What Was There Before the Hogwarts Greenhouses?

It’s not a question that you could answer just by watching the films. Here we have to rely on behind-the-scenes shots and technical drawings from Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone to reconstruct this area in its original state.

But first, I knew I needed to finish up this area as seen from Chamber of Secrets through Half-Blood Prince! I finished the curtain walls and added lawns:

Here’s a cool POV shot coming down the back steps of the Durham building:

That’s a wrap for this area in the Prisoner of Azkaban 3D model! But what did it look like at the time of the first film? Well, you still had curtain walls surrounding a large, L-shaped lawn, but the walls weren’t quite as far from the castle, and instead of the domed conservatory acting as the entryway, you had this relatively simple, squarish, Alnwick Castle-inspired building:

This side of the building is actually seen in a couple of shots in the film, but I haven’t been able to find as much detailed information about the other sides – in particular, the opposite side that faces the castle proper. For that facade, I’ve just used the same details as what you see here, but I can’t deny the possibility that some of the details were a little different. (I wonder in particular if they really would have put the Hogwarts crest on the other side.) Unless I find elevations or images of that part of the miniature, I may never know…when the greenhouses and conservatory were added in COS, this small gatehouse disappeared forever.

Anyway, here are a couple of before-and-after sliders to play with! On the left is the Sorcerer’s Stone castle; the right is Prisoner of Azkaban. (The changes we’re currently focused on occurred in Chamber of Secrets, but you’ll of course see some Azkaban changes too.)

I’ll wrap up this post with a view of some additional work I did next on the west side of the Alnwick Castle warder’s tower. Here there are again some details that differ a bit between the VFX miniature and the real-world filming location; I’m primarily going off of the miniature, though Alnwick does provide invaluable reference as well. I guess you could say my goal is to capture the shared imagined reality that the model and the location both help bring to life.

The two contenders for my next area of focus are the transfiguration/middle/Durham courtyard and the training grounds tower. I’m much more excited at the prospect of doing the latter, but I think I may tackle the courtyard first. Be sure to subscribe to be notified with future updates!

The Domed Conservatory

I’ve been looking forward to this one! When the greenhouses went in for Chamber of Secrets, the small building forming the entrance to that courtyard was replaced with a larger and more ornate conservatory with a dome and cupola. It’s a neat structure, but my biggest reason for being excited is that there are blueprints at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour…and these provide lots of detail on the interior, which is hard to glimpse from the exterior of the model. The upshot is that today’s post concludes with the first (to my knowledge) views of the conservatory interior on the internet!

How’d I get there? Well, I decided to start from the inside; it’s easier that way, plus it allows interesting views that won’t be possible once the structure is enclosed. There’s an octagonal arrangement of planters and columns:

Texturing the interior is an interesting challenge. I don’t want to spend that long on it, since it’ll barely be visible from the outside. It’s also hard to find good texture reference precisely because it’s barely visible from the outside – and for the same reason, they probably didn’t go super realistic in terms of all the finishes anyway. (From what little we can see at the Studio Tour, it looks like the inside may have become understandably dusty, which further complicates things. I also don’t know what they were going for with the weird gold paint job on the planters.)

As I pondered this, I continued with the modeling. Next up was the spiral staircase up to the balcony level. An apparent inconsistency in the technical drawings gave me a moment of trouble with the number of risers, but I’m pretty sure my interpretation is the correct one. With a little sleuthing, I learned that this spiral staircase was based on a 1:25 scale set sold by E.M.A. Model Supplies in London. In fact, the specific product (ST-7304) is listed for sale on their website to this day. Here’s the product image:

They then added the cage and banister. Here’s my version with most of the staircase modeling done:

Finishing the staircase and moving on to the balcony above:

Unless you’re pretty short, you’ll want to watch your head as you ascend the spiral staircase. There’s a spot near the top with less than five feet of vertical clearance.

It looks like the foliage in the conservatory is mostly palm trees and the like; I tweaked some assets from CGTrader. These obviously won’t be an exact match to the ones inside the miniature, but they get the job done.

Time to start enclosing the thing:

The next section up has more dragons. I’d planned on simply using the exact same asset from the greenhouses…but I should have done my research first. Turns out the ones on the conservatory are a little different in shape/size. So I went back and roughly rigged the dragon so I could pose it a little differently for the conservatory. It’s not a perfect match to the pose, sadly, but it wouldn’t be worth it to do a whole ‘nother sculpt.

Then it was just a matter of adding the dome…

The only thing left was the cupola on top. But as I was about to start that, I randomly started noticing some issues with the castle’s overall coloration. The color has always been a tricky thing due to the various changes in the paint job, the lighting, and the color grading over time. But I’ve gradually found more and more unprocessed shots of the castle in relatively neutral white lighting, and comparing those to my renders, I decided my castle needed to be a little more yellow and a little less red. It’s surprisingly tough to get the right balance, so I’ll likely go back and continue to tweak the colors at some point. But for now, I think this brings us still closer to a convincing reproduction of the castle:

Anyway, let’s finish the conservatory!

