Graham Edwards reflects on the franchise that put the UK visual effects industry on the map
On 4 November, 2001, the Odeon Leicester Square hosted the world premiere of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, adapted from the award-winning novel by J.K. Rowling. The film made stars of a trio of unknown child actors — Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley — and transported audiences into a magical world of wizards and wonder. Nearly ten years later, on 7 July, 2011, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the eighth and final film in what had become not so much a successful franchise as a global juggernaut, premiered at three cinemas simultaneously in London’s West End.
The Harry Potter films are widely regarded as a success story for the UK film business, and in particular its visual effects industry. Now, twenty years after the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, visual effects is more in demand than ever before. What better time to reflect on the magic spell cast by this beloved franchise?
In 2000, having already acquired the rights to the first books in the Harry Potter series, Warner Brothers leased the UK’s Leavesden Studios complex and, in September of that year, began production on Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone. The studio maintained Leavesden as the centre of operations for the entire run of films, providing a welcome boost to what had been a beleaguered industry. “The UK industry had gone through a really terrible period in the mid-late ‘80s,” said Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission. “When Warner Brothers made the decision to base Harry Potter at Leavesden, it had a gigantic ripple effect, which accelerated in 2007 when we got the tax credit established as well.”
The benefits afforded by a decade of almost continuous production extended to the visual effects industry — a vital contributor to a film franchise overflowing with fantastical imagery. “Before Harry Potter, the UK visual effects industry was a really a kind of cottage industry,” Wootton commented. “There was a tiny group of talented companies — they had everything in terms of energy and enthusiasm and talent, but they needed something to anchor themselves against. Harry Potter was the first real anchor that meant they had a consistent pipeline of work to develop from.”
“I think the Harry Potter films really put the UK film industry on the map,” agreed Fiona Walkinshaw, global managing director of film at Framestore. “I think it’s absolutely fair to say that the films fast-tracked the growth of Soho’s visual effects industry. The films came to us at a time when digital visual effects was growing, and the franchise effectively doubled our workload. This allowed for rapid yet stable growth at a really important time, just as the global demand for huge, effects-powered tentpoles really began to ramp up.”
Tim Burke began his Harry Potter odyssey on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second film, working as visual effects supervisor at Mill Film. He took up production-side roles on all the following Harry Potter films, and was overall visual supervisor on the final four in the series, working closely with director David Yates. “The first Harry Potter started with a set of rules on visual effects production that were pretty much brought over by ILM,” said Burke, “because at that time people didn’t really know how to do it in this country. That’s not to belittle the work that was done before the Harry Potter films — I was working on those films myself — there just wasn’t a real industry here like there is now. All those rules for how to handle big shows had to be set in place.”
Based in the US, ILM and Sony Pictures Imageworks handled the bulk of the visual effects on Philosopher’s Stone, supported by UK companies including Mill Film and MPC. With each successive film, the proportion of work allotted to the UK contingent grew to the point where they dominated. “At Framestore, we were already doing successful large-scale television work,” noted Fiona Walkinshaw. “The Harry Potter films meant we could build on this experience and take it to the next level. The work was challenging and interesting, both artistically and technologically, and it was also a huge shot in the arm for our talent. The films enabled us to grow out our animation team and to finesse aspects of our creature and effects work; we could focus on building robust pipelines as we knew we could bank on getting more business; and they also taught us how to produce at scale.”
Watching the Harry Potter films in sequence opens a window on some major developments in visual effects through the decade in which they were produced. Take Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the heart of the wizarding world’s educational system and the setting for many of the films’ most memorable scenes. For the first movie, Mill Film photographed a 1/24-scale model castle under motion control. Model unit supervisor Robert Scott oversaw construction of the truly gargantuan miniature Hogwarts, which was big enough to occupy its own stage at Leavesden, with Rob Delicata as model unit producer.
The miniature photography was combined with background plates shot in Scotland and enhanced with visual effects, a methodology that evolved through the series. “We would track the background plates and plug the move into the motion control camera,” said Tim Burke. “Shooting multiple passes gave us control in compositing to put the different elements together. It was very time-consuming, and very restrictive because you were tied into the plates. You couldn’t change anything or rebuild CG environments like you can now; just rendering a little patch to fix something was so time-consuming. But it was the normal way of working at the time, so it wasn’t seen as a problem. As things progressed and technology improved, we started to build more digital environments and enhance the castle digitally. But were still dealing with these huge models.”
