Starting the “Goblet of Fire” Castle!

If you’ve followed this project for a while, you know I jump around a lot. I’ve got a master “to do” list, but sometimes I get bored with an item – or, in the case of the walkways and cliffs from last time, sometimes I run out of references. So I decided to jump over to an all-new phase of the project: creating the Goblet of Fire iteration of Hogwarts!

I started with the south end, where the Great Hall is. Some of the surrounding structures didn’t change at all from the previous film, so I ported those over. But the Great Hall itself got tweaked and slightly repositioned. Let’s start with just the design changes – easier to compare the Halls when they’re still in the same spot.

Original on the left, GOF redesign on the right:

The main difference is that the front was lengthened. This section with the bigger window corresponds to the entrance hall, a set that didn’t really fit very clearly into any part of the original Great Hall/Chamber of Reception structure. When the length was extended, the dormer windows and central turret on the roof were adjusted to keep things visually centered. The turret at the back/top of the hall was also redesigned as well as duplicated at the front of the structure.

So that’s the new design. What about the new position? Well, it’s easiest to show that by overlaying the GOF Great Hall onto the original castle:

The original position is the one that’s higher up and closer to the big marble staircase tower. The new position allowed for a redesigned “link building” between the entrance hall and the marble staircase tower – again, better matching the interior sets – and put the Great Hall closer the same level as the viaduct and its new courtyard. (Originally, the Great Hall was significantly higher than the viaduct; students had to climb all those Oxford stairs in the Chamber of Reception to get up to the Great Hall.)

Here I’ve added the link building:

The reason the rest of the GOF castle is missing is simple: I’m doing it one structure at a time, whether that means simply making its previous version visible or actually building new stuff.

The next structures to tackle are the new front of the Great Hall/entrance hall building (replacing the Chamber of Reception) and the viaduct courtyard. I believe the courtyard was brought to life by redressing the clock tower courtyard set from the previous film. I started this area by duplicating and repositioning the corresponding elements from the clock tower area, resulting in…this:

Yeah, the clock tower is definitely taller than the Great Hall. Lots of other things to tweak, too. All that and more in a future post – make sure you hit the Follow button (at the bottom of the page on mobile, to the right on desktop) to get notified of new updates!

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!

More Terrain Work

Sculpting, sculpting, sculpting…slowly, with many hours of rest to avoid aggravating my stupid arms…

Wrapping up the sculpting on this chunk of landscape:

Here’s an overhead view of the terrain so far. Play with the slider to compare the render (left) to a quasi-topological map (right):

The terrain just doesn’t look right, though, does it? I’ve been having a really hard time getting the colors of the rocks and foliage right. If I match one reference photo, it stops matching another…if I match one film, it stops matching another….if I match one lighting scheme, it stops matching another…if I match the rocks, it stops matching the foliage. Pretty tricky.

With more tweaks in this next render, we’re getting closer…

Then I paid a visit to textures.com and grabbed some rock photos. I scrambled those up together and used them to add a little photographic grit to my existing procedural rock texture.

We’re getting there! I’ll keep working on that texture. I also need to add some moss to the castle walls where they meet the rock.

Ending today with an unrelated render – I added a few more details inside the boathouse.

I reeeaaaally haven’t built this interior to hold up to this sort of scrutiny, so enjoy the rare close-up!

Back to Work

Well…the 2-3 weeks of computer rest didn’t do much good, sadly. We’re continuing to pursue other treatment options. In the meantime, I’ve been easing back into a bit of computer use, and I thought I’d share some of my (slow) progress with the terrain beneath the Sorcerer’s Stone castle.

Here I’ve resumed adding the next layer of detail to the area under the Great Hall:

I admit detailing everything manually was getting tiresome, so I finally started making use of this fabulous rock sculpting brush set from Blend Swap. I figure if the original modelmakers could use a mold of a big slab of coal, there’s nothing wrong with me using some photoscanned rocks for additional texture. This can be a good way to expedite the process of adding the countless tiny crags and crevices to the major forms I’ve sculpted. Then I can go back in and sculpt more details myself where necessary.