Not half bad! But of course, the real fun is putting the camera inside, where – again, to my knowledge – no Potter fan has gone before! It’s a relatively tight interior space, so we’ll use a fisheye lens:

And here’s a shot from the balcony level:

You saw it here first, folks! (And if you didn’t…well, let me know where you did see it first, because I’d love to see more views inside the conservatory!)

I think my next steps will be to finish the last bit of the curtain wall surrounding the greenhouses and then finish up all the footpaths and lawns. See you soon!

You Can Never Have Too Many Greenhouses

The 3D model of the Prisoner of Azkaban castle keeps chugging along! After completing that first greenhouse, I duplicated it three more times:

These four all share the exact same design, but then there are four more along the east side of the Durham area, and their dimensions are a little different, so I had to create (and thrice duplicate) a new variation over there:

And then at last there is Greenhouse Three, which is a smaller lean-to on the castle’s outer wall. (You can catch a glimpse of it in the above render.) This is the greenhouse where the Herbology lesson with the mandrakes takes place. It’s got its own unique design, so I took care of that next. Some of the dimensions here don’t line up quite as precisely as I’d like, but I’ve tried to minimize the number (and visibility) of compromises as much as I can:

You can also see that I’ve also added rust, adjusted the weathering of the wood, and started with the footpaths between the greenhouses. I even threw in one of the largest vines that snakes its way out of the greenhouses, visible toward the bottom right:

In the background, you’ll see that I’ve begun the curtain walls around the greenhouse area. These were actually there in the original design of the castle, even before the greenhouses were added in Chamber of Secrets; they just had to be pushed outward a bit to accommodate that addition. Here’s a better view of their progress:

See where the wall stops on the right? That’s going to be the site of the final greenhouse structure, the domed conservatory that also acts as the only way out of the greenhouse courtyard and into the grounds. But I’m going to save that for the next post. I’m hoping to even share something I’ve never seen before: an interior view of that conservatory*!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a slightly different aerial view of the POA model so far. Still plenty more to be done, but we’re getting closer!

* If they happened to include the conservatory interior in any of the video games, let me know! I haven’t played them but I’ve looked through longplays on YouTube and never spotted it.

Starting the Greenhouses

Hogwarts got its greenhouses added in Chamber of Secrets. They sat undisturbed in what was formerly an open courtyard until Deathly Hallows Part 2, at which point some adjacent architecture was removed and the greenhouses expanded a bit to fill the empty space.

My own 3D recreations of these greenhouses provided some fun challenges right off the bat. As I alluded to in the previous post, I was surprised to realize that they are not all identical. I mean, I knew that there was a lean-to attached to the wall of the castle as well as a domed conservatory out front, but I’d assumed the other greenhouses were octuplets. No such luck. The ones that run parallel to the Long Gallery aren’t quite as long as the ones that run east-west along the north facade, though they’re made of the same basic building blocks.

As always, I wanted to get the details and dimensions right. Without much in the way of detailed technical drawings, I resorted to making some quick-‘n’-messy diagrams to organize my thoughts and measurements.

Quick and messy, like I said, but it really helped me figure out how to proceed with the modeling. I started framing just one wall of just one greenhouse, laying out the largest support posts every 10 feet. Some of these will eventually have sculpted dragons on top, but those’ll come in a future blog post:

Blender’s Array modifier makes it easy to just work on one segment and have all the others update accordingly. No textures at this point either – I knew the white paint would later need to be scuffed up a bit.

Adding more details, temporarily pretending that the greenhouses don’t have any doors:

The familiar question of whether to follow the miniature or the set cropped up yet again. Actually, it’s more complicated. The greenhouses didn’t show up often in the films, but they got a glorious establishing shot in Chamber of Secrets. The VFX team put together a very impressive shot that moves across the lake, over the grounds, and right through an open window into the lean-to, AKA Greenhouse Three. The shot combines the 1/24th-scale Hogwarts miniature (and CG background) with a live-action plate shot on the greenhouse set, and it’s pretty seamless, especially for the early 2000s. But the camera has to go right up to the greenhouses, exposing a lot of detail…and at 1/24th scale, some of that detail wasn’t going to hold up. So they built separate 1/8th-scale miniatures of the three greenhouses the camera would get closest to. For whatever reason, while those larger bespoke miniatures match the design of the set, the main castle miniature is slightly different. I’m mainly talking about the windowpanes – they’re narrower and more numerous in the main castle miniature.

Sooooo…what to do? Follow the set and 1/8th-scale miniature, or follow the 1/24th-scale miniature? I take these decisions on a case-by-case basis, and for the greenhouses, I ultimately went with the wider windowpanes from the set and 1/8th-scale miniature (for a variety of reasons).

