The Harry Potter series is one of the most well-known franchises in the entire world. Never did J.K. Rowling think that her writing an idea for a story about a wizard would turn into the hit it is now. This series has been changing the book industry for the last 24 years. But not only has it changed the book industry, but it has also changed many lives, including my own, and the film industry itself after the first movie came out in November 2001. When watching movies, have you ever really taken notice of the specific details they put in just to make sure everything looks perfect? If the answer is no, don’t worry, many people don’t notice the effort it takes to make these movies. And normally, it takes boatloads of computer technology to make something like that happen. So, for this paper, I want to give an account of how computer technology impacted the making of the Harry Potter universe.
First off, visual effects, referred to as VFX, are the process by which imagery is created or manipulated outside the context of a live-action scene in filmmaking and video production. VFX allows filmmakers to create environments, objects, creatures, and other things that would otherwise be impossible to create within live-action shots. In Harry Potter, every scene that has some kind of action in it contains VFX since this franchise would be nearly impossible to create without it. Tim Burke has been the visual effects supervisor for each Harry Potter film since The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third movie in the franchise of eight, for which he’s received four Oscar nominations (Aiwpadmin).
Originally there were aspects of the films that tried to be created manually instead of digitally, however, they did not succeed. For example, whenever you watch the Harry Potter movies and see the Great Hall, there are sometimes candles floating on the ceiling. Originally, there were supposed to be real candles hanging from the ceiling, suspended by wires. However, when attempting to do this, those working on the set realized that the heat from the flames ended up burning the wires and caused the candles to fall onto the tables. This is what ultimately led to the candles being digitally created with computer technology (Shontell, Alyson). Another example of how visual effects were used in the Harry Potter movies was during every quidditch scene. During these scenes, the brooms were mounted in front of a green screen, where the visual effects team could then go in and replace the green screen with a digital backdrop (Shontell, Alyson). Lastly, one of the most interesting things that the visual effects team was able to conjure up was Voldemort’s face. The actor, Ralph Finnes was covered with temporary tattoos, veins, contact lenses, eyebrows, nails, and teeth. The team then went in digitally and replaced his nose with snake-like slits (Parker, Dylan.)
Visual effects were not only heavily relevant in the Harry Potter movies, but they revolutionized visual effects for all future films over the 13 years it was made. One of the movies in the franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them which came out in November 2016, is said to be the movie with the best visual effects (Failes, Ian). And although it came out years after the last movie in 2011, it was still built on the same backbone the other Harry Potter movies were, and included the same director and staff who worked on the movies years ago. However, we cannot forget the shoulders this movie stood on, and why it turned out this way. For starters, the Harry Potter movies introduced the concept of turning a small model into a real-life building in a film. For instance, did you know that the scenes that pan over Hogwarts are not panning over an actual building? Instead, Hogwarts was a miniature model where artists built castle-like structures that were over 50 feet across and consisted of more than 2,500 fiber optic lights. It was then brought to life digitally by the studio Double Negative (Failes, Ian). The reason why they did this instead of filming an actual castle was so that it could eventually be destroyed during the battle in The Deathly Hallows Part 2. Another example of these revolutionary visual effects would be Buckbeak, the Hippogriff that attacked Draco Malfoy in The Prisoner of Azkaban. To do this, a hydraulic rig was filmed against a green screen, and then the movements and fur were digitally added in, which gave movie industries a backbone for how to create creatures that wouldn’t exist in everyday life (Failes, Ian.) Tim Webber, a supervisor on the film Gravity, said that Harry Potter in the VFX industry is “a good steady stream of work that could build upon itself – similar work each time – and that gave a backbone around which to build an industry.” (Pulver, Andrew)
Did you ever think about what your favorite movie would look like without visual effects? Of course, it is hard to imagine such a thing, however, every movie is shot without the add-on of a computer. It is just the actors, environment, props, and a green screen. This isn’t the way we like to imagine it since it would take away the magic of the movie, however, even Harry Potter isn’t immune to it. Paul Franklin describes creating these VFX are like creating a Renaissance painting. The digital brushwork has to be very fine to get it to work. Sometimes, we might not even notice how much work it takes to create scenes with VFX until we look into it. For instance, did you know that the scene in The Half-Blood Prince where Hermione is putting away books was filmed with actors standing behind the bookcases and wearing green screen gloves so they would appear to float up when edited out? (What These Harry Potter Scenes Look Like Without Magic) And, the Room of Requirement where Harry had his last encounter with Draco Malfoy was filmed in a set surrounded by tons of small items they had to stand on and green screens on each wall (What These Harry Potter Scenes Look Like Without Magic). Lastly, during The Goblet of Fire, the maze all of the Triwizard Champions had run through to get to the cup, was not even real. It was entirely made from a green screen that the actors ran in front of (What These Harry Potter Scenes Look Like Without Magic).
