A Detour on the Grand Staircase

All right…the main model is still going strong, but I’ve found myself intrigued by a side project: the grand staircase, AKA marble staircase. Much like a parking garage, its interwoven spiraling structures are hard for my brain to visualize, which makes them fascinating to reconstruct.

I’ve specifically focused on the version seen in the first two films…after that, it went through some changes, though those changes remained subtle until Deathly Hallows. But in the first two films, it seems to have been brought to life with the same miniature and full-sized partial set – with digital augmentation. (Incidentally, based off of the few images of the miniature I’ve found, I’m pretty sure it was built on its side at somewhere around 1:3 scale…but don’t quote me on that. If I’m right, that would make the miniature over 50 feet long.) [EDIT: I’ve now found a source that claims it was a 40-foot miniature built at 1:8 scale, which doesn’t seem to work mathematically. I’m not sure what to make of this.]

Initially, my primary goal was to replicate the set. I figured the miniature was kind of its own thing, and I got to work aligning technical drawings and photogrammetry and so forth just for the set. (Each of those small orange shapes is where the camera was for a specific frame from the film…pretty cool to see how the camera moved through the space!)

After more closely studying both films, I came to realize that the available reference material does consistently and explicitly establish the spatial relationships between the set and the miniature. (Thank goodness the different paintings and frames provide excellent reference points!) So I changed tack: the new goal was to create a single model that brought the set, the miniature, and the digital elements together. This was aided by a bit of photogrammetry from Chamber of Secrets that worked WAY better than I thought it would:

So the good news is that I had a lot of information to work with. The bad news is…it was a lot of information! This room is enormous and very repetitive, so it’s easy to get lost in the reference images and forget which staircase is which. I tried to just jump right in with the modeling, but confusion set in pretty fast, so I decided this would just be an exploratory first pass. I kept this mockup simple and not super precise. Still, I kept getting lost, so I spent a long while color coding flights of stairs in both the model and in my reference images. Here’s a glimpse of just part of that process:

It looks like a gaudy mess, but for the first time in my life, I understood the complex geometry of the grand staircase! Things I learned:

  1. In plan view, the stairs form three adjacent squares. The flights that actually move are all part of the middle square.
  2. There were definitely at least 36 flights in the miniature – more likely 38, but I can’t find a clear angle confirming the last 2. Regardless, these cover 19 different levels, each 10 feet high. Almost every levels has 2 landings on opposite walls of the room. (I’m hesitant to call these floors, since Hogwarts isn’t really supposed to have 19 of those…but each landing does have a door…)
  3. In the miniature’s “default configuration”, so to speak, the flights are organized into two separate helical pathways. In the middle floors, these each spiral in a clockwise direction as they ascend on opposite sides of the room. Toward the top and bottom, the two pathways intertwine so they can switch sides. Through most of the model, the two paths are identical; they’re just rotated 180 degrees relative to each other.
  4. The bottom-most level is a bit irregular and doesn’t follow rule #3.
  5. If all the flights that form part of the middle square rotate 90 degrees from their bases, you end up with more of a DNA-like double helix, as opposed to two side-by-side helices.
  6. In the first film, we look all the way up and the stairs seem to continue into infinity. The most distant stairs were added digitally to obscure the top of the miniature. These aren’t part of my model.
  7. In the second film, the camera moves swiftly downward through the miniature; the set is composited in toward the bottom. Below the set are still more stairs; these were created by shooting the miniature again from a different angle and compositing it in as the bottom.

Clear as mud, right? Yeah, it’s hard to visualize. But the rough mockup was a success in that it gave me a clear roadmap for making a serious attempt at modeling the grand staircase. I’ve already begun, and I’m looking forward to sharing the details in a future post! In the meantime, here’s an orthogonal elevation-style view of the mockup, just for fun.