Here we go – doors and details and preliminary materials.

Starting to add the beams for the roof:

Hey, it looks kinda like a greenhouse!

By this point, I had been really debating exactly how much interior detail to do. This project file just keeps getting bigger and bigger, which means my computer has an increasingly hard time keeping up. It’s thus in my best interest to only include the details I need – but of course, the greenhouses are rather transparent, and I still wanted to them to “read” correctly from the outside. Once I had them fully enclosed, I was able to see how the materials interacted with the light and decide how much interior detail I needed to include. Not much, it turns out, as long as I don’t let the glass get too crystal-clear:

Some of the geometry got slightly messy as I went around the corners of the greenhouse, trying to respect all the various reference images as much as possible, but I’m pretty happy with the result:

For a moment, I thought all I had left to do was sculpt the decorative dragons on top, but then I remembered that I needed to pop the roof hatches too – otherwise, how would the camera float in for that great shot in COS?

(These are all open at random angles, BTW…I’m anal, but not anal enough to match them exactly.)

Anyway, I’ll be sculpting the dragons next, but we’ll save that for a future post, hopefully in video form. I’ll also need to create all the other greenhouses using the same components. See you next time!

When Durham Met Alnwick: The Warder’s Tower Story

My Prisoner of Azkaban model is really coming along now. I’ve continued into the area where Durham Cathedral architecture starts to collide with Alnwick Castle architecture. I also tweaked some of the wood textures and added some narrow slits I missed on the Dark Tower.

The greenhouses will eventually sit in this area, but I’m more interested in the Alnwick stuff at the moment. First up: a short structure that’s virtually identical to the warder’s tower at Alnwick. (I mean, it kinda had to be, since they shot stuff on location there!) I’d actually already started this structure early last year. You can see it in this old render from the very beginning of this blog:

This was all done in a completely separate file, and of course it was before I had created my trusty Hogwarts brick materials. Feel free to read more about it in this early post.

Bringing this model over into the main file was relatively easy, especially since I’d built it to the same scale to facilitate this eventual migration. Here’s a rather similar angle of the exact same partial model, but properly positioned and textured:

Time to flesh out the warder’s tower. I’m going to keep calling it that, by the way; to my knowledge, it has no in-universe name. It’s simply designated as Building P on the technical drawings, and I’m not going to expect myself (much less you!) to remember that.

Anyway, since this model I’d previously started was based purely on the real-world Alnwick location, I did have to make some tweaks to match the VFX miniature built for the Potter films. (I split the difference in a few spots.)

I also had to decide what to do about the Hogwarts-style torches that flank the archway – they were temporarily installed at Alnwick for the shoot, but when they were similarly added to the miniature, they were moved inward and upward to adjacent walls closer to the archway. I went back and forth on this quite a bit before ultimately deciding to accept the location shoot as canon, not the miniature. I felt this choice was bolstered significantly by the fact that this part of the miniature was never actually seen in the films, whereas the full-sized torches are prominently visible in multiple scenes shot on location for both SS and COS. (I still think the other way would been a fully defensible choice too, though.)

Here we are with the torches added, the remainder of the structure built, and some of the remaining details incorporated:

I’m really noticing the stark architectural contrast between Durham and Alnwick. There are so many more funky angles in the Alnwick-derived areas of Hogwarts…they really stand out quite a bit compared to the rest of the school, where the footprint is dominated by right angles, octagons, and circles. This isn’t news to me, but the contrast is especially noticeable when you’ve just come off a long stretch of essentially modelling a cathedral. Alnwick Castle is a lot more haphazard and organic, and of course it was simply built for very different purposes. I like these areas of Hogwarts – and I don’t think that’s only due to nostalgia – but I can understand why Stuart Craig was eager to tidy up the castle’s profile in the later films.

Here’s a POV shot from over by the base of the bell towers with this side of the warder’s tower complete. This view would only be unobstructed in the first film because as I said, this is where the greenhouses went in.

On a COMPLETELY unrelated note, I’ve already begun laying the groundwork for the next structures I’m going to tackle. I don’t have anything to show yet, but I’ll give you a hint: there are 8.5 of them, and despite my longtime assumption that they were all the same size, they’re actually not.

Yup. Completely unrelated. Anyway, see ya next time!

Hogwarts Gets HDRIs in Blender 2.8

I’ve been eagerly tracking the progress of Blender 2.8, the upcoming version of the free 3D software I’m using for this project. It’s still in beta, so it’s not recommended for use in production. There’s always that small chance that it will crash and eat all your data. And unfortunately, I don’t know any spells that will uncorrupt a .blend file.

