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!

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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!

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?

Suspension Bridge & Gryffindor Girls’ Tower

When we last saw the Hogwarts suspension bridge in my project, it was an untextured but fairly complete bridge to nowhere. Then, a few posts later, I said that I’d hidden the bridge so I could do some reworking, and that it would return “eventually.” I didn’t really expect that “eventually” would mean two years and a pandemic later, but there ya go.

In the intervening time, I discovered some issues with my original recreation of the bridge, so I just rebuilt it from scratch. The suspension bridge moved in Prisoner of Azkaban; I decided to start with that version, as I did two years ago.

I found that the two ends of the bridge weren’t quite lining up, but that problem went away with some slight cheating.

One challenge is that our only truly close-up view of this bridge in the films is during the dragon chase in Goblet of Fire…but that shot features a different design, and I’ve chosen to ignore it.

Adding the details, and hiding the buildings to the north so we can get a better angle (and let some more light in):

I suppose it’s only fair to also include a reverse angle, this time hiding the south block (and rotating the sky/sun 180°):

But of course, as I said, this is not where the suspension bridge started out. Originally, it was closer to Gryffindor Tower and lower down – in fact, you can see the small building it originally led to on the far left side of the render above.

Back on the opposite (south) side of the ravine, the tower containing the Gryffindor girls’ dormitories originally stood directly above the other side of the bridge. (Not going to dig into the design choice to deprive the girls’ tower of a spire or any discernable windows…) That tower disappeared completely when the suspension bridge moved in Prisoner of Azkaban, although the Gryffindor common room set still hints at its existence.

Again, it’s easiest to see this with half of the castle missing. Drag the slider to compare Sorcerer’s Stone (left) to Azkaban (right):

I should say that I am NOT confident in the accuracy or completeness of the lower left area of the wall in the Sorcerer’s Stone version. The floor plan seems to indicate some sort of terrace or balcony; if it was actually built, I’d imagine it was similar to the one on the right side of the render, in appearance and height. Sadly, I simply cannot find any reference for this area of the original model, so for the time being, I’m just building the main wall itself. Someday, man…someday.

I’d like to show you a similar slider facing the opposite direction, but I think that’ll be more fun and more informative once I’ve built the Transfiguration classroom (AKA Durham Cathedral chapter house). That’s next up on my to-do list…stay tuned for more updates! In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a more familiar Sorcerer’s Stone angle of the suspension bridge area:

And hey, why not – just as a fun bonus, here’s an overhead shot, but with the SS and POA versions both visible and intersecting nonsensically. I’m including the mist pass too because it just looks frickin’ cool.

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.

…and the “Sorcerer’s Stone” Training Grounds Tower!

We’re gonna start today’s post with the good stuff: before-and-after sliders comparing the COS-through-OOTP training grounds tower I finished last time to the original training grounds tower! (I’ll show you the process of creating the latter afterward.)

For each slider below, the SS version of the tower is on the left and the COS-OOTP version is on the right. Notice how little the lower areas of the structure change, and how much the upper areas of the structure change!

Before I built this original version, I realized that I didn’t have the adjacent areas built in the SS model, which would make it look kinda funky. So I first took care of some housekeeping: duplicating stuff from the POA model to the SS model, creating new collections (folders) for different structures, etc.

The Defense Against the Dark Arts tower moved in Prisoner of Azkaban, so I created a copy of it and moved it to its original position. I also removed some asymmetry from the Durham wing that was introduced in Azkaban to make room for the Dark Tower:

God, I get so nostalgic for those candle snuffer roofs on the Durham wing from the first couple films.

Anyway, as you’ve seen with the sliders, the lower areas of the COS-OOTP training grounds tower are identical to the original design from SS; they just redesigned most of the upper areas. So I brought a copy of that training grounds tower into the SS model and started ripping off all the top parts that were different. Here’s a fun render partway through that messy process:

Ugly, innit? Well, if you want to make an omelette, you’ve got to crack some eggs.

There, now the metaphorical eggs are beginning to set! Nearly done:

The roof is tricky because in addition to the gable, there seem to be some flat areas, but I don’t have any good shots from above. This is another area where my ideal levels of accuracy and precision simply aren’t going to be possible, unless some kind soul manages to send me reference photos or technical drawings of this spot that hasn’t been part of the miniature for almost 20 years now.

This seems to be the best inference possible from the available information:

Its central courtyard is particularly mysterious. It corresponds to a space at Alnwick Castle that was used in a brief scene in the first film, but the shape is so different in the miniature that it’s impossible to know what sorts of architectural details were in there. In the video game, the courtyard is omitted altogether, continuing the flat roof over the entire thing; you can see it at 3:07:02 in this video. But that castle has numerous other inaccuracies, so I take it with a grain of salt.

One of the things that’s starting to stick out for me is the lack of flashing on all my roofs. It definitely hurts the realism. I’m going to need to fix that at some point.

Anyway, here’s one last shot of the finished tower! Next, I’ll probably finish up the SS-era curtain walls. See you next time!

