Hogwarts Landscape Strategizing

Today’s post is mostly a big block of text, so let’s at least start with a few random renders of the project so far:

The viaduct area in Prisoner of Azkaban
The Transfiguration courtyard in Prisoner of Azkaban
The Alnwick Castle-based training grounds in the first two films

Now for some words! Lots of them!

So up till now, my castle models have been floating in the air, hundreds of feet above the lake. But I’ve hit a major milestone in the project: I’ve begun creating the rocky landscape the castle sits on!

Here are some factors informing my approach:

  • Many of the films have shots that repurpose views from previous films. These create significant inconsistencies within individual films. I’m disregarding them altogether.
  • At least for the first six films, the environment really has to be treated as two distinct entities:
    • The terrain that surrounds and supports the main 1:24-scale castle miniature.
      • This terrain was carved out of polystyrene, with rocky outcroppings of plaster molded from slabs of coal.
      • This terrain is quite consistent within each film and changes incrementally between films.
    • The lake and mountains that surround the miniature in the films.
      • Typically, the visual effects team integrated photography of Scotland into digital matte paintings and layered those onto 3D geometry.
      • Unlike the miniature, these CG environments change drastically from one scene to the next, not to mention from one film to the next. (The second film contains a particularly dramatic example: there are two establishing shots that use similar or identical plates of the castle miniature, but the surrounding terrain is totally different.)

The upshot is that you can’t create one single environment that will be 100% consistent with every shot in a given film. You can do it with the miniature, but beyond its borders, it’s literally impossible. So my approach there will be impressionistic. Still, I gathered reference images from each film. I carefully took note of common features between films and annotated them with color coding. I even had fun unrolling some of the panning shots into rough simulacra of the original matte paintings.

But you can only do so much researching and strategizing. Eventually you’ve just got to get started! So I hit the major milestone of starting to model the landscape a few days ago…but I’m going to save the renders for the next post. I should have a video for you as well. Doesn’t look like much yet, but the work has started; I’m just having to pace myself right now because of my repetitive strain injuries. But I didn’t want to go too long without at least posting something.

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Wrapping Up the SS Training Grounds

For Sorcerer’s Stone only, the Quidditch training grounds were surrounded by curtain walls, retaining walls, and small towers that were slight adaptations of structures at Alnwick Castle. As we’ve seen in previous posts, a big chunk was redesigned in Chamber of Secrets, and then a big hill covered up the remainder of the original design starting in Prisoner of Azkaban. (The all-digital version in Deathly Hallows and Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have any walls back there at all.)

Because of all this, there’s not a huge amount of reference available for this area of the miniature. It’s certainly easy to find reference for the real thing at Alnwick, but what reference I do have makes it clear that the details don’t always match up. Just gotta do my very best!

I continued around to the far side, where the information is most limited. I’ll compensate for my less-than-complete confidence in certain details here by including the “mist pass” for this render, just for fun. This is a component of the render that’s used to add some atmospheric perspective. The further something is from the camera, the lighter it is, simulating greater amounts of haze between the viewer and the object. Looks kinda cool all by itself, eh?

There’s a low wall that divides the Alnwick Castle lawns in real life, and it shows up in the blueprints for the first Hogwarts miniature as well. The real thing even shows up in a single (edited) establishing shot of the location, at the beginning of the flying lesson. But I’ve never found a single photo of that spot in the miniature, which makes it tough to know exactly how much detail they put into it.

I’m cheating with all these lawns – they’re just textured surfaces with no actual blades of grass. To create those would require particle systems or geometry nodes or something, and I don’t think my computer could handle the amount of grass that’ll eventually be part of the model. Even filling just this area with actual blades of grass would be pushing my luck:

So I’m not really sure how I’m going to handle the landscape as a whole. The goal is to have it look…well, not like this render I created as a kid in Bryce 3D, circa 1999:

I can tell already that I won’t be able to rely solely on procedural materials. At the very least, I may need to hand-paint some changes in coloration near the footpaths and whatnot. Perhaps another day. In the meantime, we’ll close out for now with an extremely wide (and slightly distorted) angle reminiscent of the first shot of the training grounds in the first film.

…and the “Sorcerer’s Stone” Training Grounds Tower!

We’re gonna start today’s post with the good stuff: before-and-after sliders comparing the COS-through-OOTP training grounds tower I finished last time to the original training grounds tower! (I’ll show you the process of creating the latter afterward.)

For each slider below, the SS version of the tower is on the left and the COS-OOTP version is on the right. Notice how little the lower areas of the structure change, and how much the upper areas of the structure change!

