Owlery Time!

Back to the main castle model!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire saw the addition of the owlery. It sits apart from the rest of Hogwarts Castle, on a steep outcropping of rock that was added atop an existing hill. Interestingly enough, this little tower never went through any changes after being added (as far as I can tell), so I’m only having to build it the one time.

Some of the details are rather tricky to work out. Kinda hard to find detailed photography of some parts of the structure. And the architecture is a little different from the rest of the castle, too – after all, it’s built for birds, not for people. It’s very…airy. Lots of complicated holes and ledges. That’s great for letting owls in and out, but it does mean the interior is more likely to be visible, so I have to pay more attention to the interior geometry than usual for this project.

Here, some of those holes are starting to take shape:

There’s not enough detail there for it to look right, though. It’s more recognizable in the next render:

The other side has a similar set of openings:

Then just a few more details bring the owlery itself to a finished state!

I say “owlery itself” because I haven’t yet built the steps leading up to the owlery. These are going to be tricky. They don’t show up in any of the blueprints I’ve seen, and good photo reference is pretty hard to find. I’ll probably have to look into whether the versions in the video games seem accurate, and maybe rely on those. Anyway, I’ll save the steps for a future post.

For today, we’ll wrap up with a couple of impossible views. Ever wondered where the owlery was in relation to the old Quidditch training grounds?

Now you know!

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!

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!

Continuing the Curtain Walls

Relatively short post today. We’ll start off with some orthographic views of the POA model, by request. This is the state of the model before the progress you’ll see later in this post.

I always enjoy these blueprint-style perspective-less views.

Anyway, onward to today’s update. Let’s start fleshing out the remaining walls surrounding the training grounds! I’m kinda doing the COS version, since most of this is covered by a new hillside from POA onward, but that’s okay.

I hadn’t touched this area since late March 2019…crazy to think that it’s now been over 2 years since I started this whole project!

There’s not a lot of reference for this area of the miniature, but I have found some shots. Between those and photos of the real thing at Alnwick Castle, I think my results are pretty accurate. Interestingly, that guerite (small lookout tower) closest to the camera seems to have been slightly redesigned partway through the construction of the model. I’ve gone with the final design that was glimpsed – if only barely – in the films.

The next structure along the walls is Alnwick Castle’s barbican and gatehouse. (This is the building from which Neville falls and breaks his wrist in the first film.) I had already done a bit of work on this structure as part of an early attempt at recreating Alnwick itself – here’s an old render from this post:

I built this to the same scale as the main Hogwarts model, so it was easy enough to drop that into place and add brick textures:

As we’ve seen with other areas, I’ve built the walls so they go quite a ways down. From this view inside the training grounds, the lowest parts will eventually be covered up by grassy lawns. But on the outside, the terrain is rocky and uneven, and in some areas it slopes downward to reveal the lower areas of the wall. It’s easiest to just make the walls really deep and then cover a lot of it up with the terrain later on.

Fortunately, there are some nice orthographic drawings of the barbican/gatehouse structure on a placard at the location. These provide some very helpful reference. As always, my goal is to capture at least one of these, in roughly descending order of importance:

  1. The onscreen appearance and imagined reality of the castle in the films (which is achieved through a mixture of location shoots, miniatures, CGI, etc.)
  2. The main 1:24 scale VFX miniature of the whole castle
  3. The corresponding real-life filming location

These do not always agree, and there are significant gaps in the reference for the first two, so finding the right compromises can be tricky. For instance, this shot in Sorcerer’s Stone shows Neville’s POV as he nearly impales himself on a statue:

I’m not sure about the background, but the foreground architecture is all CG, and it matches neither the real-life location nor the miniature…although the corresponding spots at the location and on the miniature are never shown onscreen. To make matters worse, in the live-action location shots that follow, the statue (which I believe was installed just for the film) has moved to a different corner of the structure. So there is no single coherent reality for me to replicate.

