The Transfiguration Courtyard

Time for a Hogwarts feature that’s right out of Durham Cathedral, at least in its original form. The cloisters were used as the filming location for the “middle courtyard” or “Transfiguration courtyard” in the early films, though it was later represented by a similar courtyard at Oxford and then by a set at Leavesden.

I first spent a morning working on under-the-hood tweaks to hopefully improve the file’s performance – downrezzing overlarge normal maps, replacing duplicated objects with linked proxies, decimating some meshes that had gotten too dense, etc. The hope is that my computer will be able to handle the file a little more easily moving forward. No sexy renders to share for that, though, so here’s a cute puppy photo instead.

Anyway, back to Hogwarts! A big question cropped up as I was compiling my references: How much detail do I put into the cloisters – specifically, the doorways that lead to other parts of the castle? These are seen in the location shoots in the first two films, but at least some of these were evidently left out the miniature. (They never would have been visible in the film, so I can appreciate the decision to focus elsewhere.) Furthermore, the south walk (which corresponds to the east walk at Durham) changed repeatedly over the course of the films, and I have no idea what the cloister interior looked like at that point.

I figured the most reasonable approach would be to create the complete courtyard without those doorways and then see if I could get away with it in my renders. I started with the tracery of the cloisters and a basic ground plane:

This part was easy because I’d already built the clock tower courtyard – its cloisters contain a lot of design elements adapted from Durham Cathedral.

The fountain in the center of the courtyard was next, and this one’s going to give me some trouble later on…not because it’s hard to create, but because it’s unclear exactly when it vanished. Let’s break it down:

  • It was created for the first film, apparently as a set dressing that sat on top of the lavatorium (monks’ handwashing station) that sits in the middle of the courtyard at Durham.
  • It’s still there in the second film, both on location and in a bespoke 1/8th-scale model of the courtyard used in an overhead establishing shot.
  • The center of the courtyard is never visible in the third film, so that one’s a question mark.
  • As I mentioned, goings-on in the courtyard were shot at Oxford instead of Durham Cathedral for the fourth film, so the location looks totally different and won’t be reflected in my model. There is an aerial shot during the First Task when we briefly see the Durham courtyard, but if the fountain is there, only the very top of it is peeking over the roofline.
  • No idea in the fifth film…
  • In the sixth film, the courtyard was realized as a set that included the base of the Astronomy Tower. (I suspect this was a revamp of the viaduct courtyard set, which I suspect was a revamp of the clock tower courtyard set.) There’s no fountain in that set, but that set is far from a perfect match to the miniature. I can’t find any shots of the center of the courtyard in the miniature, but the fountain is gone from the technical drawings and I’d imagine the same is true of the miniature.
  • In the final film, the fountain is again missing from the technical drawings, and this is confirmed with a CG overhead shot of the area.

With all that in mind…until I can find more reference that confirms which changes were made when, I’m just going to assume the fountain lasted till the sixth film, at which point it was removed and never came back.

Anyway, I added the fountain and started the sewer grate. I also added the benches, which seem to have been more set dressings. You can see in this render that I’ve finally mirrored the east walls of the Long Gallery onto the west side, too:

That’s the first render I did with the new Blender 2.90. It’s got some great new features, but it kept crashing when I attempted to render. After some troubleshooting, I figured it out: this version of the software doesn’t like my old smoke simulations. That’ll need to be addressed, but for now, I’m afraid the hearths of Hogwarts have gone cold.

That structure in the top left corner of that render is a newly-added Durham Cathedral transept, the last missing piece of the Long Gallery. In the first film, this one was a simple mirror image of the one on the other side, but when the Dark Tower (center) was added in Prisoner of Azkaban, this transept had to be shortened a bit, resulting in a slightly asymmetrical footprint that lasted right through the end of the series. Easier to see from the air:

As you can see, the one to the left of the central tower isn’t as long as its counterpart on the right.

One interesting thing about this courtyard is that each of its four sides has a different look. I next took care of the north wall, which corresponds to the west wall at Durham:

You’ve no doubt noticed that the cloister is still roofless – I decided to save that for after the surrounding walls were built. Speaking of which, here are the last of them:

It’s hard to find detailed reference for the wall on the right (above the two benches) in the miniature. Its design is similar to that of the corresponding wall at Durham Cathedral, but there are some differences. To make matters worse, there are some apparent discrepancies in the number of windows in the various Hogwarts images available, but there’s a good chance that what I’ve done is accurate to the state of the main miniature at the time of POA. And if not, it’s at least quite close – it could be that there are supposed to be six windows on the shorter part of the wall instead of five.

Anyway, the only remaining step was to add the cloister roofs! With these in place, the answer to my “big question” became clear: No, I didn’t need to add doors and other details inside the cloisters. They simply aren’t visible unless you’re actually inside the cloisters, and I’m okay with not having detailed views inside there. So with that in mind…voilà, the complete transfiguration courtyard!

Incidentally, I love that structure just above the center of that render, below the DADA tower. It was added in the third film when the DADA tower got shifted over a bit, and it’s basically just a Durham Cathedral transept, except, like…a standalone version. Something about it tickles me. Naturally, everything will look better once that wall next to it has an actual building behind it, but that’ll come with adding the final major piece of the main castle: the training grounds tower!

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!