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The VFX Legacy of Harry Potter

Posted by Area Editor, 19 July 2011 8:00 pm

  The ‘boy-who-lived’ first graced the silver screen in November 2001, bringing J.K. Rowling’s literary wizarding world to life. Potter-mania was in full force and fans of the books eagerly lined up to see how the magical adventures would play out in the theater. Ten years and over $ 6B in box office later, the fantastical franchise concludes with the bittersweet release of the eighth and final film, not to mention a bona fide box office smash hit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II.

As Harry, Ron and Hermione faced the increasing difficulties of navigating adolescence while battling the malevolent, power-obsessed dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, the visual effects (vfx) teams bringing the tales to life were equally challenged to improve their techniques, making the effects of each installment even better and more believable.

We saw Quidditch players hop on their brooms to take to the skies, the whomping willow pummel Arthur Weasley’s flying Ford Anglia (narrowly missing the fearless trio), soul-sucking Dementors and terrifying mermaids hinder the progress of the Tri-Wizard tournament competitors. Such impressive visuals along with Grawp’s realistic facial movements, Dumbledore’s ring of fire, house-elves and an entirely CG Hogwarts illustrate just how far technological advancement and innovation have taken the vfx industry over the last decade.

A number of illustrious studios have played a part in bringing the Harry Potter world to life, many of them Autodesk customers. Cinesite, Framestore and The Motion Picture Company (MPC) worked on all eight of the films. Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) contributed to the first six films. Double Negative provided vfx for films three through eight while Rising Sun Pictures was brought on for the fourth film and beyond. Other significant contributors to the franchise include Baseblack, Luma Pictures, The Orphanage, and Rhythm & Hues, among many others.

At Autodesk, we have been in awe of the visual achievements in this franchise that has not only set an incredibly high bar for VFX, but also for how great books are adapted for the big screen without losing their signature magic. To date, two of the films, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, have garnered Academy Award nominations for excellence in visual effects; and current buzz indicates the final installment may well be a contender for the 2012 awards.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I featured a plethora of impressive work from MPC, Framestore, Baseblack, Cinesite, Double Negative and Rising Sun Pictures who digitally created a host of otherworldly characters and effects. Framestore used Maya as the principal tool for modeling, rigging and animation. By writing a suite of rigging and animation tools, Maya enabled Framestore’s animators to bring Dobby and Kreacher to life. Maya was also the backbone of for Baseblack’s 80 3D shots in the film.

The critically praised third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was the first Harry Potter film released in IMAX and the last Harry Potter film available on VHS. It also was the film that introduced viewers to the terrifying Dementors. ILM used Inferno to help create the opening train scene during which Harry's soul is sucked out of his body. Cinesite also used Inferno in many of their memorable shots.

Each of the eight films feature impressive vfx, but the exciting, eagerly awaited conclusion to the series just might finally be the ticket to vfx Oscar gold. Perhaps the best vfx scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II includes the fire-breathing dragon in Gringotts bank. The realism of the infuriated mythical creature completely draws the audience into the moment. Ghosts and stone castle knights come alive on screen in a way that was only possible in our imaginations not too long ago. Of course the epic standoffs of flame-shooting wands and magical enchantments that have been a stalwart of the series are once again present though elevated to a quality that surpasses all other efforts, and Voldemort's sinister visage will no doubt remain burned in the mind of moviegoers long after the credits roll.

I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Harry Potter phenomenon unfold over the years and witnessing the profound impact it has had on all facets of our Muggle world. Each film further pushed the boundaries of the vfx industry in character design, atmospheric effects and countless other ways. Most importantly, all the many pieces – acting, directing, vfx, etc – were seamlessly combined to ultimately form a beautiful, highly successful and authentic adaptation of a much loved book series. Harry Potter will surely be missed, but the lessons learned whilst bringing his story to life will undoubtedly benefit the next great tale to make the leap on to film.

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