In this particular case, my approach will be to ignore this quick shot altogether and aim instead for the real location with the added statues and other set dressings. But I’ll save that for the next post.

Starting the Training Grounds Curtain Walls (POA Version)

Yikes…it’s been a long time since my last update! Sorry about that, folks. One of the many factors: the training grounds tower is tough! It’s hard to find enough reference images. So to give myself a break, I switched gears to focus on the castle walls.

The curtain walls and small towers surrounding the training grounds were originally derived from those at Alnwick Castle. A large swath was then redesigned in the second film, probably to add visual interest in the Whomping Willow scenes. The westernmost areas (near the first flying lesson) still stayed the same until the third film, when they were swallowed up by hilly terrain. In effect, only the COS redesign remained. That’s the state the miniature is still in now, although the CG version in Deathly Hallows and Fantastic Beasts omits the walls altogether.

I started at the western end of the COS revisions:

This illustrates some of the challenges in mapping the stone brick textures correctly to the model when the angles get funky. I’ve tried to create a material that just behaves correctly no matter what I build, but sometimes I need to get in there and manually fiddle with the mapping to get it right.

These structures all look strangely tall right now, but eventually the terrain will cover up most of the lower areas:

They’re also in pristine condition compared to their appearance in the films, since significant chunks of the above-ground areas have crumbled away. But it’s always easier to create the full “original” structure and then weather away the parts you don’t need.

Here’s the same view with some more adjustments, details, and additions, but still no weathering:

And now, swinging around the easternmost area, we link it all up with the areas that are directly taken from Alnwick Castle:

I’ve also fixed the mapping of the brick textures here:

Some of these areas don’t quite match between the blueprints, the photogrammetry of the miniature from the Studio Tour, and the real-life correlates at Alnwick. I’ve aimed for a happy medium that tends to favor the actual miniature.

Then and only then do we get to the weathering, by way of a Boolean modifier. If you don’t know what that is…well, imagine carefully shaping a floating glob of poisonous molten radioactive alien laser acid that will eat away any part of the wall it touches. Actually, you know what? I won’t make you imagine it – here are my Boolean acid globs:

And yes, the glowing lava look is a critical part of getting the Boolean modifier to work right. TOTALLY necessary. 100%. Anyway, move the above slider back and forth to wipe away the glowing poisonous molten radioactive alien laser acid lava and reveal the weathered stone beneath.

I’ve still got to built the western half of the curtain walls, the parts that weren’t changed from their Alnwick-like state. But I’ll save those for a future post so I can at least have something to share with you now!

More Training Grounds Tower

Wow, I did not mean for the last couple months to slow down so much! I’ve been busy with some unrelated projects. My apologies for the radio silence! But I thought I’d at least share a brief update.

As you can see in the new render above, I’ve been continuing to work on the training grounds tower – the version that existed from Chamber of Secrets through Order of the Phoenix. I can see why Stuart Craig took the opportunity to replace it with a much simpler tower in Half-Blood Prince, but I do have a soft spot for this rather charmingly awkward design.

One thing I’d never really thought about was the huge number of very diverse and irregularly spaced windows on this structure. I decided to start carving out the holes before worrying about the frames and panes; that way I could easily make adjustments. My reference images are limited for some of these areas…I’ve had to accept that some of my window holes may be off by a few feet or have a slightly different design:

It ain’t perfect, but it’s a start. The bottom parts of these walls are the hardest, at least if the goal is to be accurate to the miniature. You would think they’d be identical to the corresponding spots at Alnwick Castle – spots that are even seen in the backgrounds of the location shoots in the first film – but you’d be wrong. I’ve seen enough to know that there are differences…just not enough to know exactly what every window looks like. Looked, I suppose I should say…it’s certainly not part of the model anymore, and who knows what happened to it.

Anyway, as I said, I’m pretty focused on some other projects at the moment, so I apologize if there’s another long gap before my next post!