On the eve of the release of the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling's wildly successful epic series about a certain boy wizard comes the fifth adaptation in the equally phenomenal film franchise, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." With new-to-the-series director David Yates behind the camera, directing from a screenplay by Michael Goldenberg, it's darker in tone than previous "Harry Potter" movies but is just fabulous to look at, with several spectacular sequences that posed major creative and technical challenges in bringing them to life on screen.
"Phoenix" finds Harry and his friends Ron and Hermoine in a darker place, dealing with the return of consummately evil Lord Voldemort and the arrival at Hogwarts of a sadistic martinet of a new teacher who makes their lives miserable. Compounding that, Harry -- accused of lying about Voldemort and ostracized for it at the outset -- copes with a much-heightened version of teenage angst.
"It's the most emotional of the stories," opines veteran Potter producer David Heyman. "The actors have grown, not just age-wise but in the depths of their portrayals. We experience both Harry's first screen kiss and some of the pain that comes with that. It's a really moving story full of thrills, adventure, and visual effects and great new characters and creatures. I think we've upped the ante on this one."
Director Yates agrees that "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is "more emotional, intense and a bit edgier" than previous versions, citing the "violent and scary" wizard battle at the film's end and a tone-setting scene early on where the aforementioned new instructor, Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) turns Harry's detention into torture. "It's quite scary and unsettling. It's magical but it feels very uncomfortable," Yates describes.
In this article, we'll look at the many creative, logistic and technical challenges of filming this movie and learn how the filmmakers overcame those challenges.
The Crew of Harry Potter 5
Having turned down many movie scripts because the quality didn't match what he'd done in TV until he read and fell in love with the characters and world of Harry Potter, Yates signed on for a two-and-a-half year commitment.
"I was involved with the script for a year and a half before we started shooting. I sort of made the film before I shot a single frame of film really because I had so long to prepare it. I storyboarded very carefully. By the time I got to the floor to direct the first shot on the first day, I'd already made the film three times over in my head. I think that made the studio and the producers much more comfortable, so once I started shooting they let me get on with it," Yates explains.
He concedes that working on a film with approximately 1300 effects shots was his biggest challenge, "making sure that they served the story as accurately as possible." Toward that end, he relied on visual effects supervisor Tim Burke, production designer Stuart Craig, special effects supervisor John Richardson, creature effects supervisor Nick Dudman and others on his creative team to realize his vision.
Of the many logistic and technical challenges on the film, the sequence in the Hall of Prophecies near the end of the film topped the list. "It's a complicated, elaborate sequence involving a completely CG environment. We shot it all on green screen over a number of weeks," notes Yates. "Due to the availability of certain actors we had to shoot it very episodically so it was quite tricky." (The minor-age actors, Heyman reminds, are only available for four hours of shooting at a time.)
John Richardson, who supervised a team of 35, cites that scene and several others as his major challenges. "The final battle needed quite a lot of work from us in terms of blowing the set up, doing the spell wand effects, and a lot of different rigs for the Ministry of Magic, plus the scenes in the Great Hall where the Weasley twins are leaving Hogwarts forever and throw magical fireworks everywhere, causing mayhem throughout Hogwarts. What makes it complex is working out with Visual Effects [Department] -- who's doing what and where the joints are going to be. We did a lot of pre-preparation to get everything ready in terms of what David wanted and then worked together to make it happen."
Technical Advances Improve Special Effects
Richardson, who has worked on every "Harry Potter" film, says technological advances like faster computer processors make some effects possible that could not have been attempted during the first or second "Harry Potter" movies, and he offers the Hall of Prophecies battle as an example. "Visual Effects can do better things, more realistic things. We had CG characters since the beginning, but the bar has been raised since then. I think the broomstick flying is better now than in the first film," says Richardson.
"We've improved all of our mechanics, electronics, and all of the rigs that we build are now operated by computers," he continues. "A lot of what we do is fairly complex hydraulic rigs. But we have the ability now to operate and control those by a computer, which gives us a much better interface with the Visual Effects guys and the CG work that they're doing so that we can ensure that the real world marries up pretty seamlessly with the computer world."
This means a lot of shooting against blue or green screen, "in some cases to create the environment or the set and in other cases, if you're flying somebody on a broomstick you've got to fly them in front of a blue screen and put them into the CG environment later."
