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Winding Down Harry Potter's Visual Effects

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood July 18, 2011 at 2:07AM

One of the mysteries of the Harry Potter series is how much Hollywood--and the Academy--have underappreciated the high-level craftsmanship on display throughout. Immersed in Movies' Bill Desowitz looks at the impact the end of the series will have on its visual effects artists.There's more at stake than the most successful film franchise in history coming to a halt with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. There's also a cottage visual effects industry in London that now has to get weaned off the wizard of Hogwarts.
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Thompson on Hollywood

One of the mysteries of the Harry Potter series is how much Hollywood--and the Academy--have underappreciated the high-level craftsmanship on display throughout. Immersed in Movies' Bill Desowitz looks at the impact the end of the series will have on its visual effects artists.


There's more at stake than the most successful film franchise in history coming to a halt with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. There's also a cottage visual effects industry in London that now has to get weaned off the wizard of Hogwarts.

Double Negative, The Moving Picture Co. (MPC), Framestore, and Cinesite all came of age with Harry in the first decade of the millennium, especially on the third film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, in 2004. That's when George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic passed the baton to the vendors in Soho (due to UK tax incentive issues). In a trial by fire, they quickly learned how to tackle the tentpole's cast of CG creatures and environments, from the creepy Dementors to the thrilling Quidditch matches, from Nagini, Voldemort's loyal snake, to the endearing elf, Dobby.


Thompson on Hollywood
"You can see each year how the level of work progressed at each company and what their strengths were," says Tim Burke, the overall VFX supervisor, who's been on Potter since the second film, The Chamber of Secrets, and who was Oscar-nominated for Prisoner of Azkaban and Deathly Hallows: Part 1.

While the Soho neighbors started out as friendly rivals, they wound up close collaborators: sharing sequences, improving toolsets, dividing the VFX talent, and thriving right along with the super blockbuster. They were on the cusp of globalization and managed to keep up with the growing tech demands of the franchise while working on other Hollywood event films in between installments.

But thanks to advancements in lighting, texturing and rendering, they kept Potter at a consistently high level of photoreal achievement. "Environments, especially, have been a breakthrough, Burke suggests." Just knowing that I can rebuild Scotland more seamlessly and believably… it's all High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI), and that way of photographing textures has given us incredibly detailed shots and the ability to relight things. On this last film, you won't be questioning the world. It's all based on the proprietary tools to stitch this stuff together and make it work."

Indeed, it all comes together for the action-packed finale in which Harry and his pals take on Voldemort and his army at Hogwarts. The result is an operatic flourish in contrast to the road picture that defined Deathly Hallows: Part 1.

The biggest achievement, in fact, was Hogwarts, which was computer-generated for the first time both for budgetary and artistic reasons. Double Negative and MPC split up the school and surrounding environments, and spent 18 months just on the design. "Basically, we were able to design and execute shots right up to final delivery," Burke adds. "It gave us a lot of flexibility. We were able to render things quickly without fussing around. It seems to me that we can turn around iterations so much quicker than ever before."

Since the ongoing war takes place at Hogwarts throughout the second-half of Part 2, it was essential that the battleground display sufficient detail and dynamic compositions, particularly since the final film is the first in 3-D.

"David [Yates, the director] wanted to create these fantastic, big shots that link different parts of the action in different areas, going from outside the school to inside the school," Burke continues. "And all of the development that we've done and the extra high-resolution that we've corrected for have allowed us to fly around [immersively] during critical moments of the battle, and has made the whole experience very visceral."

Still, despite the cumulative impact of the final film, Burke points to the emotional performance of Dobby in Part 1 as a bench mark piece of animation. "If you compare Dobby in Part 1 with Dobby in the second film, they are very different creatures," Burke states. "It was done without motion capture, and it is the result of a humanistic realism that has been achieved in the six or seven years in between."

Other than some long overdue VFX Oscar love for Potter, what now?

"There's plenty of continuing work with Hollywood: I just hope the London houses take advantage of the momentum and continue to improve, but don't over reach and blow it."

This article is related to: Awards, Franchises, Genres, Summer Movies, Exhibition, Production , Oscars, Harry Potter, Sequel, Fantasy, 3D, VFX


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.