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!

Finishing the SS and POA Quads (and Hospital Wing)

Relatively short post – time to add the cloisters to the original quad. It is very difficult to make out any detail in the single shot of these cloisters in Chamber of Secrets, but it seems very safe to assume that these were based on the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral. So what the heck, I’m going for it:

The floor is so plain! I mean, the floor looked a lot like that in the later iterations of the quad, but in the beginning, there were footpaths and a fountain and everything. Looks much better with those in place, even if the walls were tall enough to keep it pretty dark in there a lot of the time.

Fun fact: I haven’t built any doorways from the cloisters into the middle there. There would certainly be at least one in real life, and I’d imagine the miniature had at least one, but I’ve got no idea where it would have been, so I’m not going to bother.

Here’s are a couple of views of the complete original quad:

Not my finest texture work, admittedly. Most of what I’ve created for this project holds up a lot better at larger distances.

Of course, this project is all about the changes to the design of Hogwarts. So when did the quad start to change? Well, the hospital wing got added in Prisoner of Azkaban. I strongly suspect (though I’m not absolutely 100% certain) that the raised, cloister-less floor didn’t come till Goblet of Fire. Here are a couple of comparisons between the pre-Azkaban version (left) and the Azkaban version (right), showing the addition of the hospital wing [EDIT: there are too many windows here – see the next post for the fixed version]:

The off-center placement of the hospital wing is intentional, by the way. It was really designed and built like that.

If you’re still having trouble getting a sense for how the different levels line up, here’s an orthographic cross-section:

Should be quite close, if not precise down to the inch. That’s the back terrace on the lower left and the quad itself in the middle.

Next, tackling the walkways out in front of the quad building, connecting up with the viaduct [EDIT: Actually, I’m pretty sure this is not accurate either; again, see the next post for the fix]:

That render could be of any of the first three films, by the way, since that area didn’t change at all (as far as I can tell).

Where do we go from here? The last remaining major castle structure is the lower walkway (around the bottom right corner of that render) and the terrace to which it likely led in the first two films. But it would be an understatement to say that I’m having trouble finding good reference for that area. Still not sure what I’m going to do about that.

One thing I am sure of? It’s been way too long since we’ve done a nighttime render! Like, waaaaaay too long. Almost a year. The model was half its current size! Here are a few nighttime shots of the Azkaban version to help rectify the situation. See you next time!

The…Gulp…Original Quad

The quad is tough.

There’s just no getting around it. Also known as the paved courtyard or Gloucester courtyard, this squarish space is nestled within one of the castle’s main buildings, between the marble staircase tower and Gryffindor Tower. It survived through all the films, but not without significant changes.

The later iterations are simpler and better documented. They even provide some valuable clues about the earlier designs. But there are outstanding questions about those earlier designs, for which reference is very scarce.

Based on the overhead shot from Chamber of Secrets, the original quad was ringed by cloisters and sat deeper within the building. One interesting result is that the big arch near the grand staircase tower couldn’t have led into the quad as it did in later versions. Best guess based on the available information is that this path ended some sort of balustrade, allowing students to look down into the quad, some 60 feet below.

You can get some sense of it as I start to rough out the geometry inside the original quad. Notice how high up that arch is, relative to the floor:

It’s a little easier to see if we take a look at the front of the castle (and get the viaduct out of the way):

See that shaded wall below the archway? Yeah…the quad floor is all the way down at the bottom of that wall. Crazy low, right? That depth is taken from photogrammetry of the COS overhead shot, by the way. It almost perfectly matches the elevation of the terrace in the back of the building.

Anyway, the regular spacing of the Gloucester Cathedral-inspired windows within the quad forced me to adjust the roofs a bit. The results should be more accurate now than they were before. Here’s an untextured work-in-progress view as I attempted to work out all the spacings and block in the cloisters below:

The balustrade in the foreground is conjectural. The closest thing I have to evidence of its existence is an aerial illustration of the castle by Michael Bramman for The Sunday Times Magazine. It was done before production on the second film, based on a mixture of blueprints, production stills, limited access to the miniature itself, and “a cardboard model which had enough of the of the basic elements to give [him] an idea of the school in its entirety” (source). This is how he painted the archway:

Certainly some sort of lip there – either a balustrade or a parapet. Impossible to tell. For my model, I’m using the design of the other balustrade nearby, between the Great Hall and the marble staircase tower.

