Initially I was going to title this editorial “The End” since the focus was going to be on the magical visual effects journey of Harry Potter that spanned a decade. But somehow that just didn’t seem appropriate. Indeed, the series has come to an end, forcing studios throughout the world to close this particular chapter of their work.
In The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), dynamic digital sets provided an enchanting backdrop to the series. In The Chamber of Secrets (2002), we were introduced to the house elf Dobby, a believable digital character created by ILM. That accomplishment, along with the studio’s work on Star Wars Episode II’s Yoda and Weta’s achievements with Gollum in The Two Towers, led Doug Smythe, then associate visual effects supervisor at ILM, and Dave Andrews, animation director, to conclude at the time that directors soon would be more willing to cast CG characters in leading roles. Their prediction was spot-on. Since then, we have seen a plethora of pirates, including ILM’s digital Davy Jones and his ghostly crew, so many superheroes, and, of course, the high-water mark of them all: Benjamin Button.
The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) freely populated the world with CG creatures: Dementors, Grim the black dog, the Hippogriff, and even a werewolf. Some of that technology played even bigger roles in other films—MPC used its Delilah custom Maya plug-in written for the Harry Potter werewolf to generate the fur in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, to use but one example. In The Goblet of Fire (2005), fire and water stole the scenes: a fire-breathing dragon and an old pirate ship that emerges from a lake (both created by ILM)—the beginning of work that would later surface in Pirates of the Caribbean. ILM continued be to be the only US studio working on all the films thus far in the franchise when it tackled The Order of the Phoenix (2007), bringing into view for the first time the horse-like Thestrals, along with a scarier version of the soul-sucking Dementors—leading to new skin-sliding advancements using Stanford University’s PhysBam engine. The facility would use PhysBam for the turbulent water in Poseidon, to crumble bricks in the last Indiana Jones movie, to bend fire in The Last Airbender, and to generate the maelstrom in the third Pirates film.
The Half-Blood Prince (2009) featured more mature stars and effects, and once again, fire and water were at the center of the excitement. There’s a firestorm conjured up by ILM’s Chris Horvath and detailed in a 2009 SIGGRAPH paper. There was also the element of water: ILM used its PhysBam software to create a 3D simulation for swells, splashes, and ripples made by the Inferi creatures. But for the shallow water, Horvath created a GPU-based solver using a surface plane.
The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) marked the beginning of the end, starting the film off with high-voltage effects: shape-shifting Harry Potters and a great escape scene involving Harry and his friends and created by MPC, destruction of the Lovegood house by Double Negative, and unforgettable scenes with the elves Dobby and Kreacher, compliments of Framestore. Digital destruction by Double Negative continued in Part 2 as the action shifted back to Hogwarts in this final showdown between Harry and his friends on one side and Voldemort and his evil cronies on the other. MPC handled the throngs of Death Eaters, as well as the giants and knights, and so much more.
From the first time we gazed upon Hogwarts and encountered our first game of Quidditch, to the first and last scene with the house elf Dobby, to the growing power and destruction inflicted by Voldemort and his followers, each Harry Potter film raised the digital effects bar higher than most of us imagined possible. But in terms of the evolution of visual effects, we are still back in Chapter 1, Book 1. That is to say, as engrossing and cutting-edge as the Harry Potter effects were, there will always be others just around the corner to take us to places we’ve never been before or to show us things we’ve never seen before. So while we say good-bye to this fantastic franchise, we can be sure that those studios and VFX artists who made the journey so spectacular will be applying some of that Harry Potter wizardry to other films in our future.