This is the Elf Preservation Society
January 4, 2011

This is the Elf Preservation Society

Tim Burke, VFX Supervisor Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, one of the most ambitious film cycles in cinema’s history starts to draw to a close. Nine years after the appearance of the first Harry Potter film, J.K. Rowling’s saga is concluded with the final book of the septet forming two feature films, the second to be released on 15th July 2011. Both films are directed by David Yates and produced by David Heyman, David Barron and J.K. Rowling. As before, the films star Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, supported by a veritable Who’s Who of British acting talent.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sees Voldemort's power growing ever stronger. He now has control over the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to finish Dumbledore's work and find the rest of the Horcruxes to defeat the Dark Lord. Harry doesn't know what the Horcruxes look like or where they are, and he doesn't have any means of destroying them. He finds himself in more danger than ever before, danger that threatens the lives of everyone Harry loves...

Framestore is proud to have been with the Harry Potter films from the first and throughout, having contributed many memorable creatures and sequences to the series. Deathly Hallows: Part 1 sees the company providing some of its finest work yet, including a magical animated storybook sequence and some dazzling VFX.

Framestore’s most significant contribution to Deathly Hallows: Part 1, however, is in its (re)creation of Dobby the house-elf (voiced by Toby Jones), one of Harry Potter’s oldest friends and a key figure in the events of this film, as well as of Kreacher (voiced by Simon McBurney), another house-elf of more ambiguous loyalties. The two elves first appear when Harry summons Kreacher to help him locate one of the Horcruxes, which is in the form of a locket held by Mundungus Fletcher. The two elves capture Fletcher and, clutching him, apparate back to Harry. Dobby’s second appearance in the film occurs when he comes to rescue the three heroes from the clutches of the Death Eaters at Malfoy Manor. As they make their escape via a disapparation, Bellatrix hurls a knife which hits Dobby. Apparating on a desolate beach, Harry finds that his faithful friend is mortally wounded. In a profoundly moving scene -the emotional climax of the film - Dobby dies, cradled in Harry’s arms.

Christian Manz was the VFX Supervisor leading the Framestore team through over 16 months of toil and creation. Manz, whose many credits forFramestore include work on The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Golden Compass and two previous Potter films, says that Deathly Hallows: Part 1 was a unique experience. “It was that rarest of projects where everything (well, everything important) went right,” he recalls. “We had a small team – no more than 60 over all – that worked fantastically well together; we had an excellent relationship with Tim Burke (the film’s VFX Supervisor) based on mutual respect and an enormous amount of trust on his part; and we had the luxury of a schedule that, for once, didn’t constrict or prevent the artists from giving their very best. You can see all of this in the work, without doubt.” Burke and Yates’s trust extended to an almost preternaturally light supervisory hand. Following first turn over in May 2009, Burke inspected pre-vis and still material the following August, then looked in again in November. Yates himself did not see the nearly completed work properly until July 2010. When your director and VFX supervisor leave you alone for months at a time, you’d better be able to vindicate that trust

An important pre-production decision – one that played to Framestore’s strengths – was that the two elves would be keyframe animated rather than ‘acted’ through motion capture. This followed a proof-of-concept demo prepared for Yates and Burke by a small team led by Manz, Lead Animator Pablo Grillo and CG Supervisor Andy Kind in February 2009. “Mo-cap is often directors and supervisors first choice when looking for photo-real humanoid performances,” Grillo has said, “But with mo-cap you get ‘everything’, which can result in that slightly queasy, uncanny valley sort of look. Our animators were able to carefully craft emotive and believable human performances from careful observation of a variety of sources.” Burke persuaded Yates of the importance of having the voice actors on-set and performing on film, and with these performances as reference, together with the animators’ research (including photographic studies of Framestore’s oldest employee), and, vitally, their own imaginations, the Framestore team were able to engineer a staging that worked convincingly within the context of the edit and the quirky physicality of the house elves.

Another important aspect of the elves to be settled before the sequence-work proper began was their physical appearance. Both Kreacher and Dobby had appeared in earlier films, so there was a limited amount of wriggle room on this, but Yates and his team felt that some tweaking was necessary. Dobby is a crucial emotional focus within the film, and it was important that the audience were able to connect with him as intimately as possible. And the beings we respond to most readily in this way are our fellow humans. To this end, both elves underwent what was essentially a humanizing process, a ‘softening’ of their more grotesque features. Starting with the original maquette used by ILM to create Dobby for the second film, and with Framestore’s own models of Kreacher used in the fifth film, the team set to work using the elves’ original topologies, but giving them both a makeover. Dobby’s neck was smoothed out, his arms shortened and his eyes were made less saucer-like; Kreacher’s nose was shortened, ears trimmed and so forth.

