Across the Viaduct!

With the SS/COS grand staircase side project complete, let’s hop back over to the main model!

The basic layout of Hogwarts in all the films is divided into two halves – a wing to the south where you have things like the Great Hall and the marble staircase tower and Gryffindor Tower, and a north wing that’s largely based off of real-world architecture at Durham Cathedral and Alnwick Castle. There are three footpaths that connect these halves:

  • The viaduct, which is by far the most noticeable, as it’s the largest and it’s situated right out front. This one goes all the way back to Stuart Craig’s early concept designs, and it stayed virtually unchanged all the way till Deathly Hallows, when it was enlarged and reoriented to become the main route into the school. (A new stairway was added so that there were still three paths connecting the halves of the castle.)
  • The stone bridge, which is much shorter and rather higher up than the viaduct, but still quite visible. It also dates back to the early concept art.
  • The suspension bridge, which isn’t seen particularly often but remained more or less unchanged throughout the films; it just moved around a little.

Each of these was in a different state in my model: the viaduct didn’t exist at all, the stone bridge was complete, and the suspension bridge existed as an early attempt that I hid sometime last year. I decided to hold off on that till later, but I did need to get the viaduct in place so I could start work on the north wing!

There’s a lot of good reference out there, so the viaduct wasn’t particularly difficult:

You may notice I’ve begun adding some subtle atmospheric perspective or mist to some of these renders…it can really help provide some depth and separation, particularly since the entire castle is pretty homogeneous in terms of color and texture. That’s becoming more important as the castle continues to sprawl further and further out.

Anyway, with the viaduct completed, I turned my sights to the so-called viaduct entrance – as in, the entrance to the north wing from the viaduct, not the entrance to the viaduct. It’s framed by two towers that remained largely unchanged throughout the films; their spires just got a little steeper in Order of the Phoenix. They also added a window to Snape’s dungeon at the base of the one to the left, but that’s hidden from a lot of angles…and since I’m working on the Azkaban version of the castle right now, I don’t have to worry about that yet anyway.

I began adding the left tower, as well as the semicircular area at the end of the viaduct. This is also a nice silhouette of the stone bridge in the background:

Once the details started really coming together, including the shallower spires seen prior to OOTP, I mirrored the left tower to the right side as well. (The two are identical, other than the fact that one of the windows on the left tower is replaced by a door to the stone bridge.)

Here they are complete!

That smoke sim is paying dividends…I’m really digging in in this render.

The wall that connects these two towers is interesting. It forms the southernmost face of the so-called long gallery, sometimes even just referred to as the Durham building because as I said, so much of its design is based off of Durham Cathedral. That cathedral was a real-world filming location for the first two films, and there are some areas of the miniature that follow its design pretty slavishly so as to meld well with the location shoots.

This south wall, though, corresponds to an area of Durham never seen in the film. This what it looks like in real life, courtesy Google Street View:

Since they never shot any scenes right here, there was freedom to modify the design for the visual effects miniature, which looks like this:

As you can see, the miniature retains the overall shape and dimensions, but many of the details have been changed. The large rose window is replaced with a much smaller and less “churchy” version, and front doors have been added – front doors that are identical to the doors to the Great Hall, which are in turn identical to real-world doors at Christ Church at Oxford. (The doors are, however, scaled up to about twice the size – nearly 30 feet tall in the imagined real-world scale the miniature represents!) The windows are very Oxfordesque as well.

Anyway, I began adding this south wall:

I didn’t have to create those huge Oxford doors completely from scratch this time…the archways in the grand staircase side project are variations thereof, so I was able to bring one of those archways into this file and modify it appropriately. (I admit it’s kind of a hodgepodge of super-precise areas and others that are merely close to correct…ssshhh, don’t tell anyone.)

I then added the four house crests – plus the main Hogwarts crest – above the door, using bump maps to simulate the relief. Here’s a student’s-eye view from the viaduct:

It’s especially nice now that I remembered to make the windows visible! Ignore the light under the doors though.

