Starting the Back Cliffs & Ravine

We’ve now got four chunks of Hogwarts’s original terrain finished. In my model, they’re divided as follows:

The blue chunk below the viaduct entrance is separate from the purple chunk below the Long Gallery because the blue chunk was redone in Goblet of Fire. The gold and green chunks on the other side could have been combined with each other and/or the blue chunk, but separating them improves sculpting performance.

The next chunk I added was a small patch that’s exclusive to Prisoner of Azkaban. They slightly built up the area just beneath the corner of the Great Hall, giving it a slightly different profile. (All of this terrain had to be redone when the Great Hall was shifted in Goblet of Fire, but the redesign was more similar to the POA version than to the original.)

Sorcerer’s Stone on the left, Prisoner of Azkaban on the right:

Another view:

But there were bigger changes in POA, of course. When they added the clock tower, wooden bridge, and so on, the surrounding terrain was totally redone. So in creating the bluffs that originally led down to the lake back there, I have to be able to swap them out with the POA version without affecting the adjacent terrain (shown in green above).

Techniques here are the same as what we’ve already seen, although it’s interesting to see the updated rock textures (sans moss) on the base mesh…

This is where photogrammetry stops being useful and I just have to closely study the few available reference images. (Blueprints aren’t super helpful either, since the terrain only follows them very, very roughly.) Another complication is that some VFX shots actually cut off parts of the miniature, particularly in this area; in those cases, I’m trying to treat the complete miniature itself as canon.

More base mesh:

No, you’re not crazy – the mesh protrudes right through the walls of the terrace in some spots. That’ll be fixed soon enough; it’s not hard to shave off excess landscape.

What’s going to be harder is the ravine between the two halves of the castle. That’s where even photo reference starts to dry up, at least for this original version of the castle. Photogrammetry from the big overhead shot in Chamber of Secrets will help me with the north side of the ravine, so I decided to work on that before trying to tackle the south side:

Meanwhile, around the front side, I’ve finally added the tiny lower walkway that seems to curve through the base of the stone bridge:

Sadly, I still can’t find any clear, reliable, pre-POA information on where exactly that walkway goes on the other side of the bridge. I’m starting to think that the one available SS-era floor plan of this area isn’t accurate.

This post is getting long…I’ll save further progress for the next one!

Starting the Hogwarts Landscape!

This post has been delayed by my repetitive strain injuries; progress is definitely slow right now. But as promised, it’s time to share my progress on the terrain surrounding Hogwarts!

The rocky crags have some rather squarish forms, so I thought I’d rough out the geometry with a bunch of separate low-poly rocks:

The idea is to create sections of rock that can be swapped in and out for different films. This entire swath of rock remained mostly unchanged throughout the films, so I was able to base the forms on photogrammetry from the Warner Bros. Studio Tour:

It may look awful like this, but it’s exactly what I was looking for. From there, I was able to start sculpting the individual crags to be more…craglike, and then using Boolean operations to join them into continuous objects for more sculpting. Here are some work-in-progress views:

I was feeling pretty good about this so far, so I started working in smaller details on the left…

…but I didn’t like the way that looked. It’s not the worst thing in the world; it’s just kinda…mushy. Indecisive. I wanted something that looked more confident, intentional, and realistic. I wanted to do better.

Fortunately, I’d saved a copy of the less detailed sculpt, so I went back and tried again. (I’d been reading Adam Savage’s Every Tool’s a Hammer – great book on creativity – and I was feeling fired up about the value of learning through failure and iteration.) This time, I more deeply studied photos of the miniature, as well as photogrammetry of the rockwork at Universal and photos of real coal. (The rocky areas of the miniature were molded from a huge slab of coal.)

The next attempt felt better:

Another difference is that I shaved off some areas on the left – I realized that those changed in Goblet of Fire, and this chunk is just supposed to be the parts that remained the same until Deathly Hallows.

