Sorcerer’s Stone Corrections & More Astronomy Tower

Sorry for the delay in this post. Loooooots of stuff going on in my personal life – some of it really good, some of it not so much.

I was slowly working on the Astronomy tower in the midst of all that when this spectacular YouTube video dropped on the official Wizarding World channel. The never-before-seen photos of the original castle inspired me to revisit some areas, the first of which I documented in this video of my own:

I’ll warn you that it’s a slow video, but I got requests for some modeling without the usual time lapse speedup, so…there ya go. Here’s the unadulterated render from the end of the video.

I’ve got more fixes to make based on the new photos, but I’ll save those for a later post and round this one out with a bit of Astronomy tower progress.

There’s a lot of detail in the main turret where several important Half-Blood Prince scenes take place. Here’s an interesting “deconstructed” view as I start to build the area that also existed as a full-scale set. This is the lower level where Harry hides during the climactic confrontation, but without anything added above it yet:

Funnily enough, this is closer to how the book version of the tower would look, in that it’s got a flat top and crenellated ramparts.

One challenge is that the dimensions of the full-scale set don’t quite match the dimensions of the miniature, at least according to the available blueprints. I’m aiming for something of a happy medium – the goal is for it to look the way it does in the film, if a little less detailed.

Here the arches are starting to take shape. These were a little tricky because of the way they curve:

Continued progress on this tower will also have to wait till a future post, but in the meantime I thought I’d at least share something.

Starting the Astronomy Tower

I’ve long known that this structure would get at least one post to itself. It’s big, and so rich with detail! It’s also a weird throwback for me – the first render I did for this project was of the astronomy tower. Or at least, a simple proof of concept. Funnily enough, I never seem to have shared that render, so here it is in all its glory:

Beautiful, I know. 😉

Anyway, as you may know, the original Hogwarts featured the Defense Against the Dark Arts tower – so named by fans because a pullback in GOF implies that Moody’s office is in there. This structure moved but remained fundamentally unchanged all the way until HBP, at which point it was removed, redesigned, and reincarnated as the taller, fancier astronomy tower, which sits where the Dark Tower sat for years 3–5.

From the beginning, the books describe this tower as the castle’s tallest, located very close to the main entrance. The top has crenellated ramparts and a door to a spiral staircase. That’s about all we get. Since the tower was never featured in the first five films, its location, appearance, and even its existence weren’t established in the film canon. But all that had to change in HBP. The filmmakers needed an iconic tower from which a certain somebody could fall in the film’s climax.

As described in my recent blueprint appreciation post, we have some great elevations, sections, and plans for the final design:

It was thus tempting to just build based on these, but I decided to still assemble other references as usual. I was glad I did, because there are details visible in real life that aren’t in those drawings. I even found a few spots where they added extra windows or whatnot. Another complication is that the tower was created at 1:24 and 1:10 scales, plus (I suspect) an even larger miniature or CG asset for the nighttime shot that ascends past Ron, Lavender, and Draco. (That last version has a different design that I’ll ignore.) And then of course there was the full-scale set. I decided to aim for roughly the amount of detail on the main 1:24 miniature, while still paying attention to the others.

Anyway, I captured part of the process in this time lapse:

Or if you just want to look through some renders, enjoy these!

Still more work to do, but it’s a good start!

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!

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!

Modeling Time-lapse: Durham Transept & POA Central Tower

Something different today! By request, I’ve documented my 3D modeling process with a sped-up screen capture. (You’re welcome, Pete!) Watch me work on the area that corresponds to the transepts of Durham Cathedral, as well as the Prisoner of Azkaban version of the central tower. I’ve tried to keep the commentary relevant no matter whether you’re a fellow Blender user or not.

If you’re interested in more videos like this, comment here or on the video to let me know! They take some extra work but I can do more if there’s enough demand. Don’t forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel too!

Here are a few renders of the progress seen in the video. As always, click for larger versions:

After finishing the video, I put the last few touches on the central tower:

Fits in pretty well, no?

Side Project Complete: SS/COS Grand Staircase

Haha! It’s finished – the version of the grand staircase from the first two Potter films! Join me for a complete video tour!

To get us to this state of completion, I had to add the remaining doorways on the landings:

Then came the big window at the back. Much of the molding is taken directly from that Oxford design I created in the last post. The scene beyond the window is a bit of a cheat…I just did a nighttime render of part of the main castle model, blurred it, and dropped it in like a scenic backdrop in a real set or miniature. It’s not perfect but it gets the job done.

With these elements in place, the only thing remaining was the paintings…but I decided they’d be too much work, I’m omitting them, at least for the time being. They don’t have anything to do with my main purpose (understanding the geometry of the stairs) or my secondary purpose (examining the scale of the space).

Speaking of which, here’s the long-awaited scale comparison between the castle exterior and the grand staircase interior!

They kinda almost fit together at the intended in-universe scale! Of course, if you include all the digital extensions at the top or the extra miniature passes used to extend the bottom, that all goes out the (beautifully mullioned) window. But I think that’s kinda okay.

This concludes my work on this side project…it’s been a fun one! Now back to the main castle model.