10 thoughts on “A Detour on the Grand Staircase

  1. Really fascinating side project to compliment the exterior you’re working on! I’m wondering why you chose the staircase as it appears in the first 2 films, was there clearer documentation of the miniature perhaps?
    As an aside- I’ve always wondered what’s at the very bottom. In ours we currently have a fairly blank stone floor, but I could swear there’s a shot in the prisoner of Azkaban (when they’re moving up to the Fat Lady for the first time in the year just after the feast) where you can make out something at the bottom. Not sure about that…

    As an extra aside, spotted something very curious on what’s dubbed the ‘herbology rower’ near its base… https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/710837706682269776/711033624383717386/image0.png
    It seems like a door… do wizards have fire escapes? Who knows.
    Great progress!

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, I chose the first one because that was the one for which I had some set blueprints and photos of the miniature. I may end up doing the other versions too, though. Regarding the bottom, we never do see it very clearly, but you may be thinking of the shot in Chamber of Secrets when the camera moves downward through the miniature and onto the set. You can glimpse the bottom a bit but it’s hard to make out, and it’s also unclear whether that was an actual addition to the miniature or a digital extension or what. The floor of the SS miniature was just below the large window, but there are other shots that suggest the floor is supposed to be much lower. Kinda confusing.

      Interesting about that door, BTW – I never noticed that before!

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  2. Oh, man, this is insanely cool – can’t believe you took on the challenge of building this thing! (There are a lot of complicated interior sets for the castle, but I feel like the Grand Staircase is simultaneously the coolest, most iconic and most difficult to replicate of the entire bunch.) Can’t wait to see this thing in action – is the ultimate plan to have an animation of the stairs rotating in the model?

    So much interesting stuff in this post! Maybe I should number my thoughts for ease of reading…

    1) It’d be really interesting to see how / if the Grand Staircase fits into the Turris Magnus – I loved the comparison shot you did of the Dumbledore’s office mockup right next to his tower! Are you planning on doing anything like that here? =)

    2) I remember that shot from Chamber – can’t believe it worked so well! I freakin’ love getting a glimpse behind the scenes into your mockup process, as well – that’s a lot of stairs!

    3) 19 floors?! That’s so interesting – don’t think anyone’s ever properly managed to count them before! Drinking in all the detail you discovered about the geometry of the staircase, too – it’s awesome to finally find out how it all moves and swings together.

    4) Not sure if you’ve already seen this, but I figured it might be interesting if not. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how the 3D artists at Bright Light went about building their version of Hogwarts, complete with some very familiar looking colourful mockups of the layout (02:50 in particular!)…

    5) Obviously this isn’t quite canon and the developers made a few sacrifices in the interests of gameplay and ease of navigation, but here’s my two cents on the bottom-of-the-staircase question. In the Order of the Phoenix videogame, the bottom of the staircase looks exactly like your mockup before terminating in a rough stone floor. There’s then a door leading to a passageway that curves round, sticking close to the outer wall of the Turris Magnus, before taking you out into the Quad Courtyard.

    Of course, we never get to see anyone taking this trip in any of the movies, so it’s not strictly official – but the fifth and sixth videogames are notable for how much of an effort they made to reconcile sets, miniatures and different films, and they did have access to Gary Tomkins and all the blueprints from the movie when designing their version of the castle. So on the whole I’m generally inclined to look favourably on that iteration of Hogwarts; it certainly feels like you’re running through the castle when you play it. (And it does sort of make sense that there’d be a route from the bottom of the marble staircase tower into the interior courtyard, too…)

    6) Something I’ve always wondered, lol – what’s your take on the massive window in the staircase set? I love it aesthetically and it’s an inspired way of lighting such an enormous room… but as far as I can tell there’s nowhere for it to match up to on the miniature, haha. (Maybe we just gotta put it down to the wonders of magical architecture, like the Great Hall ceiling.)