Secondly, the next type of effect used in the series is special effects. These are different from VFX since, special effects, abbreviated as SVX, are an illusion created for movies by props, camerawork, computer graphics, etc. They are referred to as on-set visual effects techniques. So, they are different from VFX since you do not go into the scene and edit it digitally. Since computer graphics are included in special effects, one of the best special effects in Harry Potter is the characters’ houses, particularly Malfoy Manor. Malfoy Manor, home to generations of the Malfoy Family, is an actual Elizabethan house called Hardwick Hall in England. Although this house was beautiful on its own, to give it that “magical” feeling the rest of the buildings had, designers used computer graphics to add a different type of roof, a forest surrounding it, closed shutters, and fog to give the house a mysterious and eerie feel to set the mood of the film (Special Effects In Film). Another example of computer special effects is the Knight Bus as seen in The Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry goes to the Leaky Cauldron. This bus was two double-decker buses stacked on top of each other and was able to be driven around downtown London, which is what Warner Bros did, however, to make the bus appear faster than it was in real life (considering it could only drive at 15mph), they used technique bullet time as used in the film, The Matrix – which is a visual effect used to slow down time during an action scene, which allows for high-speed movements (Pulver, Andrew).
Sometimes, I think in this world, we rely on technology far more than we should. For instance, when we watch movies, there is a part of us that thinks almost the entire movie is made from green screens and visual effects that are edited in. However, I am here to announce that even in the Harry Potter movies, some of the magic was kept within the film. Often, there were many special effects mistaken for CGI. This is perhaps a big compliment to the special effects team, however, should be an eye-opener as to what these teams can do nowadays. For instance, did you know that some of the scenes where the wands in the movies light up were not CGI? Instead, when a character would use the spell “Lumos” (a wand-lighting charm), the wands were powered by battery packs so the visual effects team wouldn’t have to go in and edit it digitally. According to Daniel Radcliffe, the battery packs would be on underneath their robes that they wore and some would be as big as car batteries (Minassian, Liana). Another scene in the Harry Potter films often mistaken for CGI is the iconic scene of wizard’s chess in the first movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Although this scene would look impossible to do realistically at first glance, the production designer, Stuart Craig, designed the chess pieces and then had them sculpted by the SFX crew. The pieces that had to move along the chessboard were then rigged with radio control. And when the horse Ron was riding exploded, instead of using pyrotechnics, the special effects team used a compressed-air device, so it would explode from within (Minassian, Liana).
Lastly, another element the Harry Potter movies have to give them that magical feel is CGI. CGI, short for computer-generated imagery, is defined as the application of computer graphics to create or contribute to images in VFX in films, television programs, shorts, commercials, and videos. This is different from visual effects in terms that involve modeling 3D objects in a computer and rendering out images of those objects compared to VFX which surrounds any kind of effect that wasn’t shot directly in the scene. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, when it pans over the hill near Hogwarts and shows all of the Death Eaters lining up to invade the castle, there are characters in the background who were created with CGI. This, according to the source “10 Times Crazy CGI Hurt Harry Potter (And 10 That Saved It).” written by Dylan Parker, is very standard with movies and tv shows since there are only so many actors on the set. Since actors are almost always shot in the foreground, the VFX team goes in and digitally re-creates those actors to fill in the background which is very helpful to make armies and crowds appear larger than they are. Another infamous CGI moment in the Harry Potter movies were the moving pictures, portraits, and newspaper articles. To do this, the team shot all of the images of the actors separately and then were placed over green screens used in the newspapers and props. The images were then color-graded to the prop or newspaper they were placed on to match the style of the film (Parker, Dylan).
