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!

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.

…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!

COS-OOTP Training Grounds Tower, Cont’d

Whew, sorry for the long delay…the months of sitting at my home desk have taken their toll on my arms, and I’ve had to significantly limit my computer use. This will be a shorter post as a result. I’m starting physical therapy soon…if you’re feeling particularly generous and you want to help support my recovery, my Venmo handle is @Joe-Cardello, for what it’s worth. 🙂

Anyway, let’s continue with the version of the training grounds tower that was seen throughout the middle of the Potter series, including Prisoner of Azkaban. As we work our way around to the west facade, my reference material becomes even scarcer, but I’ve got just enough to piece it together in a reasonably accurate way. I started with plain walls, deciding to add the windows and so forth later:

Here’s a view from overhead once I’d roughed in the main shape of the building. At this point, I wasn’t worried too much about cleaning up the intersections between walls and objects…I just wanted to make sure the layout made sense three-dimensionally:

You can see just a bit of the tiny courtyard in the middle. That’s one area for which I truly have zero reference (other than the basic floor plan). It roughly corresponds to the cobbled inner courtyard at Alnwick Castle, which was actually used in the location shoots for the first film, but the version in the miniature is much smaller and it has a different shape because of the way the Alnwick floor plan was reconfigured around it. So the layout of any doors, windows, or other decorative elements on that part of the miniature sadly remains a mystery.

As I said, I have less progress to share because of my ergonomic issues, not to mention the simple fact that this is a tricky structure to figure out. But I’ll at least fill out the rest of this post with an aerial overview of my POA castle so far:

Take care of your body, take care of your mind, and don’t be an ass to people who identify as transgender. See you soon!

Starting the Training Grounds Tower

Holy crap! I can’t believe we’ve arrived at the final major tower of Hogwarts! I’ve been eager and afraid to tackle it because of its complex geometry and the limited reference available. Let’s jump in!

The training grounds tower was added to the original castle out of sheer necessity. Alnwick Castle was used as a major filming location so they needed it to be present in the miniature. Stuart Craig’s team tweaked its footprint a bit and built it up into a much taller complex of towers; the bottom floors just looked like Alnwick while the upper floors took their stylistic cues from the original castle’s other conical turrets. Evidently Mr. Craig didn’t like the vertical extensions, because they were totally redone for the second film in a style that slightly foreshadowed the more Gothic look that would take over in the third film. (Interestingly, some COS shots still feature the SS version.) That revision stuck around till Half-Blood Prince, when it was replaced with a single tower echoing the bell towers’ design.

Since I’m working on the Azkaban castle right now, it’s that second iteration of the tower that I’m focusing on. And “focus” is indeed the right word, because I’ve spent a lot of time just staring at reference images and…thinking. Trying to piece it all together. Eventually, I started working on the facade toward the right:

This is the project’s first render with the OptiX denoiser, which wasn’t compatible with my GPU till Blender 2.90. Denoising is critical with path tracers like the Cycles render engine, where speeding up the render introduces more noise. I was using Open Image Denoise before, but OptiX is faster and it’s retaining more detail, so I’m pretty stoked!

Anyway, training grounds tower. It’s proving as challenging as I feared/hoped it would be. The modeling itself is not particularly difficult, but the paucity of high-quality reference images makes it difficult to piece together all the details, especially since I want to get the scale right.

I’m keeping an eye on the original version too, since the lower section is identical and I want to make sure I can reuse it without any issues.

In a twist that will shock precisely zero longtime readers, I’m finding lots of small discrepancies between shots of miniatures, location shoots at Alnwick Castle, CG long shots, etc. As usual, I’m striving for something of a happy medium, but weighted toward the main 1/24th-scale miniature.

There’s still a lot more to do on this structure, but it’s been 10 days since I last shared my progress and I think I’ll save further progress for my next post.

The Transfiguration Courtyard

Time for a Hogwarts feature that’s right out of Durham Cathedral, at least in its original form. The cloisters were used as the filming location for the “middle courtyard” or “Transfiguration courtyard” in the early films, though it was later represented by a similar courtyard at Oxford and then by a set at Leavesden.

I first spent a morning working on under-the-hood tweaks to hopefully improve the file’s performance – downrezzing overlarge normal maps, replacing duplicated objects with linked proxies, decimating some meshes that had gotten too dense, etc. The hope is that my computer will be able to handle the file a little more easily moving forward. No sexy renders to share for that, though, so here’s a cute puppy photo instead.

Anyway, back to Hogwarts! A big question cropped up as I was compiling my references: How much detail do I put into the cloisters – specifically, the doorways that lead to other parts of the castle? These are seen in the location shoots in the first two films, but at least some of these were evidently left out the miniature. (They never would have been visible in the film, so I can appreciate the decision to focus elsewhere.) Furthermore, the south walk (which corresponds to the east walk at Durham) changed repeatedly over the course of the films, and I have no idea what the cloister interior looked like at that point.

I figured the most reasonable approach would be to create the complete courtyard without those doorways and then see if I could get away with it in my renders. I started with the tracery of the cloisters and a basic ground plane:

This part was easy because I’d already built the clock tower courtyard – its cloisters contain a lot of design elements adapted from Durham Cathedral.

