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The behind the scenes crew that gives ‘Harry Potter’ his magic

Posted by GoreMaster Special Effects on July 7, 2009

Director David Yates and crew watch Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore film a scene

Director David Yates and crew watch Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore film a scene

Chloe Fox – The Telegraph

The answer lies just off the M25 near Watford (near London), on the site of a former Rolls-Royce factory. For the best part of the past decade, Leavesden Studios has been the beating heart of the Harry Potter empire, the working space for 800 of its employees. ‘Our job is to translate the believability of the world that Jo Rowling has created,’ producer David Heyman says. ‘To make it as rich, as detailed and as imaginative as it can possibly be.’

He may be the longest-serving member of the team, but Heyman is quick to heap praise on his right-hand men and women – the heads of department who were once called in for meetings about ‘a little children’s film’. Stuart Craig (production designer), Stephenie McMillan (set decorator), Jany Temime (costume designer), Tim Burke (visual effects supervisor), Nick Dudman (creature effects designer), Amanda Knight (chief make-up artist), John Richardson (special effects super­visor), Lisa Tomblin (chief hairdresser), Greg Powell (stunt coordinator) and Paul Hayes (construction manager) are the unsung heroes of the Harry Potter story, real-life wizards who have made it all happen. With each new film, they face new challenges, never tiring in their quest for perfection.

‘I’m obsessed by detail,’ Stuart Craig, in many ways the creative linchpin, says. We are in Dumble­dore’s office, one of his most breathtaking creations and one that supports his claim. From the just-so tone of purple leather on this high wizard’s chair to the copy of The Daily Prophet waiting expectantly on the stool in front of his fire, complete with specially written articles (‘Unfortunate broom flyer hit by Muggle helicopter’, ‘Newt on the bone banned!’), it is as if Dumbledore himself has just stepped out to watch the Quidditch final, after which he will no doubt treat himself to one of the lemon sherbets waiting in a pewter bowl on his desk. A three-time Oscar winner (Gandhi, Dangerous Liaisons, The English Patient), Craig’s ultimate aim – along with his indispensable ally of almost 20 years, Stephenie McMillan – is to create sets that would stand up as ‘a series of beautiful paintings’.

Craig (whose team has, at most, numbered more than 300) doesn’t rest until he has got it right.Kreacher the house elf

‘I can’t imagine what goes on in his head!’ laughs Paul Hayes, who – with his team of 250 – has the daunting task of making Craig’s visions a reality. Over the years, Craig says, Rowling’s world has merged with his – with between 60 and 70 new sets for each new film, his dreams are filled with Potter quandaries. Key sets have a look that has long been established – Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, the Dursleys’ house, Hagrid’s hut – but that isn’t to say that their look is set in stone. For a Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, McMillan and her team spent six weeks redressing the Great Hall – from the mullions of the windows to the fabric on the walls – in silver. When, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the mood turned noticeably darker, Craig covered the pleasant honey-coloured stone walls with a dark-red wash.

For the forthcoming film, Craig took a similarly radical approach to Quidditch. It will be the last time the game is played in the series, and he wanted to make as great an impact as possible. While the stunt coordinator, Greg Powell, and his team rehearsed mid-air collisions, 15ft off the ground with only trampolines as aides, Craig made some important visual decisions. ‘We shrank the meadow, raised the stands and brought the surrounding Glen Nevis mountains much closer to the pitch,’ he says with God-like authority. ‘It made everything much more visceral.’

It is very much a collaborative effort. ‘We have a very open dialogue between departments,’ says the creature effects designer, Nick Dudman, who over the years has been responsible for the creation of such Harry Potter favourites as Dobby the house elf, Fawkes the phoenix, Neville’s cactus, the unicorn and the fire-breathing dragon. ‘There has to be a harmony between every­body’s work so that when the audience watches the movie nothing jars. It’s a bit like being a stage magician. It’s a trick. But if I can hoodwink people into suspending their disbelief then I’ve done my job properly.’

