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!

Roof Flashing, Version Mashing, & Quad Teeth-Gnashing

The next thing to add was roof flashing. It’s been on my to-do list for ages. (Not sure why I haven’t just been adding it as I go…) It’s not very glamorous work – no one looks at a render and goes, “Oooh, look at that beautiful roof flashing!” – but the model just doesn’t look quite right without it. Here’s what I’m talking about, as I started to add it:

There are ways of doing this kind of thing automatically, but I wanted it to look a little imperfect, so I used Blender’s “Snap to Face” functionality and drew it all in manually.

Here are the SS and POA models with all the flashing added:

(If you want to see the flashing itself, I’d recommend right-clicking to open the images in new tabs so you can view the full resolution.)

It feels like time to work on the COS version of the castle, doesn’t it? In almost every way, it’s just an intermediate step between SS and POA, so I figured it shouldn’t be too hard. Everything south of the ravine is identical to SS, although the real miniature did receive some touchups. It’s the north side that changes.

After mashing together the appropriate elements from the SS and POA castles, I proceeded to create the new training grounds, with their relatively flat lawns that existed only in this film:

I really like this version of the castle. Here’s the above render’s isolated mist pass, too, just because it looks cool:

But there’s one major element missing: the Whomping Willow! That’ll likely be the topic of my next post.

By the way, the original quad continues to vex. Deeply. I’ve really been enjoying the discussions in the comments about the cloister. It’s led me to a very divisive debate (in my own head) about whether its design owes more to Gloucester Cathedral or Lacock Abbey. I was pretty confident in the answer being Gloucester…but now I’m really profoundly split.

Reasons to think it’s Gloucester:

  • The whole courtyard is labeled “Gloucester” in the later films’ floor plans (after the removal of the cloister in question).
  • The quad building has Gloucester-style windows on south outer façade, and they almost had them at the same level on the west façade as well. All of these are around the same level as the cloister.
  • The paths and fountain aren’t an exact match to any location I’ve found, but they’re a lot closer to Gloucester than to Lacock.
  • The Lacock courtyard is never really seen in the films; the Gloucester courtyard is, if only very briefly.

Reasons to think it’s Lacock:

  • I thought all the films’ floor plans labeled the courtyard “Gloucester,” but I realized that what I’m reading on the early plans is just the word “cloisters.”
  • There’s a floor plan from the first film that shows the way some sets and real-world locations fit together in the filmmakers’ imaginations. It is substantially different from the layout of the miniature, but the Lacock Abbey courtyard and cloister are placed right next to the grand staircase.
  • From the overhead shot in COS, it looks like the cloister is rather tall, with a blank stretch of wall above the tracery. Lacock’s cloister has a similar design; Gloucester’s doesn’t.
  • Lacock is a closer match to the size of the quad.

Soooooo…yeah, I’m pretty split. For now, I’ve added the blank bit of wall and raised the cloister roof accordingly, but I haven’t changed the tracery to match Lacock. I’m waiting till I (hopefully) find some more reference material.

Anyway, be sure to “follow” so you can be notified when I post the Whomping Willow!

Fixin’ Mistakes

I love that establishing shot as winter becomes spring in the first film. I didn’t attempt to exactly match the angle and lighting, but it’s pretty close. Fiddle with the slider to show what the POA castle (right) would have looked like from the same angle!

Anyway, my main purpose with today’s short post is to clean up some messes! I was alerted to an apparent error in the last post: the front walkway through the arch doesn’t seem to have connected to the walkway around the Chamber of Reception, after all. The truth is far stranger and less certain…but if I’m interpreting the bits of available reference material correctly, there was actually a staircase that led down below the Chamber of Reception, probably entering through a gap in the rocky hillside that supports the CoR. This is my best attempt at reconstructing it:

I was then alerted to another error – there were windows on the hospital wing where there shouldn’t have been. And I discovered an extra chimney in the SS version of the quad, too. So here’s a new SS/POA comparison slider that fixes these issues:

Moral of the story for me: Always double-check all your reference images!

Moral of the story for you: If you think you see a mistake in my work, please do let me know in the comments! I want to get this right and I appreciate the help!

Finishing the SS and POA Quads (and Hospital Wing)

Relatively short post – time to add the cloisters to the original quad. It is very difficult to make out any detail in the single shot of these cloisters in Chamber of Secrets, but it seems very safe to assume that these were based on the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral. So what the heck, I’m going for it:

The floor is so plain! I mean, the floor looked a lot like that in the later iterations of the quad, but in the beginning, there were footpaths and a fountain and everything. Looks much better with those in place, even if the walls were tall enough to keep it pretty dark in there a lot of the time.

Fun fact: I haven’t built any doorways from the cloisters into the middle there. There would certainly be at least one in real life, and I’d imagine the miniature had at least one, but I’ve got no idea where it would have been, so I’m not going to bother.

Here’s are a couple of views of the complete original quad:

Not my finest texture work, admittedly. Most of what I’ve created for this project holds up a lot better at larger distances.

Of course, this project is all about the changes to the design of Hogwarts. So when did the quad start to change? Well, the hospital wing got added in Prisoner of Azkaban. I strongly suspect (though I’m not absolutely 100% certain) that the raised, cloister-less floor didn’t come till Goblet of Fire. Here are a couple of comparisons between the pre-Azkaban version (left) and the Azkaban version (right), showing the addition of the hospital wing [EDIT: there are too many windows here – see the next post for the fixed version]:

The off-center placement of the hospital wing is intentional, by the way. It was really designed and built like that.

If you’re still having trouble getting a sense for how the different levels line up, here’s an orthographic cross-section:

Should be quite close, if not precise down to the inch. That’s the back terrace on the lower left and the quad itself in the middle.

Next, tackling the walkways out in front of the quad building, connecting up with the viaduct [EDIT: Actually, I’m pretty sure this is not accurate either; again, see the next post for the fix]:

That render could be of any of the first three films, by the way, since that area didn’t change at all (as far as I can tell).

Where do we go from here? The last remaining major castle structure is the lower walkway (around the bottom right corner of that render) and the terrace to which it likely led in the first two films. But it would be an understatement to say that I’m having trouble finding good reference for that area. Still not sure what I’m going to do about that.

One thing I am sure of? It’s been way too long since we’ve done a nighttime render! Like, waaaaaay too long. Almost a year. The model was half its current size! Here are a few nighttime shots of the Azkaban version to help rectify the situation. See you next time!