Everything changed when it came to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, in which the ancient ramparts of Hogwarts take a monumental pounding in the climactic showdown between Harry Potter and his arch-enemy Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). The spectacular action presented the visual effects team with a dilemma. “We needed the flexibility to build multiple versions of the school in various stages of destruction,” explained Burke, “and we needed to be able to destroy it in shots. We also needed the flexibility to be able to design some of those shots as we went along, because both of the Deathly Hallows films were shot as one big project across a year and the script was constantly changing. So we had to decide: should we build a model and destroy it, or were we at the point where we could embrace the idea of building Hogwarts digitally?”
The team opted to commit to a full digital build. This was undertaken by DNEG, where a team of artists replicated the Hogwarts miniature, altering and expanding certain areas to accommodate the required action. “The digital build took about a year,” Burke said, “and it gave us the flexibility to design new shots deep into post-production. David Yates likes to play with the edit in post and quite often recomposed the scene work as story points were changed. That’s representative of the industry as it is now, where everything’s digital and can be changed at the last minute.”
From dragons to goblins, selkies to centaurs, the Harry Potter films are packed with magical creatures and otherworldly characters. While prosthetics and practical effects remained major contributors throughout the series, digital characters stepped further into the spotlight with each new movie.
One notable advancement came in the form of Buckbeak, the friendly half-horse half-eagle hippogriff featured in the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Creature and makeup effects designer Nick Dudman oversaw the creation of three animatronic hippogriffs in various poses, but these were seen only fleetingly in the final cut. “The hippogriff had to walk around, fly, have people on its back,” said Burke. “Also our director, Alfonso Cuarón, was so specific about what its character was. Digital animation was the only way we could do it. The hippogriff was incredibly successful and paved the way for more digital characters.”
Michael Eames, global animation director at Framestore and the company’s animation supervisor on Prisoner of Azkaban, recalled the moment when the first animatronic hippogriff went before the cameras: “It was on a rain-soaked hill just outside of Glencoe, Scotland in the month of May 2003. The plastic protection wraps were taken off the ‘Reclining Posed Pumpkin Patch Hippogriff’ in anticipation of its big moment. Months of preparation and beautiful craftsmanship was about to face the critical and demanding eye of Alfonso Cuarón.” Appalling weather conditions complicated an already difficult shoot with the complex puppet, and the results were disappointing. Consequently, the workload for the Framestore team — initially confined to flying and walking shots — increased drastically to encompass almost every shot of Buckbeak in the film.
“Buckbeak was a huge technical and creative achievement in terms of animation, feather simulation and interaction with the cast,” said Framestore creative director Christian Manz, who progressed from junior compositor on Philosopher’s Stone to Framestore visual effects supervisor on Deathly Hallows: Part 2. “I think that work stands up to this day and really sealed Framestore’s position as one of the leading studios in the world for creature animation. It was also a massive opportunity for artists such as myself to grow and develop, working on such challenging shots, and working alongside amazing people. It also helped Framestore attract talent to join the company to be part of the increasingly popular franchise.”
Twenty years on, the Harry Potter films have cemented their position as one of the UK’s most beloved movie franchises, and their influence on the development of the post-production industry cannot be denied. Many artists who cut their teeth on Harry Potter have gone on to run their own companies, including Angela Barson. “I had only been working in film visual effects for a couple of months when the first Harry Potter film came to town,” Barson recalled. “I was a very junior compositor at MPC with little experience of the industry. I was finishing up on another film and desperately wanted to be given some shots on Harry Potter. With the keenness of youth, I went and asked my producer what I’d be put on next and was deeply disappointed to be told it was going to be Radiator Blues. A week later I discovered that this was the code name for Harry Potter!” In 2009, Barson co-founded BlueBolt, where she is now creative director. “BlueBolt was formed towards the very end of the Harry Potter film franchise, so we were too late to work on any of the films. However, Harry Potter had helped to create such a buoyant industry in London that, with increased Hollywood confidence, it was a great time to setup a new company.”
“The legacy of the Harry Potter films is in those creative artists who came up through working on them,” stated Adrian Wootton. “Not just the writers, directors and actors, but all those incredibly skilled craftspeople, all those brilliant visual artists artist, many of whom are now training other people. Those companies that started off as cottage industries now have global footprints, and our infrastructure — which is probably 25 times bigger than it was in 2001 — is incredibly healthy, competitive and in massive demand.”
As all creative professionals know, hindsight can be a gift or a curse. Regardless, looking back on past projects can sometimes raise a smile. “Like a lot of people, I have this flinch reaction when I watch a film I worked on,” Tim Burke laughed. “You’re hypercritical because, to be honest, some things aren’t always as good as you wanted them to be. But, when Deathly Hallows was on television the other day, I thought I’d have a little look. I watched it and I thought, ‘You know, actually that worked pretty well!’”