More from our exciting series, Behind the Lens: Creative COW's Debra Kaufman had an opportunity to speak with Cinesite 2D supervisor Andy Robinson and 3D supervisor Holger Voss about their facility's work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. One thing is clear to anyone who's followed the Harry Potter franchise: the movies, which began in 2001, are a visual representation of the increasing maturity of visual effects artists and their technology. It's more than just Voldemort's nose, too, that Cinesite has created. Look behind the lens and unveil the magic.
Warner Bros. Ent. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Trailer
The end of author J.K. Rowling's much beloved Harry Potter franchise arrived on July 14 with the opening night of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. And it came with a magical spell that broke all box office records for highest grossing opening weekend, at $169.2 million on around 11,100 screens at 4,375 locations, according to Box Office Mojo. The movie had made over $542 million worldwide after a mere four days of release.
Creative COW's Debra Kaufman had an opportunity to speak with Cinesite 2D supervisor Andy Robinson and 3D supervisor Holger Voss about their facility's work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. A bit of background: The London-based Cinesite has worked on every Harry Potter film in the series, for a total of 2,000 shots over the 8-film franchise. Robinson has worked on three previous Potter films (Goblet of Fire, Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows Part 1) as well as The Dark Knight, The Golden Compass and V for Vendetta, among his many credits. Voss worked on three as well (Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows Part 1); his other credits include The Nutcracker in 3D, The Golden Compass and The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Floating candles in the Great Hall at Hogwarts
One thing is clear to anyone who's followed the Harry Potter franchise: the movies, which began in 2001, are a visual representation of the increasing maturity of visual effects artists and their technology. "They've definitely gotten more complicated and the nature of the effects have gotten more complicated, especially in this film which is so action-packed," says Robinson. "In this film, it's all action, the effects are complex and there's a lot going on."
The Cinesite team was brought in to the film in April 2009, right after the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. "We got the script and breakdown and then bid on every sequence that played to our strengths," says Robinson. "So it's a two-year process."
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
According to Robinson and Voss, Cinesite worked on over 400 visual effects shots, of which 252 made it into the final film. Cinesite's first visual effects appear early on in the film, as Professor Minerva MacGonagall (Maggie Smith) fires a flaming wand whip at Snape, who defends himself. Other new wand effects include the iron chains that Harry fires at a Deatheater, Ron's inky spell that envelops a Deatheater, and a wand bolt deflection that destroys part of the CG set. But the vast majority of Cinesite's work coalesced around two effects: the digital replacement of Lord Voldemort's nose and a digital set extension to the marble staircase.
Replacing Voldemort's nose was a natural for Cinesite, says Voss, and a job the facility had already done for Deathly Hallows Part 1. "We've done a lot of facial replacement with dogs on Marmaduke, Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Underdog," he notes. Cinesite developed several new tools to handle the effects in Deathly Hallows Part 2, one of them being a skin shader to improve on the replication of skin properties for Voldemort's nose area. "On Voldemort, our brief and our biggest challenge was to retain as much live action performance as we could," says Robinson. "We didn't want the digital nose to detract from Ralph Fiennes' performance. David Yates is a very character-driven director so he doesn't want the digital effects to feature prominently over the actor's performance. To have something that is fantastical and created from a digital perspective fit completely in with a normal environment--in other words, an invisible effect--was the challenge."
Replacing Voldemort's nose was a natural for Cinesite.
Exquisitely executed match-moving was central to the job of replacing Voldemort's nose. "Because it's based on performance and how the edit evolved, if they chose a new take or performance, we had to facially track the performance and match his vocal," says Voss, who notes that the pipeline focused on making this process as streamlined as possible. A core tracking team of between five and 14 people focused on this job.
The marble staircase set extension was another natural section for the visual effects company. "Cinesite has always done environments," says Robinson. "We're well known for that. In the sixth Harry Potter (Half-Blood Prince), we destructed the Great Hall, blowing out the great stained glass window, and we turned that around in a fairly short period of time. That probably gave us a leg up."
In other Harry Potter films, the marble staircase moves; in Deathly Hallows Part 2, it is static...but endless. Cinesite's task would be to create all the extensions to a massive set piece built up to the rafters at Pinewood Studios. "It goes off into numerous levels and a lot of the action takes place on it," says Robinson. "If they're fighting in the Great Hall, they run up on the staircase during the fight. We had to deal with many different times of days and many different types of interaction. The staircase had to be flexible in its look and ability to be destroyed."
Creating the marble staircase--which appeared in so many scenes--also meant working around a constantly changing edit. "The plates were turned over very late," says Voss. "And we had to be able to create the staircase shots in a very small amount of time. We had to anticipate what was needed, so we built a full CG staircase that would hold up in any circumstance and could mesh with the level of destruction in the photography."
Percy Weasley leading Hogwarts' first-years to Gryffindor Tower in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Other effects from Cinesite included animated oil paintings, something the company has done in earlier Potter films. For this film, they animated characters fleeing from one portrait to the next in 15 oil paintings hanging on the wall above the marble staircase. Cinesite also again created a Patronus doe: a fully furred CG doe that is emitted from a swirl of ribbons from Snape's wand.
Ron Weasley receives the Howler in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Cinesite's core team of 40 artists increased to 70 at the peak of production. For 3D, the main software utilized was Autodesk Maya, but the team also used Side Effects Houdini and Pixologic's ZBrush. For 2D, the main tool was The Foundry's Nuke. For the first time, the team used global illumination with Pixar's Renderman. "It was essential to have a photoreal light transport for interiors," says Voss. "It gives you a more realistic scene without doing a lot of work." Cinesite artists also used Pulldownit, a rigid body dynamic solver.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
To get newcomers on the team up to speed, especially on in-house proprietary tools, Cinesite has created a Wikisite for tutorials. "It was made up on internal documents that, as people got on the show, we had them read so we could walk them through it," explains Robinson. "We also relied heavily on department heads and tracking, lighting and compositing leads. We surrounded ourselves with a core team we could rely on so we didn't have to give the artists instructions. We handle a mountain of information which is developed as a company-wide tool, but we're always modifying the database to suit every film."
Cinesite's model of Hogwarts
Logistics was another aspect of working on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. With so many visual effects houses involved, Cinesite--as well as all the other facilities--had to interact with one another. "It's not creatively challenging but organizationally challenging," says Robinson. "There's no unified data-sharing format. People have discussed that around London but it hasn't been realized yet. It's still very ad hoc. We all have our own proprietary tools, and if you just send over a file, we'd be able to read each other's proprietary tools. We have to strip it down to the basics or just estimate. We shared images, not data."
Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley on their way to Hagrid's house for the Care of Magical Creatures class in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Voss notes that he and Robinson carefully approved the work of each department. "You'd never get to the end stage on the comp where it didn't look right," he said. "We had a 2K full-film resolution review suite with ASSIMILATE SCRATCH software and color-calibrated projectors. From tracking to lighting to rotoscoping and compositing, we reviewed each step in the chain at full film resolution."
Both Robinson and Voss enthuse about the pleasure of having worked on the Harry Potter films. "They're very organized and know exactly what they want and how to do things," says Robinson. "It's enjoyable to work on a franchise with a strong art direction sense. You have the other films to draw on when you create effects, where they've done something similar and then bring it up to date. The history always contributes to the work we do on films."
Debra Kaufman was a huge fan of Lord of the Rings, which primed her for more magic with the Harry Potter franchise. She has been covering digital visual effects since the early days, and loves writing about the art and science behind them.
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