You Can Never Have Too Many Greenhouses

The 3D model of the Prisoner of Azkaban castle keeps chugging along! After completing that first greenhouse, I duplicated it three more times:

These four all share the exact same design, but then there are four more along the east side of the Durham area, and their dimensions are a little different, so I had to create (and thrice duplicate) a new variation over there:

And then at last there is Greenhouse Three, which is a smaller lean-to on the castle’s outer wall. (You can catch a glimpse of it in the above render.) This is the greenhouse where the Herbology lesson with the mandrakes takes place. It’s got its own unique design, so I took care of that next. Some of the dimensions here don’t line up quite as precisely as I’d like, but I’ve tried to minimize the number (and visibility) of compromises as much as I can:

You can also see that I’ve also added rust, adjusted the weathering of the wood, and started with the footpaths between the greenhouses. I even threw in one of the largest vines that snakes its way out of the greenhouses, visible toward the bottom right:

In the background, you’ll see that I’ve begun the curtain walls around the greenhouse area. These were actually there in the original design of the castle, even before the greenhouses were added in Chamber of Secrets; they just had to be pushed outward a bit to accommodate that addition. Here’s a better view of their progress:

See where the wall stops on the right? That’s going to be the site of the final greenhouse structure, the domed conservatory that also acts as the only way out of the greenhouse courtyard and into the grounds. But I’m going to save that for the next post. I’m hoping to even share something I’ve never seen before: an interior view of that conservatory*!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a slightly different aerial view of the POA model so far. Still plenty more to be done, but we’re getting closer!

* If they happened to include the conservatory interior in any of the video games, let me know! I haven’t played them but I’ve looked through longplays on YouTube and never spotted it.

Viaduct Entrance, Continued

I ended my last post on a positive note. Sadly, my enthusiasm was perhaps premature. As soon as I started adding windows to the viaduct entrance, I ran into the sorts of issues with dimensions and proportions that so often plague projects like this, at least when you don’t have complete technical drawings at your disposal. The top of window X is supposed to be even with the top of window Y, which is about a third as tall as window X, but if I move window X to be even with window Y, it’s no longer in the right place relative to feature Z…that sort of thing. Really frustrating.

Fortunately, I’m not as much of a perfectionist as I used to be, so I pressed onward, accepting the fact that close comparisons with the original Hogwarts miniature would still reveal small discrepancies. The overall dimensions are still very accurate – welllllllll beyond the accuracy needed for a casual viewer to be able to say, “Hey, that’s Hogwarts!” And thanks to the photogrammetry I’ve been able to pull from various videos of the castle, I shouldn’t end up with any errors that snowball into large-scale catastrophes. (Famous last words?)

The windows look funny without nothing but sky and water on the other side, but that will be resolved when I enclose the other sides of the building. For now, the south facade at least is complete.

I next turned my attention to the thinner towers directly behind the ones you see here. Like the towers in front, these had their spires completely revised in Order of the Phoenix, but I’m still working on the Prisoner of Azkaban version for now. There’s still a long way to go with the Durham area of the castle, but this is already starting to really change the look of the front of Hogwarts:

One of my favorite details on these less prominent towers looks like something out of the Winchester Mystery House: a door that opens from the battered base of the tower into midair, with no balcony or stairs or anything, a good couple of stories above the ground. Take a look toward the bottom of the tower:

No idea why they included this door – nor whether it’s also present on the identical tower on the other side, though the extremely minimal photographic coverage of that area seems to suggest that it’s not. (I also know the door disappeared in the digital DH/FB version of the castle.) In any case, my model omits the door on the other tower and attempts to include as much detail on the neighboring walls as can be divined from the available reference. Those constitute one of the most hidden areas of the castle, so if you miraculously find any overhead shots that peer into it, please comment!

The beginnings of the central tower are visible right below the camera. You can also see that I’m starting to get cautious with my symmetry. While the footprint of this part of the castle was indeed symmetrical in the original Sorcerer’s Stone design, changes to the adjacent areas in the third film necessitated shortening the area on the right that corresponds to Durham’s south transept. Below I’ve given us X-ray vision so we can get an impossible angle. Take a look at the walls on the right with the three windows – those are the ones that got shortened on the opposite side.

As we get to the transepts, the similarities between the Hogwarts miniature and the real-world Durham Cathedral become more and more evident. There are still discrepancies, though; I’m favoring the VFX miniature’s design in those areas, especially since this part of the actual cathedral isn’t even seen in the films.

I’ll round out today’s post with some untextured orthographic views of the entire Prisoner of Azkaban model as of this moment. Coming along!

P.S. If you haven’t subscribed to my new YouTube channel, I’d recommend it. I don’t have much content up there yet, mainly because the project is still very much a work in progress, but especially when we start getting into the final stages, I’d imagine I’ll be posting a lot of videos. I did recently post the raw visual effects shot of Hogwarts I created for the teaser for Les Fondateurs 2: La Quête de Gryffondor (The Founders 2: Gryffindor’s Quest).