George Hull - Cloud Atlas Design Analysis

Ok, I'm going to try something a little different today - rather than a "simple" illustration technique breakdown, let's look at this painting and try to see the design problems and solutions that went into it.  

Environment concept from "Cloud Atlas."

Environment concept from "Cloud Atlas."

First off, I think this is beautiful.  He's hitting my favorite colours, my favorite subjects, and my favorite genre.  I could spend this entire post breaking down how he did it, and that would be a lot of fun - but as a friend reminded me lately, your "visual development" needs some "development" as well as visual.  We're here to solve problems, not paint pretty pictures.

Clearly, I had nothing to do with this movie.  I don't know what the AD was thinking, and I don't know when in the process this was painted....but I have seen the movie, so I can make some guesses.

One of the key locations in the movie is Neo Seoul.  The oceans have risen, and a new high tech city rises above the old one.  This is a city of contrasts between rich and poor, and one where a dirty secret lies below the surface.  

With that in mind, some of the design problems George needed to solve:

  • Where is this?
  • When is it?
  • What kind of world is it?
  • What happened between now and the setting of the movie?


Where is this?  We have shining neon Korean signs in the background, and foreground boats that harken to ancient Asian fishing boats.

When is it?  There are ruined modern skyscrapers in the foreground, dwarfed by high tech buildings in the background.  Clearly, this is the future, not some alien planet, but one we used to recognize.

What kind of world is it?  One of contrasts.  The most obvious is the blue background and the dirty warm yellow/brown foreground.  From the distance, it is a high tech wonderland, but up close?  A dirty, ruined place with a rotten foundation.  The closer you get to the foreground, the more ruined and low-tech it becomes.  The leftovers of the old world burn in the midground, while people scramble over rocks furtively in the foreground.

What happened?  First off, the water rose.  We can see the harbor, as well as what look like dams on either side, trying to hold back the ocean.  There's been violence.  There has been a disregard for the past.  There has been an arrogance to push up into neon fantasy towers.

Do you see how he has solved the problems of quickly showing an audience what is going on?  You don't need to know anything about this movie at all to know what is happening in about 2 seconds, which is the time you get for most establishing shots.

Let's look closer!

Let's look closer!

Look at the "fantasy shapes" of the buildings in the background.  They were designed to read as futuristic,but also as unreal and lacking foundations.  We can't see how any of them touch the ground, they are obscured.  Compare that to the designs for the modern buildings, and how we see their foundations literally being swallowed up by the water, even as the dams try to hold it back.

If George had of given the Neo-Seoul buildings the same attention to detail as the foreground, he would have lost some of the sense of "otherness" about them.  

The foreground elements are significantly more "spikey" and ramshackle looking than the rounded and graceful curves of the background.  The dark parts are a lot scarier and more dangerous, and this is how he's show it.  The fires indicate chaos, and a lack of care.

the other side

the other side

Over here, the people are literally crawling underneath the crushing weight of the world above them.  Imagine how different it would feel if they were standing on a concrete pier instead of rocks.  Choices were made in the design to communicate as rapidly and clearly as possible.  It's not about a good composition (although this is a good composition), but how to pack in as many clues as possible without ruining the stew.  This is what it means to design an environment for a film.

George's techniques are well executed, but there's nothing here we haven't talked about in weeks past.  A bit of photo, a lot of painting smaller shapes to unify, and then a lighting/atmospheric perspective pass to bring it together.

If you'd like to see more of his work (and you should, it's awesome), here is his site.

Thanks for reading!  I hope you found this less-technique analysis helpful.  Remember:  Just as important as "how to paint" is "what should you be painting" - We are designers.