Before I built this original version, I realized that I didn’t have the adjacent areas built in the SS model, which would make it look kinda funky. So I first took care of some housekeeping: duplicating stuff from the POA model to the SS model, creating new collections (folders) for different structures, etc.

The Defense Against the Dark Arts tower moved in Prisoner of Azkaban, so I created a copy of it and moved it to its original position. I also removed some asymmetry from the Durham wing that was introduced in Azkaban to make room for the Dark Tower:

God, I get so nostalgic for those candle snuffer roofs on the Durham wing from the first couple films.

Anyway, as you’ve seen with the sliders, the lower areas of the COS-OOTP training grounds tower are identical to the original design from SS; they just redesigned most of the upper areas. So I brought a copy of that training grounds tower into the SS model and started ripping off all the top parts that were different. Here’s a fun render partway through that messy process:

Ugly, innit? Well, if you want to make an omelette, you’ve got to crack some eggs.

There, now the metaphorical eggs are beginning to set! Nearly done:

The roof is tricky because in addition to the gable, there seem to be some flat areas, but I don’t have any good shots from above. This is another area where my ideal levels of accuracy and precision simply aren’t going to be possible, unless some kind soul manages to send me reference photos or technical drawings of this spot that hasn’t been part of the miniature for almost 20 years now.

This seems to be the best inference possible from the available information:

Its central courtyard is particularly mysterious. It corresponds to a space at Alnwick Castle that was used in a brief scene in the first film, but the shape is so different in the miniature that it’s impossible to know what sorts of architectural details were in there. In the video game, the courtyard is omitted altogether, continuing the flat roof over the entire thing; you can see it at 3:07:02 in this video. But that castle has numerous other inaccuracies, so I take it with a grain of salt.

One of the things that’s starting to stick out for me is the lack of flashing on all my roofs. It definitely hurts the realism. I’m going to need to fix that at some point.

Anyway, here’s one last shot of the finished tower! Next, I’ll probably finish up the SS-era curtain walls. See you next time!

Finishing the Training Grounds Tower (COS-OOTP)

Still not sure how I want to handle the statues on top of the Alnwick Castle structures, so I’m hopping back over to the training grounds tower.

Part of this little corner still needed to be filled in. It’s hard to find good reference for that spot on the miniature, and it does seem to be somewhat different from the real thing at Alnwick. I decided to just do my best (and add the footpath where Hagrid drags the Christmas tree through the snow):

There are a few torches that show up over here in some shots in Chamber of Secrets, but I’ve elected not to include those – their positions aren’t always clear or even consistent from shot to shot, and I’m not sure whether they were ever in the main miniature.

Around the other side of the structure, I’ve accepted the difficult truth that I may never find adequate reference for certain details. I’m using the real structures at Alnwick to fill in the gaps as best I can. Fortunately, some of those real-world details are visible in the background in Sorcerer’s Stone, so I feel justified in including them.

This shorter structure on the right corresponds to Alnwick Castle’s 19th-century chapel, and from what I can see, it seems to have been a pretty exact recreation in the miniature:

Incidentally, see that rectangular depression a ways to the left of the chapel, above the arched recessed windows? In real life, the heraldic symbols of the Percy family are there. In the Hogwarts miniature…I can’t tell. It’s too tall to just be a Hogwarts crest. So I’m just leaving that blank for now. If you’ve got closer images of the miniature here…please send them! I’m always on the hunt for new rare photos or blueprints of the miniature.

In the meantime…here’s the complete training grounds tower, as it existed from Chamber of Secrets through Order of the Phoenix!

Fun fact: In the last render above, we’re sitting on the clock tower courtyard roof. The foreground cylindrical tower on the far right is of course Gryffindor Tower.

You might notice that I’ve removed the Alnwick Castle barbican/gatehouse and adjacent walls. Or rather, I’ve moved them so they don’t exist in my Prisoner of Azkaban model anymore, since that area will be covered up by hills. Don’t worry – those structures still exist in my nascent Sorcerer’s Stone model, and they’ll become part of my Chamber of Secrets model too.

Virtual Tour Video & Barbican/Gatehouse

Have you subscribed to my YouTube channel? If so, you’ve probably already seen that I posted a new work-in-progress virtual tour of my Prisoner of Azkaban Hogwarts model last week. If you haven’t subscribed yet…get on that! I’m not currently posting a lot of videos, but subscribing will make sure you know when I do.

But that’s not our main focus for today. Today we’re going to be continuing with progress after that video, building the structure from the first two films that corresponds to the gatehouse and barbican at Alnwick Castle.