The lighting of the interiors during the early scenes with Kreacher and Dobby is striking and atmospheric – painterly, almost. “We aimed for soft shadows and lighting which fell across the skin in an effective way,” says CG Supervisor Andy Kind. “We built on our recent skin shading technology, using multiple subsurface scattering techniques. To light scenes, we used mostly ‘bleed cards’ of HDRI textures from the set projected on cards. That created a less diffuse style of lighting than we have done in the past.”

The rescue sequence at Malfoy Manor was notable from Framestore’s point of view for its particularly demanding disapparation. To highlight the drama of Bellatrix’s hurtling knife flying towards and into the group as they are transporting away, Yates asked that the shots look as if they’d been filmed on a Phantom camera, i.e. in merciless slow motion. The apparate/disapparate look which had been developed by MPC for earlier films was not designed to withstand such minute scrutiny, so Framestore had to redesign the effect almost from scratch. Yates’s reference for the look was a slightly ambiguous “nebula-like”, and it took the team some 100 iterations to finally nail it.

But nail it they did, and Harry and his companions arrive at the beach, close to Shell Cottage, a safe-house belonging to friends of theirs. They quickly realize that Bellatrix’s knife has struck their brave little friend, who collapses into Harry’s arms, speaks briefly with him and dies. Shot at Freshwater West in Wales, the location shoot featured a Dobby sized body double and a dummy. Says Pablo Grillo, “A lot of the power of Dobby’s death came from the way David Yates shot it. It was extremely gritty, with a lot of free camera movement.”

Compositing Supervisor Christian Kaestner led the 8-strong compositing team. “The dummy and the body double became lighting reference forFramestore while integrating the animated character into Radcliffe’s arms,” he says. “Tim Burke shot a lot of reference and clean plates, but the takes that David Yates chose were the ones of Harry interacting with the stunt double. That required a lot of paintwork, so we went to Leavesden and shot texture reference of Harry’s wardrobe and Radcliffe’s hands, and we used those textures to rebuild parts of Harry that the double had obscured. We then restored areas of Harry’s jacket, his shirt and hands by re-projecting and animating textures.” As the moment of his passing Framestore made Dobby’s eyes appear watery and desaturated his skin textures to make him wan and pale.

At an earlier point in the film, Hermione is directed to read aloud a story from The Tales of Beedle the Bard, her book of fairytales. The story is a wizard folktale about three enchanted artifacts – ‘Deathly Hallows’ -- that grant their owners dominion over Death. To take the audience into this tale within a tale, the production hit upon the idea of an animated interlude depicting the events as Hermione narrates them. The result is a stunning nearly three minute sequence directed by Ben Hibon and created by a 37-strong crew drawn from Framestore’s Commercials team, and led by Sequence Supervisor Dale Newton. “An early stylistic influence that underlies the idea behind the sequence is the work of Lotte Reiniger, a stop-motion silhouette animator active between the 1920s and 1950s; another more direct influence is the traditional shadow puppetry popular in India and the far east,” explains Newton, “Both elements entail a simplicity and directness in their visual style, but Ben wanted to add the sophistication of modern cinema and tell the story in what appeared to be a single flowing shot.”

Working in Maya, Hibon and Newton created the story’s characters, emulating the rigidity and motion of Reiniger’s hand-cut paper silhouettes. “Our goal was to create designs using a uniform visual language that would bind all the various elements in the show - characters, sets and visual effects,” Newton says. “Though all the designs had to work as simple immediately recognisable silhouettes there had to still be a feeling of abundance of detail, and only reveal it where absolutely necessary.” Backgrounds were based on digital photographic textures of backlit paper, layered to create depth and translucency. “Ben loved the way traditional Chinese shadow puppetry was supported by a tactile and translucent surface, a textured screen space almost,” says Newton, “One of our compositors, Adam Rowland, created a three dimensional paper ‘fog’ in Nuke, which allowed us to assimilate this whilst moving cameras freely in space.” To further enhance the gritty sensation of puppetry, Newton’s team animated the characters with a slight awkwardness or jitteriness. The end result is a perfectly achieved micro-narrative within the movie, stylistically separate, yet integral to the larger story that’s unfolding.

Framestore’s created 110 shots for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, which occupies a relatively small proportion of the film’s 150 minute running time. So it was proportionately gratifying to find that, at a sneak preview screening for held for fans in Chicago in August 2010, Dobby, Kreacher and the Storybook sequence garnered the highest audience responses of anything in the film. With news like that, and the extremely positive experience they enjoyed working together on this project, it is little wonder that the Framestore Deathly Hallows team are feeling a tinge of regret now that, finally, the elvish have left the building.

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a Heyday Films Production and a David Yates Film.

DIRECTOR David Yates
PRODUCERS David Heyman, David Barron and J.K. Rowling

VFX Framestore