The Magic Behind Harry Potter
“It was just a matter of balancing it out and giving each facility a major piece that they could bite into,” explained Mitchell. “We had such a short amount of time that we had to be smart and distribute it. We looked at their strengths and gave each of the houses one of the big sequences.”
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From an anthropomorphic house-elf called Dobby, who has lots of close ups and shares screen time and dialog with Potter himself, to a living tree that attacks a car, the film’s CG sequences tackled numerous problems that put them on the cutting edge of visual effects—things like CG hair, cloth, feathers, water and skin translucency.
For MPC, which had a total of 250 shots, (the most of any house) the sequences included a flying car and the animated whomping willow. Cinesite, meanwhile, handled all the film scanning and did a lot of the 2D compositing. Framestore CFC created a host of flying Cornish pixies, a phoenix and a basilisk — an 80-foot long snake-like creature. For Mill Film, Harry Potter was something of a last hurrah. The company, which created CG spiders, huge matte paintings of Hogwarts castle and a ghost called Moaning Mertle, announced at press time that the company will exit from the feature film visual effects market and refocus on effects work for advertising.
It’s the film’s emotional little elf slave Dobby that really steals the show. Created by ILM’s visual effects supervisor Bill George and animation supervisor Dave Andrews, the knee-high CG character had to look and act believable.
“That character was tailor made for somebody like Dave Andrews to supervise. He gets into those strange sort of characters,” explained Jim Mitchell.
Andrews reported that he approached Dobby very much like an actor, drawing inspiration from Huckleberry Finn and the film Waking Ned Devine.
“The biggest challenge was making a real actor,” said Andrews. “That’s the nature of our work. When you look at the scene where Harry and Dobby are together, are their eyes connected? Is Harry looking at Dobby and is Dobby looking at Harry? Do they share the same light? Do Dobby’s eyes look like real eyes?”
To show shots to Columbus in London, the animation team used a satellite video phone. Only once did Andrews see the director face to face during the production. That was when he traveled to London to supervise a hospital shoot where Dobby and Harry Potter converse.
“From an animation point of view, when you shoot live-action background, that’s your layout. So I wanted to be there, to say how long Dobby’s steps are, and to be able to say, ‘you’re giving me way too much screen space there — I’ll feel better if you crowd me, because I’m an elf who’s out in the world where he doesn’t belong and feeling really vulnerable, so I’m looking to fit into small spaces,” Andrews said.
The animation team used Softimage XSI for Dobby’s movements along with ILM’s in-house software, Caricature, for facial animation.
“Steve Rawlins likes to work with a whole bunch of shapes that control small facets of the face, so that, for example, if you want to make that worried brow Dobby has, you don’t have to have the whole brow come in to the worried shape at the same time,” explained Andrews. “You can have a strong side. We said that Dobby’s strong side was his left, so the left brow was the one that would always lead. The left side had stronger muscles, and the right one would trail. It gives his brows this kind of muscle flinching feel. You feel like one of them has more ability to hold its pose, whereas the other starts to decay.”
The team paid close attention to detail. “Real actors would fix their clothes if they jumped around and were upset. Likewise, we chose moments when Dobby would touch himself and be self referential so that he’d feel real. When I’m talking to you I might wave my hands around or scratch my head,” Andrews said.
In terms of actualizing those details, Andrews is quick to praise “the stalwart, undying men and women who cloth simed that sucker. The attention to detail in these guys’ jobs is incredible.”
The fabric of Dobby’s burlap clothing was a particular challenge for ILM’s George, who used the company’s proprietary cloth simulation software to get the basic movement of the cloth, then used practical elements as texture maps to make it look real.
“I’m a big fan of shooting practical elements, like little threads on Dobby’s pillow case, then comping them over the top so it makes it a little harder to see that it’s synthetic,” explained George. “It’s very difficult to get that in a computer simulation, but it’s very easy to get on stage so I took some burlap, ripped up the edge and shot it.”
That cloth simulation software was also seen in Star Wars Episode 2 earlier this year. George admitted, “Dobby is definitely a close relative of Yoda. There were a lot of problems with cloth simulation and hair in Episode 2. There were tools developed to take care of that, and we totally benefited.”
George used a similar technique to get Dobby’s eyes to look real, creating texture maps from the irises of one of his production assistant’s eyes, combined with his own whites.
“I was having a bad allergy day, so I had a photographer photograph the sides of my eyes, and used those to map on to Dobby’s eyes,” he explained.
To help add to the realism of Dobby, ILM developed a subsurface scattering system that emulates the way light shines through skin. This enabled audiences to see through his ears and see blood vessels. “You get that translucency especially when it’s backlit. One of the great things about Dobby was that he was an all-CG character. We did not have a rubber animatronic, so we weren’t beholden to rubber where it would be very difficult to do that.”
A few wisps of hair on Dobby’s head and chin round out the effect.
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