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort

Heading a team of sculptors, painters, engineers, mould-makers and hair people that averages 70 per film, Dudman ‘will not accept something unless it’s perfect.’ Take Aragog the spider. Alive in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Aragog appears dead in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Weighing a ton and with an 18ft leg span, the spider took a team of 25 people (including an engineer who devised the aquatronic system that made his movement authentically spongy and slow) five months to build.

But, rather than use the same spider again, Dudman and his team set about building a whole new Aragog. ‘We wanted him to have the kind of translucency that a dead spider in your bath might have,’ Dudman explains. ‘We wanted the evening light to shine through his legs, so we built him from scratch using translucent urethane. The hairs are the same though. The finer ones are broom hairs. The larger ones are made from the centre of feathers that, one by one, have had fluff put on them and been dragged through Lurex.’

Dudman, like Craig, is devoted to detail. For Greyback, a werewolf that appears in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, each prosthetic silicone piece took about a week to create. What’s more, several such pieces needed to be made because they would come off the actor at the end of the day totally wrecked. Some days they might make the actor up with one of these painstakingly created pieces – the application itself took three hours – only for him not to be used all day.

Harry Potter with blue screen

Harry Potter with blue screen

But people such as Dudman don’t seem to resent the hard work involved in working on the Potter series. ‘Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new,’ grins John Richardson, the special effects supervisor, who has been working in the industry for almost 50 years. Sixteen years old when he started working with his father, Cliff, also a special effects artist, he now oversees the work of his own son, Marcus, who has been working alongside him on the Harry Potter series.

Originally tantalised by the challenge of ‘making broomsticks fly and candles float mid-air’, Richardson – himself an Oscar-winner (Aliens) and the special effects wizard behind nine Bond films – describes Harry Potter as ‘the first proper job’ he has ever had. Surrounded by smoking cauldrons (they made 20 new ones for the latest film, each of which does different things), he describes his greatest achievement as making broomstick flying look ‘more natural and controllable with every film’. For now, his secret must remain safe. Some things need to stay magic.

Although the high points are too many to number, Richardson picks out a handful of proud achievements, including the Weasley washing-up being done in the sink on its own, and the door into the Chamber of Secrets being opened with snakes moving for the locks. His number one is the flying car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. ‘It really flew!’ he says. ‘Up to the window, opened its boot for the children’s luggage, waited for them to get in, flew away.’ This was achieved with the use of a ‘waldo’ – a remote control that enabled him to hydraulically move the life-size car by manipulating a miniature model version on a miniature set.

More than any other department, special effects has seen the most dramatic changes brought on by the advances in digital technology over the course of the past decade. ‘In terms of quality and “do-ability”, the visual effects have probably improved tenfold during the time we have been making the pictures,’ Richardson says. In short, what used to be done for real can now be done better by using a computer. What, in some ways, has been a blow to the work of men like John Richardson and Nick Dudman has also enhanced it.GoreMaster Makeup Effects Manual

From large action sequences to small cosmetic details, the different departments will work tirelessly together to achieve the most believable end result. Thus, the breakneck opening sequence of the new film – in which Voldemort’s dark army wreaks havoc in the skies of central London – involved all departments: digitally enhanced Death Eaters disrupt pedestrians on the Millennium Bridge (enacted by special effects), swoop into a specially designed set of Diagon Alley (built by the art department), culminating in an explosion of Ollivander’s wand shop (special effects), with 17,000 wand boxes burnt for authenticity. All of the ingredients were then given to Tim Burke and his visual effects department, which spent about a year perfecting the sequence.

‘It has to look real,’ Burke says of his work. ‘There is a tendency in some visual effects films to take it too far, which takes you out of the story. This film particularly is very drama-led, and it was essential that at no point did the visual effects break that flow.’ With about half of the final cut having felt the hand of visual effects (ranging from complete CG sequences to little ‘fixers’) Burke is, in a sense, a cyber version of David Yates.

His post-production team mirrors, almost exactly, the practical team and can, at the height of its activity, number between 500 and 600 people. ‘I employ people who can design sets, build sets, light sets, paint and texture sets, and animate sets all within a computer,’ he explains. Together, for the opening sequence, these specialists built a computer simulation of the streets of central London, down to the litter on the pavement. The end result may take up less than a minute of the final film – but the team behind Harry Potter aren’t under the same kind of budgetary constraints as most: each film costs an estimated $100-150 million to make.