Blender’s “geometry nodes” system is getting better and better, so I started setting up a node tree that would add greenery to the top faces of the rocks:

Still needs work, but we’re headed in the right direction. I’ll round out today’s post with another angle and different time of day:

See you next time…hopefully before too long!

Continuing the Original Hogwarts Landscape

Still having RSI issues, but fortunately, sculpting doesn’t seem to aggravate them too much if I stick to the Wacom stylus in the right hand and the 3D mouse in the left. Anyway, more base meshes to be sculpted into the Hogwarts terrain:

You can see that I switched over to the first film’s castle there. I love the way the cliffs just under the back of the Great Hall buckle inward. They create a really cool silhouette that you can see in the first couple films. That area underwent small changes in Prisoner of Azkaban and then bigger changes in Goblet of Fire. It ended up with a convex shape that I find…more realistic, but less interesting. In fact, I think that whole corner of the terrain looks best in the early versions. It’s got some cool, designy rhythms to it, with asymmetrical outcroppings leading your eye upward to the Great Hall. They’re not as evident in the base mesh, of course:

We’re off the edge of the map here. Literally – I don’t have any technical drawings that go all the way out to this corner. But that doesn’t really matter, because it turns out the drawings aren’t very accurate for the terrain anyway. I don’t have any photogrammetry of this version of this area either, so it’s just a lot of flipping back and forth between different reference photos (with different lighting, focal lengths, resolutions, image quality, etc.) and trying to match every angle I can. It’s definitely a challenge. But it’ll be worth it to be able to showcase the way the landscape changes around the castle!

Anyway, that completes the base mesh for this chunk of the terrain…time to sculpt! I was a little nervous about the terrain on the two sides of the boathouse stairs matching up, since I’m building in two completely separate chunks. So it was exciting to see them starting to visually come together as if they’re one continuous landmass!

One of the amusing parts of this technique is just how insanely weird the undersides get:

It becomes very obvious that I started out by mushing a bunch of blocky shapes together, with no regard for how the bottom looks. Why not clean it up? I might at some point. But it’d probably be more work than it’s worth. I’m gonna stay focused on the parts that are visible.

The render below really showcases the difference in detail between my first sculpting pass and my second. The stuff to the right of the boathouse steps has had the second pass, while the stuff to the left hasn’t had it yet:

Even so, that’s starting to look positively Hogwartian!

This was the point at which I jinxed things by being too excited about the results I was getting. Something went wrong and shifted the whole cliff out of alignment in a weird way…twice. Still not sure how it happened. I had to revert to an earlier auto-save and redo a bunch of work in the area below…twice. Definitely frustrating. But it would have been way worse if not for the auto-saves…thanks, Blender!

That completed the first sculpting pass for this whole chunk of terrain beneath the Great Hall. The more detailed second pass should be in the next post!

More Landscape

Let’s continue adding the terrain! Almost all the land from the viaduct clockwise around to the south side of the quad building changed in Goblet of Fire. That’s when the Great Hall was relocated, the viaduct courtyard replaced the Chamber of Reception, the viaduct itself changed angles slightly, and boathouse steps were reconfigured, and the footpath up to the south side of the quad building was added. I mean, the basic idea is still the same, but it changed enough that I’m going to need to do a separate sculpt for the GOF version.

Anyway, what you see here is the beginnings of the version from the first three films. (I happen to have the POA castle visible here, but it could have been any of the first three versions.)

It can be an interesting challenge to divide the terrain into these blocky shapes, especially for areas where the reference images are few and photogrammetry isn’t possible. But I’m really glad I’ve chosen this approach. It forces me to think about the big forms first – a critical skill in both 2D and 3D art, and one I sometimes neglect.

