manor: Strange bone & teeth sculptures amid his art collection
2144 Neo-Seoul fabricant abattoir: Unaware fabricants are killed to produce milk protein that is fed back to next set of fabricants
1973: Factory: In an old warehouse, illegal immigrant workers brutally tear out the stuffing from old toys, while other workers make new toys from the old stuffing… reference to the fabricants above
Writing table/desk at window:
1936: Ayr is writing of his aging in loss of ability to compose
1936: Frobisher in the Ayrs house attic bedroom begins composing Cloud Atlas Sextet, and writes to Sixsmith
1936: Frobisher in the seedy Edinburgh hotel finishes composing the Cloud Atlas Sextet, then writes to Sixsmith of his leave-taking
2012: Cavendish writes his book: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
Cloud Atlas Sextet:
1936: Robert Frobisher composes hand written sheet music
1973: Luisa Rey discovers a recording of the piece playing in a record store
24th c: Somni is worshipped as a goddess by the primitive villagers, a small sculpture sits on the altar in the Abbess’s hut
24th c: Sonmi’s broadcasts appear in Meronym’s orisons
24th c: A heroic sculpture of the martyred Sonmi remains a cornerstone among the remnants of the technicals’ colony
Adam Ewing’s journal:
1849: Written aboard ship from Pacific isle to SF…Opens with this journal entry: “Friday the 15th, we made sail with the morning tide. I’ve been quarantined to a storeroom away from the other passengers & crew…”
1936: Robert Frobisher reads half of the published book: THE PACIFIC JOURNAL by Adam Ewing and writes of it to Rufus Sixsmith: “My Dear Sixsmith, I’m in desperate need of your help. I got hooked on a journal written in 1849 by a dying lawyer during the voyage from a Pacific isle to San Francisco. To my great annoyance, half the book is missing... It’s completely killing me…A half-finished book is, after all, a half-finished love affair.” [Ironically the other half of the book is propping up a leg of Frobisher’s writing table]
1973: Sixsmith, now a nuclear scientist, re-reads the letter in a San Francisco hotel room
1973: Journalist Luisa Rey reads the letter, not knowing that the journal Frobisher refers to reveals Ewing helped free a slave who could have been her ancestor…and later became active in the abolitionist movement
Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith:
1936: Frobisher writes the letters, Sixsmith reads and cherishes
1973: A now older Sixsmith lovingly re-reads the letters before he is killed
1973: Luisa Rey takes the letters in hopes of learning more about Sixsmith
1973: Rey gives the letters to Sixsmith’s niece, Megan, a physicist who loved her uncle and was inspired by him
From costume to set:
Fabric from the distinctive waistcoat worn in 1936 by Sixsmith, then Frobisher, then smarmy seedy hotel manager appears in the 2321 Abbess’s dwelling…
A triangular 1970s design from a shirt was subsequently re-arranged to become the wallpaper in Sonmi's 2144 safe house
Spaces were repeated from one part of the story to another…
…Production Designer Uli Hanisch reveals, “We wanted our depictions of each era to be clear so there's no question whether it's the 1930s or the 1840s. At the same time, visual cues and recycled spaces reinforce the idea of connections and the continuity of a single story….Sometimes it's the real place, sometimes just a hint. Our starting point was Ewing's cabin under the deck of the ship, and we re-created the shape of this room throughout: Cavendish's office, Luisa Rey's apartment, Frobisher's room in Ayrs' mansion, Sonmi's safe house and Zachry's hut."