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!

The Domed Conservatory

I’ve been looking forward to this one! When the greenhouses went in for Chamber of Secrets, the small building forming the entrance to that courtyard was replaced with a larger and more ornate conservatory with a dome and cupola. It’s a neat structure, but my biggest reason for being excited is that there are blueprints at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour…and these provide lots of detail on the interior, which is hard to glimpse from the exterior of the model. The upshot is that today’s post concludes with the first (to my knowledge) views of the conservatory interior on the internet!

How’d I get there? Well, I decided to start from the inside; it’s easier that way, plus it allows interesting views that won’t be possible once the structure is enclosed. There’s an octagonal arrangement of planters and columns:

Texturing the interior is an interesting challenge. I don’t want to spend that long on it, since it’ll barely be visible from the outside. It’s also hard to find good texture reference precisely because it’s barely visible from the outside – and for the same reason, they probably didn’t go super realistic in terms of all the finishes anyway. (From what little we can see at the Studio Tour, it looks like the inside may have become understandably dusty, which further complicates things. I also don’t know what they were going for with the weird gold paint job on the planters.)

As I pondered this, I continued with the modeling. Next up was the spiral staircase up to the balcony level. An apparent inconsistency in the technical drawings gave me a moment of trouble with the number of risers, but I’m pretty sure my interpretation is the correct one. With a little sleuthing, I learned that this spiral staircase was based on a 1:25 scale set sold by E.M.A. Model Supplies in London. In fact, the specific product (ST-7304) is listed for sale on their website to this day. Here’s the product image:

They then added the cage and banister. Here’s my version with most of the staircase modeling done:

Finishing the staircase and moving on to the balcony above:

Unless you’re pretty short, you’ll want to watch your head as you ascend the spiral staircase. There’s a spot near the top with less than five feet of vertical clearance.

It looks like the foliage in the conservatory is mostly palm trees and the like; I tweaked some assets from CGTrader. These obviously won’t be an exact match to the ones inside the miniature, but they get the job done.

Time to start enclosing the thing:

The next section up has more dragons. I’d planned on simply using the exact same asset from the greenhouses…but I should have done my research first. Turns out the ones on the conservatory are a little different in shape/size. So I went back and roughly rigged the dragon so I could pose it a little differently for the conservatory. It’s not a perfect match to the pose, sadly, but it wouldn’t be worth it to do a whole ‘nother sculpt.

Then it was just a matter of adding the dome…

The only thing left was the cupola on top. But as I was about to start that, I randomly started noticing some issues with the castle’s overall coloration. The color has always been a tricky thing due to the various changes in the paint job, the lighting, and the color grading over time. But I’ve gradually found more and more unprocessed shots of the castle in relatively neutral white lighting, and comparing those to my renders, I decided my castle needed to be a little more yellow and a little less red. It’s surprisingly tough to get the right balance, so I’ll likely go back and continue to tweak the colors at some point. But for now, I think this brings us still closer to a convincing reproduction of the castle:

Anyway, let’s finish the conservatory!

Not half bad! But of course, the real fun is putting the camera inside, where – again, to my knowledge – no Potter fan has gone before! It’s a relatively tight interior space, so we’ll use a fisheye lens:

And here’s a shot from the balcony level:

You saw it here first, folks! (And if you didn’t…well, let me know where you did see it first, because I’d love to see more views inside the conservatory!)

I think my next steps will be to finish the last bit of the curtain wall surrounding the greenhouses and then finish up all the footpaths and lawns. See you soon!

Rescaled Bricks & Greenhouse Dragons

I promise we’re going to get to sculpting the decorative dragons from the tops of the greenhouses, but first I wanted to share a “before and after”. A reader who goes by kronkolweg pointed out that my castle’s bricks were a little big. It had already been starting to bug me a bit, and this was just the kick I needed to get off my butt and fix it.

For the original castle miniature, one or more brick textures were hand-sculpted, molded, mass-produced in FastCast resin, and glued to the miniature’s wooden understructure before being hand-painted. There was a transition to more detailed plaster-based textures starting in Chamber of Secrets – I’m not sure if any of the original resin brick textures ultimately survived through to the final Half-Blood Prince iteration of the miniature. In any case, the overall effect is the same, and my procedural brick material mimics it without requiring me to individually texture each wall. The thing is, when I created this material (as documented here, here, and here), I had much less of the castle built, which meant I had fewer points of comparison for the scale of the bricks. Frankly, I don’t remember how much actual measurement there was, as opposed to simple eyeballing, but it’s become clear that the results are a little oversized.

So, being the Excel nut that I am, I sat down and made a spreadsheet. I took horizontal and vertical brick counts for various areas of the castle, comparing my model to the miniature. There’s a certain margin of error in the scale of my castle, and the bricks of the miniature are not necessarily of completely uniform scale, so I averaged the different measurements and arrived at my brick adjustments: a 34% reduction in width and a 21% reduction in height.

The interactive sliders below compare the old larger bricks (left) to the new smaller bricks (right):

The difference is subtle from any real distance, but it’s more accurate now, which always feels good.

With this tweak completed, I shifted my attention to those greenhouse dragons! Fortunately, they’re all identical, so I only had to sculpt one. I did so in a separate file, and – well, if you’re interested, just watch part 1 of the video.

Frankly, I can’t get enough of these sliders, so let’s compare the base mesh to the full-resolution sculpt…

…and now comparing the full-resolution sculpt to the retopologized version with normal mapped details:

If the differences seem really minor…good! The point of retopo is to vastly simplify the geometry, which makes the asset a lot more manageable. The sculpt on the left has over 1.3 million faces; the retopologized version on the right only has around 1,500. Much easier on the computer! Of course, that eliminates a lot of details; baking and applying a normal map is a way of faking those back in, hopefully with an end result that’s nearly indistinguishable from the original sculpt. (In this particular case, there are a few small artifacts in the shading, but these are not noticeable when color is applied and we move the camera away a little.)

You can watch this whole process in part 2 of the video:

The retopology process is still a lot slower, harder, and more frustrating for me than I’d like, but in the end I was satisfied with the result, so I created an appropriate material, brought the mesh over into the main castle model, and duplicated it to the appropriate spots on the single greenhouse I’d already created. Voilà!

That’s a wrap for the dragon, and for this greenhouse overall! The next steps will be to duplicate this greenhouse and create the other two design variations on it. Then I’ll be able to move on to the domed conservatory, the curtain walls surrounding the greenhouses, and hopefully some ground cover and footpaths. Be sure to subscribe to this blog and the YouTube channel for updates as they come!