As I’ve mentioned before, the filming miniature and the real location don’t always match up perfectly. I’m aiming more for the miniature, but it’s a lot easier to find reference for the real thing, so I’m having to rely on that to fill in the gaps. Here, I’ve got the basic structure of just the gatehouse built:

(This is where Neville zooms upward again on his broom before nearly impaling himself on a statue’s spear.)

Next come details on the façade facing the training grounds – windows, arrowslits, lanterns, and of course the classic Hogwarts-style torches that were added as temporary set dressing for the film shoot. The one on the right is the one that Neville’s robes catch on, slowing his fall a bit:

Note that this is a view you couldn’t have seen in any of the movies – it simultaneously shows the gatehouse (from the first two films) and the clock tower (from all but the first two films). If you looked at this angle during SS or COS, there’d be no castle visible in the background, and if you looked at this angle from POA onward…well, you’d be underground.

I should also mention that I have zero good shots of this side of the structure in the miniature, so here I’m going purely off of the real thing. Same goes for that small tower toward the left, which I haven’t detailed yet in the above render. Let’s rectify that, and add the similar tower on the other side of the gatehouse:

The flying and Quidditch lessons in Sorcerer’s Stone were both shot on location here, and these towers are seen pretty clearly, so I have no reservations about mimicking the real thing without knowing what they looked like in the miniature.

If this doesn’t look…right, it may be because Alnwick Castle is lighter, yellower, and more contrasty than the miniature. But I’m just using my main castle texture, which is based off of the most neutrally-lit photos of the miniature I’ve found. Also, this area is in direct sunlight in the film, not the shade. Plus, you know, the ground is still missing.

Anyway, on the outside of the gatehouse, let’s start adding the barbican. At the real Alnwick Castle, this was added to the gatehouse around the 14th or 15th century, greatly enhancing the castle’s defenses. I’ve had trouble finding reference for a few spots along the battlements, but this old 3D digital survey I found was helpful.

These areas in my model have really become a hybrid between the miniature and the real location:

Not too shabby! I wouldn’t want someone throwing boiling water on me from those battlements.

The part of this structure that was tweaked the most for the miniature was the entrance of the barbican. In the real world, the area outside the archway appears to be a paved semicircle, a small car park, and then the street. In centuries past, this would have been the only entrance to the grounds – basically just a really beefed-up, defensible drawbridge. But at Hogwarts, this isn’t an entrance at all. The terrain drops off pretty steeply, and so the area outside the archway is just a small terrace with no apparent purpose beyond being a lookout point. (They also swapped out the Percy lion heraldry over the archway for the Hogwarts crest, but that’s barely visible.)

If none of that is sounding familiar, it’s because it’s only seen indistinctly from great distances, and only on rare occasions, and only in the first two films, and only from the side. But blueprints and behind-the-scenes photos provide just enough insight to allow us to simulate cool new views like this:

It might look slightly more familiar from the side:

Any better? You could be forgiven for still not recognizing it. This is about the best view of the barbican exterior we ever get in the movies:

And you can’t even see the gatehouse there! So…yeah, not Hogwarts’s most distinctive feature. Still, it’s good to have it complete! Well…complete with the exception of the statues that stand on top of the ramparts. But those are full-on human figures, and I haven’t yet decided whether to sculpt them from scratch, adapt them from free models posted online, or omit them altogether.

Maybe I’ll have an answer in the next post. In the meantime, have a great weekend! Or week, or whatever, since clearly I don’t control when you’re going to be reading this.

Continuing the Curtain Walls

Relatively short post today. We’ll start off with some orthographic views of the POA model, by request. This is the state of the model before the progress you’ll see later in this post.

I always enjoy these blueprint-style perspective-less views.

Anyway, onward to today’s update. Let’s start fleshing out the remaining walls surrounding the training grounds! I’m kinda doing the COS version, since most of this is covered by a new hillside from POA onward, but that’s okay.

I hadn’t touched this area since late March 2019…crazy to think that it’s now been over 2 years since I started this whole project!

There’s not a lot of reference for this area of the miniature, but I have found some shots. Between those and photos of the real thing at Alnwick Castle, I think my results are pretty accurate. Interestingly, that guerite (small lookout tower) closest to the camera seems to have been slightly redesigned partway through the construction of the model. I’ve gone with the final design that was glimpsed – if only barely – in the films.

