Getting to Know Harry

Harry Potter Logo

Back in March, when I was told that Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows was the next project I was going to be working on, I wasn’t that excited about it. I was fired up that it was going to be a high profile project, and that the team of people that Framestore were putting together to work on it was great. But I wasn’t bothered that it was Harry Potter.

I was never that interested in Harry Potter. I’ve never really been a fan of the wizard and magic genre. I hadn’t read any of the books and I quite enjoyed it when people were surprised that I’d never watched any of the movies. I was probably being quite pompous about it, and felt that it was just for kids.

My girlfriend hadn’t read or watched any Potter either. When I started on the project we knew that we would want to watch the film I was working on and as it was the seventh in the series, we felt that we should watch the others first. We also decided to read the books before we saw the films as that was how most people had already experienced them.

I found the first two books were pretty childish and got through them pretty quickly. They weren’t very substantial but were exciting enough that once I got stuck in, they were hard to put down. I enjoyed Rowling’s descriptive writing which, in some parts, reminded me of Roald Dahl. The Dursleys in particular could have easily come straight from Matilda or George’s Marvellous Medicine.

I especially loved Hogwarts though. I loved the idea of the paintings that lived, the house common rooms, the whole school watching quidditch matches and sitting together in the Great Hall. Most of all I loved the descriptions of the food. I honestly don’t understand how there wasn’t an obesity epidemic at the school. If I ate like they did, I would have needed a reinforced broomstick.

I really enjoyed how Rowling matured the books as the series went along. The language, topics and tone all got progressively more adult through the volumes. This was really obvious when reading them in such a short space of time. By the time I’d got to the last three books, I was really engaging with the characters. I think Rowling did a great job of describing the tension and confusion that Harry and Ron felt as they grew up and became aware of girls and this thread of the story really struck a chord with me.

It was just as interesting watching the first six movies in quick succession. The books contain much more detail than you could ever get into a film. Generally, I was impressed with how they managed to rearrange plots to leave out expendable sections of the story, but it never felt like a whole school year had passed in the movies. It would be interesting to know what I would have made of the films if I had seen them without reading the books.

In the same way that the first two books were pretty childish, the first two movies were aimed at a pretty young audience and I felt far too old to be watching them. Overall the movies never grabbed me as much as the books did. I think this was partly to do with the three main young actors, who let’s face it, weren’t great. I thought some of the other casting was perfect though. I always enjoy watching Alan Rickman and he made the perfect Snape, Maggie Smith was equally as good as McGonagall and Hagrid couldn’t have been anyone but Robbie Coltrane.

While I’m on the cast, probably the worst thing about any of the movies were the Weasley twins. In the books I had imagined them to be so much cooler. The way they were portrayed in the films ruined them and the actors that played them were appalling. Surely they could have found a better pair of ginger twins somewhere, and if they couldn’t, then it would have been a legitimate use of visual effects to use one actor for the two of them instead of the guys they ended up with.

The eight years between The Philosophers Stone and The Half Blood Prince is a pretty long time in the world of visual effects.
Back at the beginning of the the decade, digital compositing and CGI effects had become relatively common with movies like Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Mummy Returns and Jurassic Park III all being released in the same year. The Philosophers Stone had its fair share of effects, some of which were great and passed the test of time. The enchanted ceiling effect in the Great Hall looked just as good in the first film as it did in the last.

But in other cases, I can’t believe the effects were ever convincing.

The sequence that looked the most dated was the quidditch. Technology was getting to the point where digital humans were becoming an option technically, but at an artistic level it hadn’t quite been cracked back in 2001. It wasn’t just The Philosophers Stone that had bad CGI humans in, The Matrix Revolutions and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King both suffered even a couple of years later, but the quidditch sequence just looked like a computer game. The animation was too simple and the lighting and rendering was lacking all the little nuances they would have today. I don’t think they ever quite nailed the quidditch scenes as the movies went on but these effects were among those that improved the most in just a few short years.

What I think is most interesting about the visual effects is that the principles behind them didn’t really change from the first film to the last but the improvements in these techniques over the eight years was amazing. Part of this is down to technology but a lot of it is just down to experience. I recognised names in the paint and roto credits of the earlier films who are now lead compositors or supervisors on the later movies. The motion picture visual effects industry in London has grown up around the Potter franchise.

I started reading The Deathly Hallows just as we finished our work on the first of the two Deathly Hallows movies. One evening, on the tube, I reached a sentence in the book that described one of my shots. It was surprising how exciting it was. I did feel like I had taken it too far when I realised I was wearing my crew hoodie with Voldermort’s dark mark on the sleeve at the same time.

I’m really glad I read the books. I’m glad I got sucked in and enjoyed them so much. I’ve seen exactly why everyone was so excited about them at the time and why everyone still loves them. Getting involved with the story so much while working on the effects doesn’t usually happen. The work that Framestore has created for The Deathly Hallows Part 1 looks amazing. I can’t wait for everyone to get to see it. I can’t wait to see the movie myself. I’m really excited that I’ve been part of the Harry Potter story and I’m really hoping that I get to work on the final film.