As you can see, I didn’t worry about the spots where these blocks overlapped with the boathouse stairs – I knew I’d be able to carve out the appropriate sections later. Right now, I’m only focused on everything to the right of the stairs:

In fact, as the first sculpting pass begins, you can see I’m not even touching anything to the left of the stairs:

That’s all just overflow, soon to be clipped off and replaced with a separate sculpt for that side of the stairs. By the way, the techniques here are exactly the same as the ones I previously used in this video, albeit with less photogrammetry reference. I know I could get away with following the original landscape less closely overall, but I’m trying to keep it close – partially because it’s fun, partially to indulge my perfectionism, and partially because this way I’ll be able to show how the terrain changed along with the castle.

I was relieved to find that my plan for splitting the landscape into chunks should indeed work. The seam isn’t completely invisible in this render, but it should become less obvious with further detailing and finessing:

Speaking of which…next came further detailing and finessing! I clipped off all that excess rock to the left of the stairs and sculpted smaller ridges and crags:

That render reminds me that my lake water material will need more work. It’s also a clear illustration of the difference that detailing makes – notice how I haven’t touched the rocks toward the bottom right yet, and they, like…suck.

I fixed that next!

That brings all this terrain to a consistent level of detail. I must admit, I’m realizing that some of it’s getting a little too…sedimentary. I started really going for it with the strata in some places, but when I return to the photo references for the miniature, the rock has a rather different character to it. It may help if/when I use textured sculpting brushes to add the next level of fine detail? We’ll see.

Anyway, we’ll wrap up with some orthographic views of the POA castle so far! (Backsides and undersides of the terrain have been removed for clarity.)

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!

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.

Be sure to click the Follow button to get notified as more updates come!

Finishing the COS Whomping Willow

Before we get into today’s post, I was asked to share a plan view of the original quad in my model, so…voila! Can’t make any guarantee of its absolute accuracy, but it should be close. (Still missing the terrace along the north side…I don’t have any good references for that.)

Anyway, in our last installment, I’d finished a rough sculpt of the Chamber of Secrets Whomping Willow’s trunk, roots, and major branches. But I decided it would be better to let Blender grow the newer, denser growth on top. I created a particle system to generate paths leading away from the tree’s knuckles. Negative gravity pulled those paths upward to create the right shape. Here’s an early attempt:

After adjusting the parameters some more:

It was at this point that I spontaneously made a work-in-progress video tour of the SS castle, which then morphed into a tour of the COS castle too. This has been up on YouTube for a bit but I’ll include it here in case you’re crazy enough to not have already subscribed there.

But anyway, back to the Whomping Willow. The next step was to add smaller twigs. I created a handful of different shapes and used another particle system to distribute them over the shoots on top. To keep the distribution from being unnaturally even, I painted a “weight map” to control the density. Looks kinda cool on its own:

But of course, the point isn’t to have the weight map look pretty. The point is to get the twigs in place:

Then I went back to the trunk and main branches to sculpt the final levels of detail, giving them a texture that hopefully resembles tree bark. This took a while. Lots of virtual scraping with my Wacom tablet. (For fellow Blender users – I did most of my rough sculpting with the wonderful Clay Strips brush, and then I adjusted the falloff of the Scrape brush to dig all the grooves into the bark.) In the next render, you can also see me starting to experimenting with procedural normal maps to add another level of detail:

Then it was just a matter of refining the coloration of the tree and texturing the rocks at the base!

That flat lawn texture doesn’t look horrible from a distance, but it’s pretty obvious that there’s no actual grass here when you get close like this. So I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: I used Blender’s relatively new geometry nodes feature to create actual blades of grass.

This was my first foray into geometry nodes. Initially, I just wanted to add blades where the lawn approached other objects (like the Willow). That way I could at least get rid of the hard edges but still keep my computer from blowing a gasket. But the performance seems to be better than with the existing particle tools, which is really exciting. I’d been worried about how to tackle the surrounding landscape if my computer couldn’t handle that many blades of grass, but this has me more optimistic. I went ahead and just covered the whole lawn with actual blades, and it seems to be working fine!

Anyway, here are some views of the complete COS Whomping Willow!

More updates to come!

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!