Cinesite on the Harry Potter films

Cinesite was involved in all 8 of the Harry Potter films providing physical and digital effects, including building models. The miniature of Hogwarts school was built at 1:24th scale, revisited and added to for each film as the character of the castle evolved and the focus of the narrative on new areas of the school developed. The model shop was headed by Jose Granell, who has 30 years of experience in physical effects and miniatures, working alongside 85 other artists and crew members who were involved with the model. Apparently if all the hours were added together for the time spent building and reworking the model by those 86 craftsmen, it would add up to over 74 years! Below is Jose Granell and his model.

Figure 1 Hogwarts Model ( MailOnline 2012)

The miniature was highly finished, so that scenes like the dragon chase in The Goblet of Fire could be filmed entirely within that miniature environment and stand up to close scrutiny. In fact, the model makers built a 1:16th scale version of Dumbledores’ Tower for the section where Harry and the dragon are clambering over the roof, to go alongside the 14 shots using the 1:24th scale model and the close up texture stills.

Director Peter Jackson has talked about the accepted rule of miniatures: keep it short so the audience doesn’t have time to notice it’s not real. I think sequences like this disprove this theory and show how far the art of miniature making and the lighting and filming of them has developed. Could the same realism on such an exposed sequence be achieved through CGI? In the future I am hoping to look into software digital artists are using and developing to replicate real life, and how effective these are alongside any pitfalls they still have in achieving this.

When the owlery was needed for The Goblet of Fire they also had to built at 1:16th scale. The clock tower was added in the third film The Prisoner of Azkaban and developed further in later films, and the green houses had to be added in a similar fashion. These are just a few examples of how the complexity of the model was developed, since the same miniature was used for exterior shots in every film. Live action work for the film was split between Durham Cathedral and Alnwick Castle in terms of the castle exteriors, and within the model the courtyards from these locations were incorporated which adds another level of realism. The model was also scanned to create the digital model for CGI shots. By having the model, and it being built at such detail, it saved the digital artists a lot of time. In this way they already had a basis to work on for the CGI shots that were needed. So much detail went into the model that real plants were actually used for the foliage, hinges were put on doors and windows, and fibre optic lights were used for night time shots which could even give the  impression of students roaming the corridors. This amazing model is on show at the WB studios, alongside real size sets and props etc, and I’m hoping to go down the Leavesden in the new year and have a look.

They also built a 1:16th scale Hogsmeade village. It began by replicating certain buildings already designed and built as sets for the live action filming, and adding the rest of the village. It was designed with very tall narrow chimneys just like a lot of villages in Scotland, as you can see below. The shops all had miniature wares which had to be individually made so that the model could stand up to super close up shots. The snow that covered the village is dendritic salt, which is applied using a sieve.

Figure 2 Hogsmeade Village ( McCabe 2011)

Figure 3 The Shrieking Shack ( McCabe 2011)

The exterior of the Shrieking Shack was filmed using a model for The Prisoner of Azkaban. You can see above the matte painting behind that blends with the model brilliantly.  I’ve noticed even in the limited images I’ve seen of the production of these films that they used physical matte paintings in the filming rather than digital ones, which is another traditional physical visual effect that gives the director an immediate outcome. The interior set for the Shrieking Shack needed to sway, so they used a miniature to determine how this would work before building a full size steel structure that was moved using hydraulics. Testing ideas is another use of models that can help save time and money before building a full size set. The Weasley’s lopsided house was also built as a miniature, as you can see below.

Figure 4 The Weasley’s House (McCabe 2011)

For the live action, the lower portion was built full size and with the footage of the miniature is composited and blended together for the final shots for the film using CGI. So, although in some ways CGI has taken work away from model shops, the way miniatures are shot, and the look of the final shots are enhanced by what CGI can achieve. The potential for replicating realism is greater when the two techniques work together, and this is exactly how they are being used in film at the moment.

The model unit shot for 16 weeks and produced in excess of 75 shots just for The Prisoner of Azkaban alone. I find it hard to believe this evidence could suggest that the use of miniatures is a dying art, especially when you view the final product and how seamlessly the models in the Harry Potter films blend with the live action. I think the audience would have a hard time working out which were built sets and which were miniatures. In fact, I’m starting to think I should use this idea as an experiment on the subject. While watching a film, and without prompting, can the average person pick the miniature shots? Can they explain why they think this? I’ll have a think about this and revisit it in the future. Could I also ask them to locate CGI work? Do they find it easier to spot CGI or miniatures, and is this down to the level of realism they achieve? I think this could be an interesting experiment in finding out what an un-biased average cinemagoer sees when they are watching a film. Films like John Carter can’t just be aimed at the small cross section that can appreciate the technical side of producing the digital effects. They need to have universal appeal in terms of design and look alongside an arresting narrative, and I would say this was part of why the film was not a huge success at the time.


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