Director David Yates

Director David Yates

It is very rare for the costume designer Jany Temime to buy in a costume – most are made bespoke – but, if she does, it is always perfectly customised for its required need. ‘It may need to be damaged, or have the colour changed, or the lining altered,’ she says. Employing between 20 and 50 people at any one time, the costume department produces 600-650 new costumes for every film. For each character, there are usually two doubles and a stunt double to dress (and do the hair and make-up for) as well.

There are certain things that computers cannot do, and visually interpreting a character’s psychology is one of them. At the beginning of each new film, Temime, the chief make-up artist Amanda Knight and the chief hairdresser Lisa Tomblin – alongside Craig, Yates and the producers – examine the looks of the characters. ‘Dumbledore is very vulnerable in The Half-Blood Prince,’ Knight says. ‘So we whitened his beard and made it a lot longer. We also removed his hat so that he seemed more naked somehow.’

For Temime, costume decisions go beyond matters of palette and style. ‘I need the public to believe in the characters I am creating because you cannot feel emotion for somebody you don’t believe in. When I work with the actors, we always talk about the part and the psychology of the character they are playing. The most beautiful moment for me is when they stand in front of the mirror in their costume and they slowly become the character.’

But there have been times when Temime has had a fight on her hands. ‘I love Daniel, Emma and Rupert – they are like my babies,’ she says. ‘But we went through a very difficult time when they became teenagers. Suddenly, they started coming out of their parts and their personalities began to get in the way.

They all wanted to be pretty and I had to be like their mother and say, “No, you cannot wear that.” For about a year, we had a big battle but then they came out of it and now they know exactly how they need to dress. On the last film, my heart broke when I presented Emma with one pair of sexy jeans and one pair of comfortable jeans, and she sighed and said, “Hermione would want the comfortable ones.”’Werewolf

Knight, who was heavily pregnant with her daughter when she first interviewed for the job on Harry Potter, has had to draw on her maternal instincts over the past decade. ‘I can’t tell you how many times I have had to remove lip gloss from the mouths of young girls who have sneaked off into the bathrooms to put it on between shots,’ she says.Then there were the problems with Harry’s scar, a fixed template stencilled daily on to Daniel Radcliffe’s forehead and then built up with scar material.

‘In the early days, we had a school on site, where the children would spend three hours of every day,’ Knight says. ‘When Dan was younger, he used to pick off his scar when he was in the schoolroom and he’d come back to set with it hanging off.’ It is not only the children that Knight has had to learn to manage. ‘Michael Gambon [Dumbledore] is a very impatient man,’ she laughs. ‘His beard is made up of six different pieces and then, over the edges, we lay on 10 hairs at a time for authenticity. I have had to learn to put it on in 45 minutes, otherwise he gets bored and fidgety.’

Inevitably, with the end in sight, there is a certain nostalgia for the early days. ‘I’ll never forget coming out of my workshop when we were making the first film,’ John Richardson says, ‘and finding four excited 10-year-olds sitting on the broomsticks I was building and saying, “Wheeee!”’ Those 10-year-olds were Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and JK Rowling’s daughter, Jessica.

Rowling herself has always been a regular fixture on the set, available at all times for creative consultation. ‘When we were making the first film,’ Stephenie McMillan says, ‘we were really labouring over what the Philosopher’s Stone should look like. After weeks of torture, we asked Jo Rowling. “Uncut ruby,” she said without hesitation.’

‘When she first saw the set of Diagon Alley, Jo had a real lump in her throat,’ David Heyman remembers. ‘She said it was exactly as she’d imagined it.’ Similarly, when she was in the process of writing the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, she came to the set of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and saw the Ministry of Magic, about which she was in the process of writing, coming alive before her very eyes. For her, as much as for her legions of fans, it must be hard to see where the books end and the films begin.

‘We do not need magic to change the world,’ Rowling said last year in a speech given to the Harvard Alumni Association. ‘We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.’ And, in the case of a handful of magicians at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire make that imagined world a reality.

‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ opens on July 15

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