No More Miniatures as CG Set Design Grows Up

Tim Burke won an Oscar for Gladiator in 2000 and was visual effects supervisor for Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, which released in 2001. And then he hopped the magical train to Hogwarts and stayed there for 10 years. Now, Burke is about to finish his seventh Harry Potter film, the final film in the series. He started this journey as visual effects supervisor for Mill Film’s work on the second film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He became a co-visual effects supervisor on the third and fourth films and then led the efforts for the final four as overall visual effects supervisor for the fifth and sixth, and senior visual effects supervisor for the last two. Along the way, he received an Oscar nomination for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Sharing this year’s Oscar nomination for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 are special effects supervisor John Richardson, Framestore visual effects supervisor Christian Manz, and the Moving Picture Company’s visual effects supervisor, Nicolas Aithadi.
F&V: After all these years, is the Harry Potter post-production a finely tuned machine?

I hope so. The Potter machine does work very well. We’ve tended to stick with the same studios, apart from ILM unfortunately, which wasn’t on the last film. The supervisors have changed at these studios, but many of the people are the same.

F&V: What were the hardest shots to accomplish on Deathly Hallows, Part 1?

I think the hardest things were the characters. The creatures and Dobby. People had to relate to Dobby, to empathize with Dobby to believe he would die. People are used to seeing good and bad CG characters. If Dobby didn’t look like he had a soul, we would have lost the emotional moment at the end of the film. I thought Dobby would be the hardest character, but with the skills of our brilliant animators at Framestore, he wasn’t that difficult to execute. And we had brilliant reference performances, which helped us nail the characters.

The hardest shots were the abstract and conceptual shots of the destruction of the evil horcrux creature. It was a lot of work for Rising Sun. What does it look like to rip a soul apart? David Yates had it in his head toward the end of shooting, and we had to invent something. All those subjective things are open to interpretation. But we kept sticking to it and translated his ideas into Houdini effects. We drove the faces, which are hidden, through facial capture from Ralph Fiennes. We used Mova, the same motion-capture system used for Benjamin Button, to drive the distorted faces of Voldermort into this writhing mass.

F&V: When you think back to the previous films, what were the hardest effects?

We’ve always pushed all the available technology at the time as hard as we could. When I think over the group of films, the giant in the fifth film wasn’t our best and there were all sorts of reasons why he didn’t work. The character changed halfway through the film and we had to throw out all our reference because the director didn’t like it. So all of a sudden we didn’t have a character. When we lost that we were drowning, so as a result, all those shots feel hard. I’ll hold up my hand and say it didn’t look good enough.

We’ve had other difficult things that did work. The Hippogriff was an incredible challenge to pull off, and it was the star of the last film.

But the abstract subjective effects are the hardest. And all the Potter films have had them. It isn’t like matching a real environment that you have to keep working on until it looks real. If you’re destroying a tortured horcrux soul, that’s hard.

F&V: How did the role of visual effects change in this film compared to earlier films?

We’re definitely doing more. The set design has become more expansive. The production scheduling and knowledge of how we could film on green screen using exterior partial sets on the backlot has changed. Especially on the last film. Because of the complications of scheduling two films, we had a lot of location work and couldn’t go on location. [Production designer] Stuart Craig has become familiar with us, so he created partial sets and we created digital sets. So, that’s something production has taken on board. And, because we’re able to do more rigid body dynamics and destruction work, we have no miniatures at all now.

For Part 2, we’ve done away with Hogwarts. It was such a major job to stage the battle of Hogwarts, and we had to do it in different stages of production. We had shots with complex linking camera moves from wide overviews, to flying into windows and interior spaces. So we took the plunge at the end of 2008 and started rebuilding the school digitally with Double Negative. It’s taken two years ‘ getting renders out, texturing every facet of the building, constructing interiors to see through windows, building a destruction version of the school. We can design shots with the knowledge that we have this brilliant digital miniature that we can do anything with. With a practical Hogwarts, we would have shot it last summer and been so tied down. Instead, as David Yates finds the flow and structure, we are able to handle new concepts and ideas.

F&V: What about effects other than digital sets and environments?

Anything to do with flying or complex stunts. We had a lot of digital doubles in the [MPC’s] motorbike chase in Part I, as we did for the Quidditch match in the sixth film. For the last couple of films, we have gotten more and more into digital doubles for the actors. Using digital doubles frees up the camera and the characters’ movement because they aren’t limited by the ability of the rigs, which was the way we had to approach things in the beginning of the Potter series. We’ve done a lot more digital stunt work as well, and some of that’s down to safety. The rules have gotten more stringent and production feels safer.

F&V: How have changes in technology affected your work?

There have been massively significant changes. More so in the last five years than the first five years, changes that have allowed us to handle bigger and better effects, to make more photorealistic images and move away from that cursed CG look to the point now where people don’t know what’s real and what’s not real. Film formats. HDRI ‘ the ability to capture HDRI dynamic-range environments to make photoreal CG environments and to light characters.

The speed of turnaround has been immensely important. We’ve gone from being able to look at one animation revision a day to one an hour to one almost in real time. So we can work and finesse animation to a higher standard. In the past, we needed to stop and put in lights and rendering or we wouldn’t finish. Now, our schedules allow for iteration. We don’t finish an animation sequence and say, “God, if we only had another two weeks.” We say, “That’s as good as we wanted.” The speed of machines and the infrastructure of facilities have made the creative process more creative.

F&V: Have these changes affected your role as visual effects supervisor?

It’s dawning on me that supervisor is the wrong name. Given the level of what we do now, we’re directing the effects and to direct the effects, you have to understand what the director wants. It’s like composing music. David [Yates] uses words to describe things that are not visual. Ridley Scott draws sketches that I can almost hold up at the end of the day and say we did what he wanted. David is more enigmatic. He would say, “The horcrux needs to be malevolent.” So you have to take a big leap. You have to get inside his head to know how to interpret that. Sometimes, you have to know how to interpret silence. Maybe silence isn’t a good thing. And I had three producers to interpret, too.

F&V: You will finish the last Harry Potter film in a couple months. How does that feel?

It didn’t sink in until June last year, when I slowly started seeing different departments leave. We were in our offices working on Part 1, and the art department left, the construction department left, but we were working flat out. We were on our own in a building that was being knocked down because Warners is turning it into a film complex. We left just before Christmas.

I took a tour before the end. The sets were overgrown with weeds. I watched the diggers come in. The reality of leaving the studio where we made the films and seeing it knocked down was so sad.

Now, I can’t think about it. I’m sure I will come summer, though, when I’m looking for real work. Hopefully, someone will say they’re starting up in the fall and I can take the summer off.

F&V: Can you tell us anything about Part 2?

It should be pretty cool. I think it’s going to be a roller-coaster ride. There’s an incredible pace to it. The audience won’t be able to take a breath. I hope it will be spectacular, as exciting as everyone expects. That’s all I can say for now.