    Can’t wait to see more of this set as it develops! Phenomenal job with the recreation and accuracy as always. =)

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts! This side project is definitely interesting in that the repetition makes it harder at first (because it’s so confusing) and then easier later on (because you can duplicate the same elements over and over again). It’s been fun!

      I’ve begun the “real” model of the staircases now, and they do indeed animate! That’s one of the biggest ongoing challenges because of the way the balustrades on the landings have to move around, and because certain flights will collide with each other if they move simultaneously (but certain flights have to move to get out of the way of others…). But yes, they will animate! In fact, here’s a little preview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UOUU9kPOIU

      1) I will most definitely be showing some comparisons with the scale of the tower’s exterior! Great minds think alike. 😀 Based on some preliminary tests, I think it actually sorta does fit…kinda! Better than Dumbledore’s office, at least.

      2) A lot of stairs indeed. =| Haha I definitely see moving staircases when I close my eyes some nights.

      3) Yep yep, 19 of ’em! Of course, that doesn’t include any of the extra levels added below the bottom of the set/miniature (roughly the same height).

      4/5) Yes, the OOTP and HBP games provide a very insightful attempt at reconciling the exteriors and interiors! From what I’ve seen, they did a fantastic job of capturing the overall feel of the staircases specifically, even if some of the specifics are a little different by necessity. I hadn’t seen that video in a while – thanks for reminding me of its existence!

      6) That window is interesting indeed. I’ve never seen any shots of the miniature that show that window on the exterior…but then again, I’ve never seen a shot of the corresponding wall on the miniature. It’s kind of a blind spot. There’s a spot at the southeast corner of the quad where the wall cuts across at a 45-degree angle, right next to the turris magnus, and that wall roughly corresponds to where that window would go. They did include it in the games right there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was there in the miniature, of course: https://youtu.be/fJ7_fcu_RSQ?t=11373

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      1. Oh man you have no idea how satisfying it is to see someone finally solve the Mystery of the Mega-Huge Window! (Not that it actually seems to have been all that much of a mystery, haha – I must’ve walked through that courtyard hundreds of times in the games, and did I spot that thumping great window? No I did not.) But it’s awesome to Bright Light cared that much about making interior and exterior match up; another Hogwarts mystery ticked off the list via this blog, cheers!

        I, too, am now incredibly anxious to see what the interior walls of the Quad Courtyard actually look like on the miniature – as far as I know no one’s ever bothered to get a shot of it at the Studio Tour. That’s definitely going on my list for the next time I visit… see if I can angle a camera such that those secrets are revealed. Might need a selfie stick, lol, but we’ll see if I can sweet-talk the room staff. (Apart from anything else, I’d really like to know whether the cloisters and stairs we see in the videogame were invented for gameplay reasons, or whether they’ve been sitting quietly inside the miniature all along…)

        Can’t wait to see the tower interior/exterior scale comparisons 😀 that’s another thing nobody’s ever done, it’s gonna be so interesting! (I mean, the Turris Magnus is HUGE, but then again, you counted 19 floors, so…)

        Also HOLY CRAP that animation is so cool! Can’t believe you’re doing the balustrades as well – one of my favourite special effects shots in the entire franchise comes in Philosopher’s Stone, where we see the balustrade retract into the wall before the stairs start to move. That one piece of mechanical detailing just completely sold the effect for me; I remember thinking, as a kid, ‘ahhh, okay. That’s how those stairs work.’ And from that moment on I bought into the entire magical thing.

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    2. I know exactly what you mean about those moving stairs! I had a similar reaction back in 2001.

      I’ve found some shots that show a bit of the quad interior from the Studio Tour, but most of it simply isn’t visible from the walking paths around the model. From the photos I have seen, I know that it is indeed different from the games – the hospital wing tower does come downward along the west wall like in the games, but there are no cloisters or staircases beneath that. (There were Gloucester Cathedral-style cloisters down there as of Chamber of Secrets, but I don’t know when those were removed.)

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