The next structure along the walls is Alnwick Castle’s barbican and gatehouse. (This is the building from which Neville falls and breaks his wrist in the first film.) I had already done a bit of work on this structure as part of an early attempt at recreating Alnwick itself – here’s an old render from this post:

I built this to the same scale as the main Hogwarts model, so it was easy enough to drop that into place and add brick textures:

As we’ve seen with other areas, I’ve built the walls so they go quite a ways down. From this view inside the training grounds, the lowest parts will eventually be covered up by grassy lawns. But on the outside, the terrain is rocky and uneven, and in some areas it slopes downward to reveal the lower areas of the wall. It’s easiest to just make the walls really deep and then cover a lot of it up with the terrain later on.

Fortunately, there are some nice orthographic drawings of the barbican/gatehouse structure on a placard at the location. These provide some very helpful reference. As always, my goal is to capture at least one of these, in roughly descending order of importance:

  1. The onscreen appearance and imagined reality of the castle in the films (which is achieved through a mixture of location shoots, miniatures, CGI, etc.)
  2. The main 1:24 scale VFX miniature of the whole castle
  3. The corresponding real-life filming location

These do not always agree, and there are significant gaps in the reference for the first two, so finding the right compromises can be tricky. For instance, this shot in Sorcerer’s Stone shows Neville’s POV as he nearly impales himself on a statue:

I’m not sure about the background, but the foreground architecture is all CG, and it matches neither the real-life location nor the miniature…although the corresponding spots at the location and on the miniature are never shown onscreen. To make matters worse, in the live-action location shots that follow, the statue (which I believe was installed just for the film) has moved to a different corner of the structure. So there is no single coherent reality for me to replicate.

In this particular case, my approach will be to ignore this quick shot altogether and aim instead for the real location with the added statues and other set dressings. But I’ll save that for the next post.

Starting the Training Grounds Curtain Walls (POA Version)

Yikes…it’s been a long time since my last update! Sorry about that, folks. One of the many factors: the training grounds tower is tough! It’s hard to find enough reference images. So to give myself a break, I switched gears to focus on the castle walls.

The curtain walls and small towers surrounding the training grounds were originally derived from those at Alnwick Castle. A large swath was then redesigned in the second film, probably to add visual interest in the Whomping Willow scenes. The westernmost areas (near the first flying lesson) still stayed the same until the third film, when they were swallowed up by hilly terrain. In effect, only the COS redesign remained. That’s the state the miniature is still in now, although the CG version in Deathly Hallows and Fantastic Beasts omits the walls altogether.

I started at the western end of the COS revisions:

This illustrates some of the challenges in mapping the stone brick textures correctly to the model when the angles get funky. I’ve tried to create a material that just behaves correctly no matter what I build, but sometimes I need to get in there and manually fiddle with the mapping to get it right.

These structures all look strangely tall right now, but eventually the terrain will cover up most of the lower areas:

They’re also in pristine condition compared to their appearance in the films, since significant chunks of the above-ground areas have crumbled away. But it’s always easier to create the full “original” structure and then weather away the parts you don’t need.

Here’s the same view with some more adjustments, details, and additions, but still no weathering:

And now, swinging around the easternmost area, we link it all up with the areas that are directly taken from Alnwick Castle:

I’ve also fixed the mapping of the brick textures here:

Some of these areas don’t quite match between the blueprints, the photogrammetry of the miniature from the Studio Tour, and the real-life correlates at Alnwick. I’ve aimed for a happy medium that tends to favor the actual miniature.

Then and only then do we get to the weathering, by way of a Boolean modifier. If you don’t know what that is…well, imagine carefully shaping a floating glob of poisonous molten radioactive alien laser acid that will eat away any part of the wall it touches. Actually, you know what? I won’t make you imagine it – here are my Boolean acid globs:

And yes, the glowing lava look is a critical part of getting the Boolean modifier to work right. TOTALLY necessary. 100%. Anyway, move the above slider back and forth to wipe away the glowing poisonous molten radioactive alien laser acid lava and reveal the weathered stone beneath.

I’ve still got to built the western half of the curtain walls, the parts that weren’t changed from their Alnwick-like state. But I’ll save those for a future post so I can at least have something to share with you now!

More Training Grounds Tower

Wow, I did not mean for the last couple months to slow down so much! I’ve been busy with some unrelated projects. My apologies for the radio silence! But I thought I’d at least share a brief update.

As you can see in the new render above, I’ve been continuing to work on the training grounds tower – the version that existed from Chamber of Secrets through Order of the Phoenix. I can see why Stuart Craig took the opportunity to replace it with a much simpler tower in Half-Blood Prince, but I do have a soft spot for this rather charmingly awkward design.