I don’t know why I was psyching myself out prior to starting the viaduct entrance…I had this weird gut feeling that it wasn’t going to look right, or I wouldn’t be able to get the dimensions to all agree with each other, or something…but I really like the way this is turning out! Stay tuned for more updates as I add windows, the triangular area with the small rose window, and the two small spires on either side!

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!

A Little “Proof of Concept”

Golden eagles and moving staircases can get frustrating. Sometimes you just need to return to your comfort zone and make some turrets. That’s what led me to spend some time (for once) on a version of Hogwarts that’s NOT the one from the third film! We’re going all the way back to the beginning, to a simpler time before the back of Hogwarts got its elaborate clock tower and courtyard. We’re going back to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone!

In addition to giving me some relief from the project’s more challenging tasks, this gave me a chance to play a bit with this project’s whole primary purpose: providing 3D comparisons between different versions of the model. So I built a new version of the quad’s outer wall, but in its original state, before the hospital wing and clock tower and so forth were added for Azkaban. It’s very difficult to find information about this area of the original model, but I think I’ve been able to get a pretty close facsimile:

Still woefully incomplete, of course, but the cool thing is that I could keep the camera in the exact same spot and render a direct comparison with the (also incomplete) POA version:

This is the kind of stuff I want to get into when the project is reaching its final stages. I’d even like to let the camera glide slowly around the model as things change from film to film…I think that would be visually appealing and very informative.

(Now’s also as good a time as any to point out that I’m now on Instagram; I don’t necessarily post a lot, but feel free to follow there as well if you’d like!)

Anyway, no idea how long I’ll be working on this SS version of the castle right now; I’ll have to get back to those statues sooner or later. We’ll see what my next post ends up being about!

A Detour on the Grand Staircase

All right…the main model is still going strong, but I’ve found myself intrigued by a side project: the grand staircase, AKA marble staircase. Much like a parking garage, its interwoven spiraling structures are hard for my brain to visualize, which makes them fascinating to reconstruct.

I’ve specifically focused on the version seen in the first two films…after that, it went through some changes, though those changes remained subtle until Deathly Hallows. But in the first two films, it seems to have been brought to life with the same miniature and full-sized partial set – with digital augmentation. (Incidentally, based off of the few images of the miniature I’ve found, I’m pretty sure it was built on its side at somewhere around 1:3 scale…but don’t quote me on that. If I’m right, that would make the miniature over 50 feet long.) [EDIT: I’ve now found a source that claims it was a 40-foot miniature built at 1:8 scale, which doesn’t seem to work mathematically. I’m not sure what to make of this.]

Initially, my primary goal was to replicate the set. I figured the miniature was kind of its own thing, and I got to work aligning technical drawings and photogrammetry and so forth just for the set. (Each of those small orange shapes is where the camera was for a specific frame from the film…pretty cool to see how the camera moved through the space!)

After more closely studying both films, I came to realize that the available reference material does consistently and explicitly establish the spatial relationships between the set and the miniature. (Thank goodness the different paintings and frames provide excellent reference points!) So I changed tack: the new goal was to create a single model that brought the set, the miniature, and the digital elements together. This was aided by a bit of photogrammetry from Chamber of Secrets that worked WAY better than I thought it would:

So the good news is that I had a lot of information to work with. The bad news is…it was a lot of information! This room is enormous and very repetitive, so it’s easy to get lost in the reference images and forget which staircase is which. I tried to just jump right in with the modeling, but confusion set in pretty fast, so I decided this would just be an exploratory first pass. I kept this mockup simple and not super precise. Still, I kept getting lost, so I spent a long while color coding flights of stairs in both the model and in my reference images. Here’s a glimpse of just part of that process:

It looks like a gaudy mess, but for the first time in my life, I understood the complex geometry of the grand staircase! Things I learned:

  1. In plan view, the stairs form three adjacent squares. The flights that actually move are all part of the middle square.
  2. There were definitely at least 36 flights in the miniature – more likely 38, but I can’t find a clear angle confirming the last 2. Regardless, these cover 19 different levels, each 10 feet high. Almost every levels has 2 landings on opposite walls of the room. (I’m hesitant to call these floors, since Hogwarts isn’t really supposed to have 19 of those…but each landing does have a door…)
  3. In the miniature’s “default configuration”, so to speak, the flights are organized into two separate helical pathways. In the middle floors, these each spiral in a clockwise direction as they ascend on opposite sides of the room. Toward the top and bottom, the two pathways intertwine so they can switch sides. Through most of the model, the two paths are identical; they’re just rotated 180 degrees relative to each other.
  4. The bottom-most level is a bit irregular and doesn’t follow rule #3.
  5. If all the flights that form part of the middle square rotate 90 degrees from their bases, you end up with more of a DNA-like double helix, as opposed to two side-by-side helices.
  6. In the first film, we look all the way up and the stairs seem to continue into infinity. The most distant stairs were added digitally to obscure the top of the miniature. These aren’t part of my model.
  7. In the second film, the camera moves swiftly downward through the miniature; the set is composited in toward the bottom. Below the set are still more stairs; these were created by shooting the miniature again from a different angle and compositing it in as the bottom.

Clear as mud, right? Yeah, it’s hard to visualize. But the rough mockup was a success in that it gave me a clear roadmap for making a serious attempt at modeling the grand staircase. I’ve already begun, and I’m looking forward to sharing the details in a future post! In the meantime, here’s an orthogonal elevation-style view of the mockup, just for fun.

Chamber of Reception

For the first three Potter films, a large antechamber or entrance hall sat in front of the Great Hall. Its interior – the very first interior of Hogwarts seen on film – was shot on location at Christ Church Cathedral’s Great Staircase at Oxford. Stuart Craig and his team didn’t attempt to recreate the exterior of this structure in the visual effects miniature of Hogwarts, but the design they came up with does draw some details from that real-world location. Although this room is never explicitly named in the film, Harry’s prop acceptance letter instructs him to report to the “Chamber of Reception”, and the name (seen only briefly onscreen) seems to have stuck with the fan communities. The closest equivalent in the books is the entrance hall.

For Goblet of Fire, Hogwarts received a new courtyard and tower in front of the Great Hall, and the Chamber of Reception went the way of the dodo, never to return. In its place was an entrance hall with a smaller footprint and very different appearance. It’s a great look, but I’m very fond of the Chamber of Reception, due to my particular nostalgia for the first film. Fortunately, since I’m working on the Azkaban version of the castle, I get to include it in my model!

Getting the vertical dimensions of the Chamber of Reception required some use of photogrammetry and inference from known elevations of adjacent areas. Soon, I had a basic shape roughed in:

That chimney that protrudes from the corner on the right is a detail taken from the real thing at Oxford, by the way. Thanks, Google Maps:

The miniature also incorporates the exterior steps and the light fixture above the arch, even though there are no location shots of those in the film, leading me to believe that they at least considered shooting some stuff just outside this building at Oxford.

Anyway, I kept the same camera angle for the renders that followed. I began to block in the so-called pepperpot building on the left and added more details to Chamber of Reception:

The last round of details really brought it all together, completing the Chamber of Reception (other than some windows I may add to the far side). The tracery on the windows was tough, since reference for those is quite limited. I think what I came up with is pretty decent, even if it’s not 100% accurate. I also had to refer to the hammerbeam roof interior miniature from the first film for the rose window on the front of the Great Hall – I can’t find any closeup shots of the exterior, but there’s a corresponding rose window in the interior miniature.

I even included that real-world lamp above the arch, plus another Hogwarts-style sconce next it that’s visible on the effects miniature. They’re hard to see in the daylight, so…Nox!

There’s still more to be done here with the interior lighting, but I do like the way this is turning out. You’re actually seeing into the lit interior of the Chamber of Reception and Great Hall; most of the other windows in my model just have flat panels behind them that give off a splotchy orange glow for night shots, a cheat that’s very obvious in the exposed interiors seen to the right side of this render. But the Great Hall and Chamber of Reception have large windows into large spaces with known interior architecture, so I didn’t want to fake it with these.

I think I next need to add details to the pepperpot, and then either the link building or the terraces around the Great Hall. We’ll see what order I end up springing for. I’m also going to need to create a new texture for the paved horizontal surfaces like those terraces – so far I haven’t done anything like that.

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!