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!

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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!

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!

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!

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!

Transfiguration Classroom

In the early Potter films, scenes in Professor McGonagall’s Transfiguration classroom were shot on location in the chapter house at Durham Cathedral. As part of their efforts to make the original exterior miniature somewhat consistent with the location shoots, Stuart Craig and his team adapted the exterior of the chapter house as part of their design.

I say “adapted” because the details don’t really match. Still, it’s very clear that this structure just south of the middle courtyard (also adapted from Durham) was intended to be the exterior of the classroom.

Here’s the basic shape of the structure:

My “reference board” for this structure is one of my smallest. This is partly because it only existed for two films and partly because it’s not that big or complex a structure…but it’s also partly because reference is really, really scarce. Like…a couple of shots in Chamber of Secrets and a behind-the-scenes photo from Sorcerer’s Stone, plus the floor plan that sits beneath the model. Still, it’s enough to reconstruct what most of it looked like…

…except I have literally zero shots of the far side of the structure, the one facing the courtyard. I’d be in heaven if I could find a shot of the original miniature from an angle like this:

It would clear up my questions about the side of the Transfiguration classroom facing the courtyard, not to mention the original training grounds tower roof on the right. Again…maybe someday. In the meantime, I’m leaving the wall facing the courtyard blank.

Anyway, here’s the less mysterious side with all the nice details:

And, as promised last time, here’s a slider comparing the whole area in the first film (left) to the redesign in the third film (right), including the relocation of the suspension bridge:

Next up…dare I try to tackle the original quad?

Wrapping Up the SS Training Grounds

For Sorcerer’s Stone only, the Quidditch training grounds were surrounded by curtain walls, retaining walls, and small towers that were slight adaptations of structures at Alnwick Castle. As we’ve seen in previous posts, a big chunk was redesigned in Chamber of Secrets, and then a big hill covered up the remainder of the original design starting in Prisoner of Azkaban. (The all-digital version in Deathly Hallows and Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have any walls back there at all.)

Because of all this, there’s not a huge amount of reference available for this area of the miniature. It’s certainly easy to find reference for the real thing at Alnwick, but what reference I do have makes it clear that the details don’t always match up. Just gotta do my very best!

I continued around to the far side, where the information is most limited. I’ll compensate for my less-than-complete confidence in certain details here by including the “mist pass” for this render, just for fun. This is a component of the render that’s used to add some atmospheric perspective. The further something is from the camera, the lighter it is, simulating greater amounts of haze between the viewer and the object. Looks kinda cool all by itself, eh?

There’s a low wall that divides the Alnwick Castle lawns in real life, and it shows up in the blueprints for the first Hogwarts miniature as well. The real thing even shows up in a single (edited) establishing shot of the location, at the beginning of the flying lesson. But I’ve never found a single photo of that spot in the miniature, which makes it tough to know exactly how much detail they put into it.

I’m cheating with all these lawns – they’re just textured surfaces with no actual blades of grass. To create those would require particle systems or geometry nodes or something, and I don’t think my computer could handle the amount of grass that’ll eventually be part of the model. Even filling just this area with actual blades of grass would be pushing my luck:

So I’m not really sure how I’m going to handle the landscape as a whole. The goal is to have it look…well, not like this render I created as a kid in Bryce 3D, circa 1999:

I can tell already that I won’t be able to rely solely on procedural materials. At the very least, I may need to hand-paint some changes in coloration near the footpaths and whatnot. Perhaps another day. In the meantime, we’ll close out for now with an extremely wide (and slightly distorted) angle reminiscent of the first shot of the training grounds in the first film.

Virtual Tour Video & Barbican/Gatehouse

Have you subscribed to my YouTube channel? If so, you’ve probably already seen that I posted a new work-in-progress virtual tour of my Prisoner of Azkaban Hogwarts model last week. If you haven’t subscribed yet…get on that! I’m not currently posting a lot of videos, but subscribing will make sure you know when I do.

But that’s not our main focus for today. Today we’re going to be continuing with progress after that video, building the structure from the first two films that corresponds to the gatehouse and barbican at Alnwick Castle.

As I’ve mentioned before, the filming miniature and the real location don’t always match up perfectly. I’m aiming more for the miniature, but it’s a lot easier to find reference for the real thing, so I’m having to rely on that to fill in the gaps. Here, I’ve got the basic structure of just the gatehouse built:

(This is where Neville zooms upward again on his broom before nearly impaling himself on a statue’s spear.)

Next come details on the façade facing the training grounds – windows, arrowslits, lanterns, and of course the classic Hogwarts-style torches that were added as temporary set dressing for the film shoot. The one on the right is the one that Neville’s robes catch on, slowing his fall a bit:

Note that this is a view you couldn’t have seen in any of the movies – it simultaneously shows the gatehouse (from the first two films) and the clock tower (from all but the first two films). If you looked at this angle during SS or COS, there’d be no castle visible in the background, and if you looked at this angle from POA onward…well, you’d be underground.

I should also mention that I have zero good shots of this side of the structure in the miniature, so here I’m going purely off of the real thing. Same goes for that small tower toward the left, which I haven’t detailed yet in the above render. Let’s rectify that, and add the similar tower on the other side of the gatehouse:

The flying and Quidditch lessons in Sorcerer’s Stone were both shot on location here, and these towers are seen pretty clearly, so I have no reservations about mimicking the real thing without knowing what they looked like in the miniature.

If this doesn’t look…right, it may be because Alnwick Castle is lighter, yellower, and more contrasty than the miniature. But I’m just using my main castle texture, which is based off of the most neutrally-lit photos of the miniature I’ve found. Also, this area is in direct sunlight in the film, not the shade. Plus, you know, the ground is still missing.

Anyway, on the outside of the gatehouse, let’s start adding the barbican. At the real Alnwick Castle, this was added to the gatehouse around the 14th or 15th century, greatly enhancing the castle’s defenses. I’ve had trouble finding reference for a few spots along the battlements, but this old 3D digital survey I found was helpful.

These areas in my model have really become a hybrid between the miniature and the real location:

Not too shabby! I wouldn’t want someone throwing boiling water on me from those battlements.

The part of this structure that was tweaked the most for the miniature was the entrance of the barbican. In the real world, the area outside the archway appears to be a paved semicircle, a small car park, and then the street. In centuries past, this would have been the only entrance to the grounds – basically just a really beefed-up, defensible drawbridge. But at Hogwarts, this isn’t an entrance at all. The terrain drops off pretty steeply, and so the area outside the archway is just a small terrace with no apparent purpose beyond being a lookout point. (They also swapped out the Percy lion heraldry over the archway for the Hogwarts crest, but that’s barely visible.)

If none of that is sounding familiar, it’s because it’s only seen indistinctly from great distances, and only on rare occasions, and only in the first two films, and only from the side. But blueprints and behind-the-scenes photos provide just enough insight to allow us to simulate cool new views like this:

It might look slightly more familiar from the side:

Any better? You could be forgiven for still not recognizing it. This is about the best view of the barbican exterior we ever get in the movies:

And you can’t even see the gatehouse there! So…yeah, not Hogwarts’s most distinctive feature. Still, it’s good to have it complete! Well…complete with the exception of the statues that stand on top of the ramparts. But those are full-on human figures, and I haven’t yet decided whether to sculpt them from scratch, adapt them from free models posted online, or omit them altogether.

Maybe I’ll have an answer in the next post. In the meantime, have a great weekend! Or week, or whatever, since clearly I don’t control when you’re going to be reading this.