(Awards season) At the Movies: Revisiting recent Oscar snubs

  • Cloud Atlas for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Cloud Atlas is a German epic science fiction film released in 2012. Adapted from the 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell, it was written, produced and directed by Run Lola Run (1998) director Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, the creators of The Matrix (1999). The multiple interwoven stories take place in six different eras and follow the evolution of a group of souls, whose bearers are identified through a birthmark. After overcoming difficulties during four years of development, the film gathered a $102 million budget provided by independent sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time.

I have to admit it, Cloud Atlas isn’t perfect. For how much I love it, it isn’t perfect. Its ambitions are somewhat beyond its reach, but it remains a very appealing cinematic experience nonetheless. It’s one of those movies that stick with you. Before its release, many expected it to be an Oscar contender. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. It generated generally positive reviews, though not as positive as many anticipated and the Oscar buzz eventually diminished, which is a shame. While I think it’s the kind of film that would’ve earned nominations in many categories – Halle Berry and Ben Whishaw might as well have gotten nods – if only it was promoted more for the Academy, it deserved to be placed in at least two categories no matter what: Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. It actually made the Best Visual Effects shortlist, but was ultimately left out. Now, that was a real shame.

Cloud Atlas is beautiful. No, I mean it’s beautiful. No, it’s really, really beautiful. It’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen, on a par with a very few selected others. Many visual effects companies worked on it, including Method LA, Method London, Method Vancouver, Method Design, Industrial Light + Magic, Rise FX, Scanline VFX, Black Mountain, One of Us, Trixter, Lola VFX, Bluebolt, Exozet Effects, ARRI Digital Film and Gradient Effects. The film’s technical superiority can’t be compared to anything released that year and afterwards: no other film I’ve seen is so visually resplendent, complex and impressive. Its effects do not look like they were expertly crafted by some VFX wunderkinds, they look realistic enough to make you believe the CGI-heavy scenes were shot on a real set. They make you believe you are really watching a futuristic location or some other stunning location, with lots of details and movements. Even now, that’s no mean feat. The only other films that created such an elaborate, real-looking digital environment that year were Oscar winner and nominee Life of Pi and Prometheus, but the great majority of the latter was still actually shot on real sets. The prosthetic work also ended up being an area of intense collaboration between practical and digital artists so that the actors’ faces weren’t always entirely unrecognisable. Senior visual effects supervisor Dan Glass explained: “[for the 2012 segment] they [from Lola VFX] shrank [Hugo] Weaving’s head to better fit the body, especially the jaw line, warping it and painting back any missing areas. The result also helped to feminize the jaw structure. Small but effective tricks like this make it convincing”. Cloud Atlas possesses unprecedented visual sophistication no other film can offer. It has a vision, charm and ambition, and it delivers. It deserved to be nominated. Well, actually, it deserved to win.

In regards of the Best Makeup and Hairstyling, I know some critics said all that make-up was a waste of money, but it must be noted makeup artists and hair designers Daniel Parker and Jeremy Woodhead did a very good job: I didn’t even realize certain actors were in certain segments until the credits rolled. The prosthetics used to age James D’Arcy were much better than those applied on Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar (2011). Now that’s a case of “HIRE DIFFERENT ACTORS”.

Cloud Atlas also received criticism for the use of what is sometimes labelled ‘yellowface’ makeup to allow non-Asian actors to portray Asian characters in the neo-Seoul segment. The directors responded that nearly all the actors portrayed multiple roles of various nationalities, ethnicities and genders – an American woman of color played a German Jewish white woman, a Native woman, an Indian woman and an Asian man; two Asian women played two white women; five white Englishmen played five Asian men; an Asian woman played a Mexican woman; a white American woman played an Asian man; and two men played two women – across a 500-year story arc, showing “the continuity of souls” critical to the story. I think Cloud Atlas would’ve probably still worked if they cast different actors for the various segments while maintaining the birthmarks for continuity, but I also find the directors’ response to be valid. I believe Cloud Atlas could’ve turned out into a very messy, truly offensive deal had it fell into less intelligent, capable hands than those of Tykwer and the Wachowskis, but they knew exactly what they were doing and how to make this particular use of make-up work within the narrative of their story.

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2 thoughts on “(Awards season) At the Movies: Revisiting recent Oscar snubs

  1. Good call, and a very good film. A bit of a departure for Cronenberg, but excellent to see how he allowed the plot to develop through actors talking to each other, trusting their body language and the things they said to keep it going instead of inter-cutting with superfluous action scenes e.g. some visual representation of their dreams.

    As for Keira Knightley, she really did shine in it. Quite something to come out of a film starring Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender as the most memorable performance, but then she stole it with the development of her character, the facial and bodily contortions in the early scenes of her hysteria blending into controlled poise, whilst the emotions are writ just as large.

    A shame about the Oscars snub, though in fairness I think the voting process within the Academy often has so little to do with the best work and performances that who gets it is rendered meaningless. This was the year that Meryl Streep won it for playing Margaret Thatcher, wasn’t it? Not a bad impersonation, not a patch on this, but then it’s Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher. It was a shoo-in.

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  2. There’s no denying there’s some real issues at the moment with the awards. And as you pointed out – it’s not just BLACK or WHITE. I had this discussion with a friend earlier about race and cinema. The idea of a black James Bond. Fair enough, but…what about an Indian James Bond? Or Hispanic? Or Asian? The awards highlight such issues even more, focusing so much on race….in many ways when clearly it should just be a case of the winner goes to ….whoever was the best, so open up the flood gates and start to recognize more films and talent from all over the planet. It’s mad isn’t it?

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