And of course, the Harry Potter movies wouldn’t be complete with their attention to even the tiniest details, CGI included. One of my favorite CGI details is from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry discovers Tom Riddle’s diary and decides to communicate with Riddle through it, and is then transported back to 1943. In the movie, everyone in Tom Riddle’s era, including Hagrid and Dumbledore are in black and white, can see that CGI was used to create an everlasting glow on Harry’s body from the flame he was reading with while he is transported back to 1943. To do this, film editors usually use an effect with their programs along the lines of “linear color key” which changes the color of one element in a scene without affecting the rest (this, I know, from my years of editing on After Effects). This leaves him colorful, with the flame still flickering on him, while the rest are in black and white (Giansanti, Raelyn). Another CGI detail that often goes unnoticed is when Hermione smells the Amortenia (love) potion in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the potion fumes change color (from green to orange, to blue) as she describes what scent she smells.
The Harry Potter movies were ahead of their time regarding these effects, and have not only impressed their audience but their fellow studios with the work that’s been done. In COM 124, Mass Media Literacy, students learn that there is something called the “Harry Potter Halo Effect”, which says that the series will continue to thrive because it appeals to so many people. And although books are different from movies, I believe that this effect will also be the thing that makes the movies stick around for many years to come – not only because of the nostalgic fantasy story but because of how much we’ve been able to learn through the making of these films.
aiwpadmin. “VFX Supervisor Tim Burke on the Final Harry Potter.” studiodaily, 12 February 2021, https://www.studiodaily.com/2012/02/vfx-supervisor-tim-burke-on-the-final-harry-potter-2/. Accessed 23 March 2021.
Failes, Ian. “Harry Potter and the VFX Revolution.” Inverse, 18 November 2016, https://www.inverse.com/article/24076-harry-potter-visual-effects-quidditch-dragons-fantastic-beasts. Accessed 24 March 2021.
Giansanti, Raelyn. “15 Underrated CGI Details From ‘Harry Potter’ That Deserve More Attention.” Ranker, 9 February 2021, https://www.ranker.com/list/harry-potter-cgi-movie-details/raelyn-giansanti. Accessed 26 March 2021.
Minassian, Liana. “Harry Potter: 15 Special Effects You Thought Were CGI – But Weren’t.” ScreenRant, 8 February 2017, https://screenrant.com/harry-potter-practical-special-effects-not-cgi/. Accessed 26 March 2021.
Parker, Dylan. “10 Times Crazy CGI Hurt Harry Potter (And 10 That Saved It).” ScreenRant, 23 October 2018, https://screenrant.com/harry-potter-cgi-saved-movies/. Accessed 26 March 2021.
Pulver, Andrew. “From Harry Potter to Gravity: how British VFX talent is leading the world.” The Guardian, 14 February 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/14/harry-potter-gravity-british-vfx-visual-effects-talent. Accessed 24 March 2021.
Shontell, Alyson. “The first ‘Harry Potter book came out 20 years ago — here are 28 incredible things you never knew about how the ‘Harry Potter movies were made.” Insider, Insider, 27 June 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/how-harry-potter-movies-made-2017-6. Accessed 23 March 2021.
“Special Effects in Film.” Weebly, https://filmspecialeffects.weebly.com/harry-potter.html. Accessed 26 March 2021.“What These Harry Potter Scenes Look Like Without Magic.” TheThings, 17 December 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO-mwst1Rm8. Accessed 24 March 2020.
Morgan Rich is a freshman at Wilkes University majoring in Communication from Pottsville, Pennsylvania. She is also a representative for the Student Government on campus. Throughout high school, she was a member of the majorette squad, concert band, drama club, and still helps out back home when she gets the chance to. Morgan was also a competitive dancer for most of her life and hopes to continue dancing somehow at Wilkes in the future.