The fountain in the center of the courtyard was next, and this one’s going to give me some trouble later on…not because it’s hard to create, but because it’s unclear exactly when it vanished. Let’s break it down:

  • It was created for the first film, apparently as a set dressing that sat on top of the lavatorium (monks’ handwashing station) that sits in the middle of the courtyard at Durham.
  • It’s still there in the second film, both on location and in a bespoke 1/8th-scale model of the courtyard used in an overhead establishing shot.
  • The center of the courtyard is never visible in the third film, so that one’s a question mark.
  • As I mentioned, goings-on in the courtyard were shot at Oxford instead of Durham Cathedral for the fourth film, so the location looks totally different and won’t be reflected in my model. There is an aerial shot during the First Task when we briefly see the Durham courtyard, but if the fountain is there, only the very top of it is peeking over the roofline.
  • No idea in the fifth film…
  • In the sixth film, the courtyard was realized as a set that included the base of the Astronomy Tower. (I suspect this was a revamp of the viaduct courtyard set, which I suspect was a revamp of the clock tower courtyard set.) There’s no fountain in that set, but that set is far from a perfect match to the miniature. I can’t find any shots of the center of the courtyard in the miniature, but the fountain is gone from the technical drawings and I’d imagine the same is true of the miniature.
  • In the final film, the fountain is again missing from the technical drawings, and this is confirmed with a CG overhead shot of the area.

With all that in mind…until I can find more reference that confirms which changes were made when, I’m just going to assume the fountain lasted till the sixth film, at which point it was removed and never came back.

Anyway, I added the fountain and started the sewer grate. I also added the benches, which seem to have been more set dressings. You can see in this render that I’ve finally mirrored the east walls of the Long Gallery onto the west side, too:

That’s the first render I did with the new Blender 2.90. It’s got some great new features, but it kept crashing when I attempted to render. After some troubleshooting, I figured it out: this version of the software doesn’t like my old smoke simulations. That’ll need to be addressed, but for now, I’m afraid the hearths of Hogwarts have gone cold.

That structure in the top left corner of that render is a newly-added Durham Cathedral transept, the last missing piece of the Long Gallery. In the first film, this one was a simple mirror image of the one on the other side, but when the Dark Tower (center) was added in Prisoner of Azkaban, this transept had to be shortened a bit, resulting in a slightly asymmetrical footprint that lasted right through the end of the series. Easier to see from the air:

As you can see, the one to the left of the central tower isn’t as long as its counterpart on the right.

One interesting thing about this courtyard is that each of its four sides has a different look. I next took care of the north wall, which corresponds to the west wall at Durham:

You’ve no doubt noticed that the cloister is still roofless – I decided to save that for after the surrounding walls were built. Speaking of which, here are the last of them:

It’s hard to find detailed reference for the wall on the right (above the two benches) in the miniature. Its design is similar to that of the corresponding wall at Durham Cathedral, but there are some differences. To make matters worse, there are some apparent discrepancies in the number of windows in the various Hogwarts images available, but there’s a good chance that what I’ve done is accurate to the state of the main miniature at the time of POA. And if not, it’s at least quite close – it could be that there are supposed to be six windows on the shorter part of the wall instead of five.

Anyway, the only remaining step was to add the cloister roofs! With these in place, the answer to my “big question” became clear: No, I didn’t need to add doors and other details inside the cloisters. They simply aren’t visible unless you’re actually inside the cloisters, and I’m okay with not having detailed views inside there. So with that in mind…voilà, the complete transfiguration courtyard!

Incidentally, I love that structure just above the center of that render, below the DADA tower. It was added in the third film when the DADA tower got shifted over a bit, and it’s basically just a Durham Cathedral transept, except, like…a standalone version. Something about it tickles me. Naturally, everything will look better once that wall next to it has an actual building behind it, but that’ll come with adding the final major piece of the main castle: the training grounds tower!

What Was There Before the Hogwarts Greenhouses?

It’s not a question that you could answer just by watching the films. Here we have to rely on behind-the-scenes shots and technical drawings from Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone to reconstruct this area in its original state.

But first, I knew I needed to finish up this area as seen from Chamber of Secrets through Half-Blood Prince! I finished the curtain walls and added lawns:

Here’s a cool POV shot coming down the back steps of the Durham building:

That’s a wrap for this area in the Prisoner of Azkaban 3D model! But what did it look like at the time of the first film? Well, you still had curtain walls surrounding a large, L-shaped lawn, but the walls weren’t quite as far from the castle, and instead of the domed conservatory acting as the entryway, you had this relatively simple, squarish, Alnwick Castle-inspired building:

This side of the building is actually seen in a couple of shots in the film, but I haven’t been able to find as much detailed information about the other sides – in particular, the opposite side that faces the castle proper. For that facade, I’ve just used the same details as what you see here, but I can’t deny the possibility that some of the details were a little different. (I wonder in particular if they really would have put the Hogwarts crest on the other side.) Unless I find elevations or images of that part of the miniature, I may never know…when the greenhouses and conservatory were added in COS, this small gatehouse disappeared forever.

Anyway, here are a couple of before-and-after sliders to play with! On the left is the Sorcerer’s Stone castle; the right is Prisoner of Azkaban. (The changes we’re currently focused on occurred in Chamber of Secrets, but you’ll of course see some Azkaban changes too.)

I’ll wrap up this post with a view of some additional work I did next on the west side of the Alnwick Castle warder’s tower. Here there are again some details that differ a bit between the VFX miniature and the real-world filming location; I’m primarily going off of the miniature, though Alnwick does provide invaluable reference as well. I guess you could say my goal is to capture the shared imagined reality that the model and the location both help bring to life.

The two contenders for my next area of focus are the transfiguration/middle/Durham courtyard and the training grounds tower. I’m much more excited at the prospect of doing the latter, but I think I may tackle the courtyard first. Be sure to subscribe to be notified with future updates!