One thing I’d never really thought about was the huge number of very diverse and irregularly spaced windows on this structure. I decided to start carving out the holes before worrying about the frames and panes; that way I could easily make adjustments. My reference images are limited for some of these areas…I’ve had to accept that some of my window holes may be off by a few feet or have a slightly different design:

It ain’t perfect, but it’s a start. The bottom parts of these walls are the hardest, at least if the goal is to be accurate to the miniature. You would think they’d be identical to the corresponding spots at Alnwick Castle – spots that are even seen in the backgrounds of the location shoots in the first film – but you’d be wrong. I’ve seen enough to know that there are differences…just not enough to know exactly what every window looks like. Looked, I suppose I should say…it’s certainly not part of the model anymore, and who knows what happened to it.

Anyway, as I said, I’m pretty focused on some other projects at the moment, so I apologize if there’s another long gap before my next post!

COS-OOTP Training Grounds Tower, Cont’d

Whew, sorry for the long delay…the months of sitting at my home desk have taken their toll on my arms, and I’ve had to significantly limit my computer use. This will be a shorter post as a result. I’m starting physical therapy soon…if you’re feeling particularly generous and you want to help support my recovery, my Venmo handle is @Joe-Cardello, for what it’s worth. 🙂

Anyway, let’s continue with the version of the training grounds tower that was seen throughout the middle of the Potter series, including Prisoner of Azkaban. As we work our way around to the west facade, my reference material becomes even scarcer, but I’ve got just enough to piece it together in a reasonably accurate way. I started with plain walls, deciding to add the windows and so forth later:

Here’s a view from overhead once I’d roughed in the main shape of the building. At this point, I wasn’t worried too much about cleaning up the intersections between walls and objects…I just wanted to make sure the layout made sense three-dimensionally:

You can see just a bit of the tiny courtyard in the middle. That’s one area for which I truly have zero reference (other than the basic floor plan). It roughly corresponds to the cobbled inner courtyard at Alnwick Castle, which was actually used in the location shoots for the first film, but the version in the miniature is much smaller and it has a different shape because of the way the Alnwick floor plan was reconfigured around it. So the layout of any doors, windows, or other decorative elements on that part of the miniature sadly remains a mystery.

As I said, I have less progress to share because of my ergonomic issues, not to mention the simple fact that this is a tricky structure to figure out. But I’ll at least fill out the rest of this post with an aerial overview of my POA castle so far:

Take care of your body, take care of your mind, and don’t be an ass to people who identify as transgender. See you soon!

Starting the Training Grounds Tower

Holy crap! I can’t believe we’ve arrived at the final major tower of Hogwarts! I’ve been eager and afraid to tackle it because of its complex geometry and the limited reference available. Let’s jump in!

The training grounds tower was added to the original castle out of sheer necessity. Alnwick Castle was used as a major filming location so they needed it to be present in the miniature. Stuart Craig’s team tweaked its footprint a bit and built it up into a much taller complex of towers; the bottom floors just looked like Alnwick while the upper floors took their stylistic cues from the original castle’s other conical turrets. Evidently Mr. Craig didn’t like the vertical extensions, because they were totally redone for the second film in a style that slightly foreshadowed the more Gothic look that would take over in the third film. (Interestingly, some COS shots still feature the SS version.) That revision stuck around till Half-Blood Prince, when it was replaced with a single tower echoing the bell towers’ design.

Since I’m working on the Azkaban castle right now, it’s that second iteration of the tower that I’m focusing on. And “focus” is indeed the right word, because I’ve spent a lot of time just staring at reference images and…thinking. Trying to piece it all together. Eventually, I started working on the facade toward the right:

This is the project’s first render with the OptiX denoiser, which wasn’t compatible with my GPU till Blender 2.90. Denoising is critical with path tracers like the Cycles render engine, where speeding up the render introduces more noise. I was using Open Image Denoise before, but OptiX is faster and it’s retaining more detail, so I’m pretty stoked!

Anyway, training grounds tower. It’s proving as challenging as I feared/hoped it would be. The modeling itself is not particularly difficult, but the paucity of high-quality reference images makes it difficult to piece together all the details, especially since I want to get the scale right.

I’m keeping an eye on the original version too, since the lower section is identical and I want to make sure I can reuse it without any issues.

In a twist that will shock precisely zero longtime readers, I’m finding lots of small discrepancies between shots of miniatures, location shoots at Alnwick Castle, CG long shots, etc. As usual, I’m striving for something of a happy medium, but weighted toward the main 1/24th-scale miniature.

There’s still a lot more to do on this structure, but it’s been 10 days since I last shared my progress and I think I’ll save further progress for my next post.