Here’s a fully rendered view, similar to the untextured one above, but with some progress on the windows. These happen to correspond to the corridor to the Fat Lady’s portrait in the first film:

I’ve actually already recreated this window design, way back in 2019, at the base of the quad’s south exterior facade:

But back then, I was working with a lot less reference material, so the results were less accurate. Here’s a somewhat comparable angle with those lower windows redone:

Granted, the differences aren’t that noticeable from this distance. But I still feel better, haha!

The details are easier to make out in this render of the similar windows (and others) inside the quad. Fun fact: this is what you’d see if your face was pressed up against the big window by the moving staircases. Maybe at some point I’ll go back into my model of that space and replace the more generic scenic backdrop outside the window with a more “correct” view like this:

Speaking of that window…I have no direct evidence that it was ever included in the exterior model, but I’m strongly inclined to believe it was/is there. I decided to simply import that window from my grand staircase interior model and adapt it for exterior viewing. I kept the imagined real-world scale from the interior model and based the placement of the window on the GoF-era Noble Collection sculpture of Hogwarts:

As a reminder, here’s what it looks like from the inside:

Of course, please don’t take any the exterior details here as gospel. I’m doing my best to reach reasonable conclusions, but when it comes to the quad, I can’t be anywhere near as sure as I am in a lot of other parts of the model.

Next up will be the actual floor of the quad, the fountain, and the cloisters. I’ll save that for the next post. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a screenshot of something else I’ve been starting to work on. When this whole project is finally finished, I want to provide multiple modalities for you to explore the castle’s shifting architecture. One of those will be a gallery of renders with buttons that will change between different versions of the castle.

The basic functionality is starting to come together, using some test renders of the incomplete models. It’s been a while since I’ve done any HTML/CSS/JavaScript coding, so it’s fun dipping my toes back into that pool while Blender is rendering.

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?

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!

Finishing the Training Grounds Tower (COS-OOTP)

Still not sure how I want to handle the statues on top of the Alnwick Castle structures, so I’m hopping back over to the training grounds tower.

Part of this little corner still needed to be filled in. It’s hard to find good reference for that spot on the miniature, and it does seem to be somewhat different from the real thing at Alnwick. I decided to just do my best (and add the footpath where Hagrid drags the Christmas tree through the snow):

There are a few torches that show up over here in some shots in Chamber of Secrets, but I’ve elected not to include those – their positions aren’t always clear or even consistent from shot to shot, and I’m not sure whether they were ever in the main miniature.

Around the other side of the structure, I’ve accepted the difficult truth that I may never find adequate reference for certain details. I’m using the real structures at Alnwick to fill in the gaps as best I can. Fortunately, some of those real-world details are visible in the background in Sorcerer’s Stone, so I feel justified in including them.

This shorter structure on the right corresponds to Alnwick Castle’s 19th-century chapel, and from what I can see, it seems to have been a pretty exact recreation in the miniature:

Incidentally, see that rectangular depression a ways to the left of the chapel, above the arched recessed windows? In real life, the heraldic symbols of the Percy family are there. In the Hogwarts miniature…I can’t tell. It’s too tall to just be a Hogwarts crest. So I’m just leaving that blank for now. If you’ve got closer images of the miniature here…please send them! I’m always on the hunt for new rare photos or blueprints of the miniature.

In the meantime…here’s the complete training grounds tower, as it existed from Chamber of Secrets through Order of the Phoenix!

Fun fact: In the last render above, we’re sitting on the clock tower courtyard roof. The foreground cylindrical tower on the far right is of course Gryffindor Tower.

You might notice that I’ve removed the Alnwick Castle barbican/gatehouse and adjacent walls. Or rather, I’ve moved them so they don’t exist in my Prisoner of Azkaban model anymore, since that area will be covered up by hills. Don’t worry – those structures still exist in my nascent Sorcerer’s Stone model, and they’ll become part of my Chamber of Secrets model too.

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!

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!