SS/COS Moving Stairs, Continued

Let’s take a detour back to the moving staircases of Hogwarts! Thus far, as seen in this post, the environment has been very generic – just a tall rectangular space of the correct dimensions. Let’s fix that.

The biggest problem – we’re talking physically biggest – is that there’s supposed to be an extra chamber in the bottom section where the big window goes. Even if I’m not going to add the window yet, I can at least add that chamber:

Notice also the addition of a blue screen floor. This sits at the floor level of the actual set and also corresponds roughly to its footprint. Below that, I’ve lowered the main floor to reflect the slightly greater depth of the miniature. This is important because I won’t have room for the whole window if I leave the floor at set level. (The window only existed in the miniature, as far as I’m aware – though that changed in the redesigned Prisoner of Azkaban set.)

Next step is to hide the blue screen floor and add the lamps that help light the space:

(None of this is intended to look as realistic as the main castle model…the materials are very basic and these are just quick renders with Blender’s Eevee engine, which specializes in speed at the cost of physical accuracy.)

With lamps in place, let’s start adding the passageway that leads to this room from the Great Hall/Chamber of Reception area. (This was not part of the miniature as far as I’m aware, but it most definitely was part of the set.) This area is interesting because the production design draws very heavily on the real world – specifically, the steps at Christ Church Cathedral at Oxford, where the Chamber of Reception interior scenes were shot. You can see this most clearly with the large stone arches, which were built to match the ones at Christ Church, tying the sets and location shoots together into one shared imaginary space. The doors to the Great Hall set use the same arch design as well…a fact I’m grateful for, since the Warner Bros. Studio Tour was kind enough to post detailed drawings of those doors. You can see the same design on the castle exterior model as well, though I haven’t built those parts yet.

As always, things start with a confusing mess of intersecting curves that gradually coalesce into something more recognizable:

One of these arches is used as the entryway to the main room with the moving stairs:

Nice to be able to duplicate the design as needed:

Those rather ghostly outlines are caused by the same “backface culling” feature that allows us to see into the rooms from outside.

With more walls, details, and openings coming together, this area is starting to look quite a bit like the set…

…minus all the paintings, of course. As I see it, I have three basic options with those. In order of increasing difficulty:

  1. Pull a Filch and omit them entirely.
  2. Scatter the walls with a variety of paintings that look right overall.
  3. Try to match the paintings seen in the films, frame by frame, painting by painting (and fill in the gaps with option 2).

I’m currently sticking with option 1, but who knows?

In any case, there’s still more work to be done here. I need to add the rest of those smaller arched openings throughout the room, and I need to add the large, ornate window on the opposite side. Look for those in a future post! I also still hope to do some videos and scale comparisons and whatnot once this side project is complete. I might need to invest in a new GPU before then, since my current equipment is crashing if I try to render any more lamps with Eevee…

Building the Grand Staircase “For Real”

Let’s return to my efforts with the separate model of the grand staircase from the first two films, as described in this post. With mockups and tests out of the way, it’s time for a real attempt at modeling the grand staircase! All of the flights of stairs in that room (other than a few at the bottom) have identical designs and dimensions, so I’ll be able to do a lot of duplication here. We’ll start off simple:

Cool. Next comes the room itself, or at least a very basic start at representing its shape. Starting to duplicate some elements, throwing in some basic lighting and coloration…

Yeah, this is gonna work. I decided from the get-go that I wanted this side project to be geared toward Blender’s Eevee render engine, rather than the slower but more realistic Cycles engine I normally use. Makes it a lot quicker to churn out renders as I go.

I started messing with the animation early on. This adds a whole different level of complexity to the project, since the motion of the stairs also affects the configurations of the handrails…and typically when one flight moves, another has to move to get out of its way…but the flights can’t all move simultaneously without colliding into each other…yeah, it’s tricky. Still, I was able to get the first few flights working with fairly minimal “cheating” – here are two views with all the swiveling stairs (so far) in their two main positions.

To help you get oriented, the long landing at the bottom right (with the baluster shadows on it) is where Harry and friends first emerge into this room. I just haven’t built the archway through which they enter, or the rest of the set beyond. The first render reflects the way the model was built; the second reflects the alternate positions after the stairs have rotated.

One thing that helps with this is that I’ve activated backface culling for the room itself. In computer graphics, each surface “faces” a particular direction; we call this the normal. Ordinarily you can see the surface from either side, but with backface culling, you can only see it from its “front” side. I built the room so its normals all point inward, which means you can always see into the room, no matter what angle you’re at.

I paused work on the staircase to switch back to some of the other stuff I’ve more recently posted about, and that’s when I hit a snag…another fan turned me on to some old issues of Cinefex magazine that describe “an eighth-scale, forty-foot miniature, laid on its side to aid construction and photography” (#88, regarding the first film) and “a 40-foot-long staircase miniature built previously” and reassembled as it was before (#93, regarding the second film).

This stumped me. Hard. The model was indeed laid on its side, but at 1:8 scale, the various real-world items strewn about in construction photos would look much, much larger than they do. And if the miniature still measured 40 feet along its longest side at 1:8 scale, that would make the “real thing” 320 feet tall…and by my calculations, it should only be in the low 200s.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to press forward with my original dimensions, essentially disregarding the Cinefex figures. My best hypothesis is that the reference to 1:8 scale is incorrect – probably a misreading or misremembering of 1:3 scale – and the 40-foot figure isn’t the distance from the room’s bottom to top, but from the open wall nearest the Great Hall to the opposite wall with the large window. That math actually works perfectly if the scale was indeed 1:3.