Nevertheless, yesterday I made the switch! 2.8 has some truly incredible new features that will be really helpful for this project, and I just couldn’t resist any longer. It’s not worth getting into the technical side of things here, but suffice it to say that for me, this is an upgrade that’s worth the minor inconvenience of performing manual daily backups.

At the same time, I’ve been adding in some HDRIs. HDRI (high dynamic range imaging) refers to a particular type of environment for the model. It allows a lot of possibilities for dynamic, realistic images, and one of the easiest ways get started is to use HDRI photography made available online. (Thanks for the incredible freebies, HDRI Haven!) The results can be pretty cool:

Note that the castle isn’t actually sitting on those pretty mountains; those are just part of the photographic HDRI background that’s also providing lighting for the model. This angle just happens to make it kinda look like it’s sitting on the mountains. (My plan is to model the landscape around the castle later on.) Also note that this was rendered with Blender 2.8’s new EEVEE engine…it’s not nearly as accurate as Blender’s more robust path tracer, Cycles, but it’s insanely fast. The render above was done within 6 seconds. I can move around the model in real-time and it looks almost exactly like that.

You’ll see some blocky shapes in the back of that render, too. Those are just placeholders for some of the structures in the back of the castle; I’m trying to figure out height data by matching camera angles from the films. Compare these two shots:

Pretty close in terms of angle, right? (This was rendered prior to the switch to HDRIs in Blender 2.8, hence the plainer sky.)

Simultaneously, work continues on the separate Alnwick Castle model. On the right, the octagonal towers beginning to take shape, rendered with the slower but more accurate Cycles engine. (This is what Hagrid was dragging the Christmas tree toward in the first film.)

And here’s an EEVEE view from slightly later in the process. They’re a lot taller here than in real life, since Stuart Craig and his team basically took the footprint of this building and stretched it way higher. You’ll also note that I’ve loaded another HDRI sky into this model.

Still soooooooo much more to do…I’m really still just getting started. But the new features in 2.8 are going to be a big help! I’m also making slow but steady progress on a mega-post that will use stills from the films to illustrate some of the major design changes that this blog is all about. Stay tuned!

Getting Caught Up: The Hogwarts Project So Far

All right, let’s take a look at the project so far, since I’ve already been working on it for, like, a month before starting this blog.

First step was to gather as much information as possible: shots from the films, photos of the original Hogwarts miniature from the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, publicly available technical drawings of the miniature, behind-the-scenes footage, tourist photos and drone shots and floor plans of real-world filming locations…you name it.

Then came the important decision of where to start the 3D model – and which version to start with. Rather than jumping right in with super detailed final meshes, I blocked in a few basic shapes from the various films as a proof of concept in Blender. (My biggest concern was whether I had enough “vertical” information about the heights of various elements; I was pretty set on floor plans.)

Satisfied that this thing was actually going to work, I started over from scratch. The Prisoner of Azkaban version of the castle seemed like the best place to start.

Hey cool, it’s starting to look like Hogwarts!

Then something else occurred to me. I thought back to circa 2008, playing around with the now-defunct Photosynth service from Microsoft. You would feed it a series of photos of the same object or setting, taken from lots of different angles, and it would generate a 3D point cloud (with the original photos hanging in the space around it). I wondered if there was anything like that on the market today.

Turns out that photogrammetry freeware is a thing. I installed Meshroom and got my computer to start generating point clouds and meshes from moving shots of the castle. As you can see, these tend to be pretty rough; resolution, motion blur, lossy compression, dynamic range, and choices of angles are all limiting factors in terms of quality. But many shots still yielded data that I could use for reference in building the actual models.

Generating and refining these reference models takes lots of time and computing power, so this easily ate up at least a week in which I was doing no actual modeling. It was really one of my periodic returns to the information-gathering phase. In one Google detour, I stumbled upon some aerial footage of Alnwick Castle (one of the Hogwarts exterior filming locations for the first two films) and realized I could do more photogrammetry for that location, too.

Again, pretty rough. Nothing from these models is ever going to be directly included in the final project. They’re just a good way of collecting vertical measurements when no elevation drawings are available.

After spending so much time looking at shots of Alnwick, I felt compelled to start doing some actual modeling of those areas. I decided to start a separate model of Alnwick Castle itself; the plan is that I’ll eventually copy the appropriate segments over to the main model.

Lots of jumping around here; there are gaps in my references for certain areas, but I’m hoping to have more information soon. That last render – my most recent, from just this morning – gives a good sense for the level of detail I’d like to see in the entire model. (That part of Alnwick, the warder’s tower, was used as an archway leading toward the location of Hagrid’s hut in the first two films.)

Whew…that brings us up to speed on the current state of the project. Hopefully future posts will allow me to focus a little more on specific areas, since I won’t be summarizing a month’s worth of work all at once.

Like what you see? Got a question? Feel free to leave a comment. Otherwise, see you soon, I hope!