Here I’ve finished that medium-scale detail pass for the whole chunk (and made the temporary gray material less shiny):

The left edge is where the terrain starts to diverge starting in GOF, the top edge is where the terrain changes in COS to accommodate the greenhouses, and the big opening at the lower right is actually how the miniature was built. (In the films, this is generally where the miniature joins up with the surrounding landscape, accomplished through digital matte paintings and CG and whatnot.)

Here’s the same shot with some texturing applied:

I’m calling that chunk finished…for now. I still need to add grass, trees, and shrubs. I also might go in and sculpt a finer, sharper level of detail, probably using textured brushes, but I’m going to see if I can get away with this level for now. It’s always a tradeoff between getting enough detail and avoiding inordinately long render times (and slow overall performance).

Want to watch the whole process come together? Check out the video!

Next I’ll need to apply the same techniques to create the rest of the landscape. Hopefully I’ll have more progress to share soon!

Starting the Whomping Willow (COS Version)

Let’s recreate the original Whomping Willow! It was added to the training grounds in COS. That location – and even the tree’s very presence in the miniature – is unique to to that film. (In all the later films, the redesigned Whomping Willow was off the edge of the map, somewhere past Hagrid’s, and it was brought to life purely through CG and full-scale practical elements.)

The first step was to figure out the exact placement. I don’t have any floor plans that show precisely where it sat in relation to the other structures, but one of the behind-the-scenes features does give a decent shot of that area of the miniature. I lined up the camera angles and added a circle to mark the base of the tree. It seems to be just about dead center in that lawn! This further reinforces my belief that this area’s walls were redesigned for the express purpose of giving the Willow a more interesting setting. They almost create a kind of arena around it.

Next up: creating a base mesh. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to match the tree in the film perfectly, but I wanted to capture its essential rhythms, character, and scale. I ended up annotating film screenshots with color-coded numbers to help me keep track of the different major branches. It’s a strategy that served me well with the grand staircase model.

I carried that color coding into the model itself as I started the base mesh. As with the tree in the clock tower courtyard, I decided to use the Skin modifier in Blender. This lets you quickly extrude chains of vertices and apply a basic radius parameter to each, creating blocky forms that become tubular with the Subdivision Surface modifier. Here are a couple of work-in-progress shots:

As you can see, the base mesh is SUPER photorealistic. Can’t even tell it’s not a real tree! …right? (My girlfriend says it looks like a piece of corporate modern art, and I don’t disagree.)

Don’t worry, things started to get a little better as I Boolean-ed all the branches into one object and began the sculpting process.

There appear to be some stony areas at the base. I experimented with sculpting them all as one mass. When that didn’t look right, I tried using physics simulation to “drop” all the stones on top of each other in a realistic pile. But sometimes simplest is best, and in the end, it was most expedient to separately sculpt each rock and lay them on top of each other manually. Another pass of Skinned tubes allowed me to start blocking in the tree’s tangled roots:

Obviously very rough; the idea is just to build some geometry that will take well to further sculpting. And while I admit I wasn’t SUPER excited about this switch from hard surface to organic modeling, I soon found myself enjoying the sculpting process once more. It’s gratifying to see these basic shapes start to look like something!

This was around when I realized my proportions were a little off. The main trunk needed to be a little bigger relative to all the branches. I made some adjustments and kept sculpting, working my way up into the knuckles and knobs where all the younger shoots will soon go:

None of this is an absolutely perfect match with the film, but I’m certainly trying to stay close. That crevice on the left side of the trunk is based on one visible in the film; in my headcanon, that’s where the tunnel to the Shrieking Shack is. (We only see the entrance to the tunnel in the next film, and the Willow was redesigned for that one.)

By the way, in case it’s not obvious, I haven’t started texturing the tree or the rocks yet. The flat coloration is just temporary while I continue refining the forms. I’ll save all that for the next post, as well as the addition of all the shoots on top that’ll really give the tree its characteristic look. But I think we’re off to a good start!