The film consists of six interrelated and interwoven stories spanning different time periods: an 1849 diary of an ocean voyage across the Pacific; letters from a composer to his friend in the 1930s; a thriller about a murder at a nuclear power plant set in the 1970s; a farce about a publisher in a nursing home in the present day; a rebellious clone in a futuristic Korea; and the tale of a tribe living in a post-apocalyptical Hawaii, far in the future.
In 1936 Robert Frobisher, a bisexual English musician, finds work as an amanuensis to composer Vyvyan Ayrs. This allows Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, The Cloud Atlas Sextet, and to have an affair with his employers Jewish wife, Jocasta (Halle Berry).
A number of members of the cast played multiple characters. Halle Berry appeared in all six segments playing a radically different character in each: in two segments her character was a leading role; here she played a supporting character; in the other three segments she had non-speaking cameos.
Jeremy Woodhead & Daniel Parker were the hair makeup designers; Kuno Schlegelmilch was credited for makeup concept; Siân Richards was Halle Berry’s personal makeup artist. An army of makeup effects artists & studios worked on sculpting, making & applying the various character prosthetics in the movie including: Filmefex, Animated Extras, Valentina Visintin, Barney Nikolic, Göran Lundström of (EffektStudion), Creatures Inc, Floris Schuller, Pepe Mora …
One artist was offered work on the movie by three different FX companies in different countries.
Siân Richards said in an interview:
The greatest challenges were definitely not having any makeup tests on the big prosthetic makeups. I was literally shown the pieces the day before and the first time they were applied was live on the day of shooting! We had to push the envelope because, whilst this movie had a great budget, what they were doing with that budget was so adventurous … so time was always a premium … Also, I was the only makeup artist attached to one actor, and as such, the physical logistics of moving from unit to unit and unpacking and repacking the kits accordingly was something I never had to deal with. Although I had two kits, there are some things that you just need to have with you all the time, [including] the fail safes and things I have specifically for Halle.
Another huge challenge was getting Jocasta’s makeup right. In the August my first makeup test on Jocasta was done using Kryolan Dermacolour for the base. I loved it and photographed it on set with test lights, but they never shot it on film for us to see. Then I had to go back to the US for a week and whilst I was there, Daniel Parker did another makeup test using skin illustrator which they did not like. We did a third makeup test again using skin Illustrator which was not a success either … [at this point we were just a week out] from shooting Jocasta for the first time. Tom Tykwer, our director, wanted to do another makeup test the weekend prior to shooting. But I knew that the crew was exhausted and needed their weekend … we needed them fresh for Monday … I went to Tom and took the very first makeup test that I photographed back in the August using Dermacolour and showed him the pic on my iPad. When he saw it he said: ‘What is this and why haven’t I seen it before?’ I told him the story and then I said to him: ‘Is this what you want Tom?’, and he said, ‘It’s perfect, it’s exactly what I want’. Then I said to him: ‘Do you trust me? Because everyone needs a rest this weekend and I can bring it on the day.’ Tom replied: ‘I trust you Siân and I know that if you tell me you will give me what I need on the day, then I know you will’, and and he gave me a big hug I can tell you!
That whole weekend I went over and over the various stages of the makeup in my mind… I would go to sleep thinking about the makeup and wake up with a finished look in the forefront of my head! Come Monday I was exhausted. But we did it! And it worked. The relief was unbelievable I have to tell you. Anyone reading this who has been in my shoes will know exactly how I felt. How wonderful to have your director’s implicit trust.