So I continued building the rest of the flights of stairs. It turns out a little more “cheating” is necessary than I originally hoped…some of the balustrades are going to have to magically pop out of nowhere. But then again, the castle is magical. And the only alternatives are to leave unprotected ledges 200 feet up (yikes) or to have some of the balustrades sweep right through the landings, knocking off any students in their way (yikes again).

In any case, I’m mainly focused on the configuration in which the model was built; all the stair movement was digital (other than the one full-sized flight on the set that actually moved). The movement is just a bonus. With all the flights in place, it looks something like this:

The walls, floor, and ceiling are still just placeholders, really, and I haven’t added the lamps below the landings yet. But the stairs themselves are all accurate! Notice how they form two unconnected spirals that switch sides at the top and bottom. In a future post, we’ll add more detail to the rest of the room, and maybe some less generic materials. Then come animations and flythrough/around videos!

Marble Staircase Tower, AKA Dumbledore’s Tower, AKA Turris Magnus

All right…as promised, it’s time for one of Hogwarts’ most recognizable exterior design features to go from simple block-in to fully detailed model. I’m talking, of course, about the marble staircase tower, also referred to as the turris magnus (on the Marauder’s Map) or Dumbledore’s tower. You can go all the way back to Stuart Craig’s original concept sketch for the Hogwarts exterior, and this tower is already there. It’s the biggest tower, the one on the left. A few of the details are slightly different than the final design, but it’s pretty close:

This thing is massive. To give you a sense of scale, in the real-world environment envisioned by the design team, the top is over 600 feet above lake level. The main body of the tower is 92 feet wide. The spire alone is over 200 feet tall, with somewhere around 50 feet of that being the enormous copper finial at the top. For my fellow Disneyland fans…the entire freakin’ Matterhorn would fit inside the spire. Near the top, that smaller triple turret on the left is Dumbledore’s office; the castle’s moving staircases sit below, inside the cylindrical body of the tower. Mr. Craig has readily acknowledged in interviews that there are design choices here that simply couldn’t be built in real life. Fortunately, magic covers many architectural sins, and personally, I think the films are all the better for it. The turris magnus is featured prominently in the very first shots of Hogwarts and it’s part of what made such an impression on me in the early 2000s.

The first detail I wanted to capture was the dormers sitting along the sides of the spire. This is where the ridiculous, over-the-top dragon chase in Goblet of Fire really came in handy, because Harry and the Hungarian Horntail end up on these rooftops, providing closeup miniature shots and even closer shots of a partial set for Daniel Radcliffe to interact with. I decided to incorporate all these details into the dormers, even though the main 1:24 scale miniature probably wasn’t quite this detailed. (The closeup shots were accomplished with other bespoke miniatures on larger scales.)

Let’s also pull back for a wider shot, including some detail work on the finial and the beginnings of work on Dumbledore’s office:

(By the way, sorry for that other spire near the bottom middle, the one that has the copper patina discoloration near the top but no finial. Keeps showing up in renders. Eventually I’ll add the finial, I promise!)

Next came the stepped corbelling at the base of the turrets of Dumbledore’s office, and their own much smaller spires began to take shape as well. This was all slightly complicated by the fact that what few technical drawings I could find were not quite accurate, but I think I got pretty close in the end.

Here’s where I ran into a conundrum, though. As I mentioned, the closeup shots in GOF were accomplished with larger miniatures built just for those shots. As I looked more closely, I realized that the design of these turrets is a little different in these miniatures than in the main miniature – mainly in the design and placement of the windows. I couldn’t decide at first whether to go with the more detailed alternate design seen in GOF (and the theme park versions) or just go off of the main 1:24 model. The former was tempting at first, since the changes were clearly done to help the exterior match the interior sets designed for Chamber of Secrets. Speaking of which, as massive as this whole tower is, Dumbledore’s office is actually still smaller than the actual set. I thought that was pretty interesting. Below is a very simplified version of the interior set (in white) next to the exterior, using the real-world scale of the set and the intended imaginary scale of the exterior. (The vertical protrusions on the right are where the windows are; they didn’t build the sets with full-thickness walls, so they look like they’re sticking out.)

Anyway, the main model’s design won out in the end, and you can see the corresponding simple window designs have been added here. I’m technically still working on the POA version, and the redesigned exterior wasn’t created till GOF; when I get to GOF, I’m sure I’ll build the redesigned version too.

That makes the spire more or less complete, although I may go back in and add in details like roof flashing where Dumbledore’s turrets meet the main spire. For now, I moved on to the main body of the tower, adding corbels and windows:

From there, it was just a matter of building the larger windows that cover the rest of the tower below! In studying my 16,000-pixel-tall collage of reference images for this tower, I noticed that the spire has actually been mounted on the tower at a variety of angles over time, and there were again some discrepancies between the actual model and the technical drawings. This made it harder to figure out the radial spacing of the windows, but in the end, I did some measurements on my old photogrammetry of the castle and settled on there being 18 windows on each floor. Hopefully that’s correct, haha. In any case, here’s the complete tower!

As I continue around this corner of the castle, we’ll next be proceeding to the only other feature that’s as visually important as the marble staircase tower: the Great Hall!