Speaking of those aerial sweepers, Richardson reveals that they've been adapted to the maturing cast. "When we first designed the broomstick flying rigs they were designed for kids of 100, 120 pounds and now they're almost double that weight. We've had to almost completely redesign everything, and make sure that mechanically they're strong enough."
One of Richardson's responsibilities is preparing and shooting elements for the Visual Effects team to manipulate later, and on "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" this included myriad spell effects in the Room of Requirement and creating a sphere of water in which Dumbledore's spell traps Voldemort.
"We had to come up with a way of holding Voldemort in the air and spinning him so that he looked as though he was floating in a sphere of water. To do that, I used a modified broomstick rig, which was hydraulically operated, but we could program it in the computer and we could sit Ralph Fiennes on it. We got two-meter diameter Plexiglas® spheres and projected water over the top of them and inside of them to create the look of a moving sphere," he outlines.
In another scene, "We had to blow out 250 curved glass windows in the Ministry of Magic at the same time, as if Voldemort's spell was creating enough power to make them shatter. It had to work on the first take and it did," Richardson says with relief. "We're getting better at it. We get it to work the first time most of the time these days."
Bringing Grawp and Other Creatures to Life
Of the film's many complicated elements, one of the most complex was creating the 16-foot giant Grawp, Hagrid's simpleton half-brother. "We spent a year on him. It took us a long time to get it right," confides Yates. In the end, Grawp was a collaboration between the Creature Effects and Visual Effects departments, starting with a sculpted giant head.
"Doing the whole body at 16 feet would have been a nightmare. But with a full-size head, you can use real hair and get the detail you want, like eyes, eyebrows, veins," explains creature supervisor Nick Dudman. "Then the director can decide if he likes it before it's passed on to the effects house, where it gets expensive. It makes economic sense, and everyone knows what it will look like."
Like his colleagues, Dudman, who has worked his way up from makeup artist on the first "Harry Potter" movie to department head, has seen changes brought on by more powerful computers. "With the digital revolution, things that we used to do full scale or as big animatronic things, we don't do anymore. We tend to do a lot more CG model work," sculpting and painting a creature for lighting reference and scanning at a digital effects house. "I use fewer engineers and more painters and sculptors now," he notes. On "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," his crew numbered 55.
His responsibilities, which included creature development and prosthetic makeup, pick up where the art department leaves off. "The concept designs are then passed to me and I have to turn them into three-dimensional objects. We usually start small scale with tabletop models, usually a range of those for a given creature, and then everyone can sit 'round an object and complain about it until it's changed to a point where everyone stops complaining. Then you scale it up and turn it over to Effects."
Dudman faced many tricky tasks including getting the "heavy but delicate" Grawp head, which measured 4 feet six inches by 3 feet six inches, onto the set, "taking something that involved so much work, putting it in an environment of the set and trying to winch it into the ceiling without it being damaged."
Another challenge was creating the Thestrals, dark creatures that can only be seen by those who've seen death. They're translucent black, very difficult to reproduce on film. "You can't just paint the thing black because it will look dull. You've got to put a color scheme into it. It can't be so dark so you can't see it clearly," Dudman explains. "It's the subtleties that make something look real."
Dudman's team was also responsible for providing on-set representation of CGI creatures. "You can't just expect the kids to act to fresh air," he says, and that meant going beyond "a ball on a stick for the eye line." For Grawp, "We put a puppeteer in a blue suit in a blue rig that took him up to 16 feet and he could work these giant arms as well. That also let us know how far Grawp's arm will reach when you block the scene."
Prosthetic Makeup, Organic Props and More
All prosthetic makeup fell under Dudman's purview, as well as "organic props" including Death Eater masks and a moving potted plant. "We did Mad-Eye Moody, a major multi-piece silicone prosthetic makeup for Brendan Gleeson, with an animatronic, radio-controlled eye. Also we do Voldemort. Although Ralph Fiennes' nose is removed digitally, everything else on him is real so we do prosthetic pieces for his forehead, take out his eyebrows, cover all visible skin with a network of transferred veins, which are done on a temporary tattoo system. It's printed out on a computer so we can line them all up identically every day."
That process took four hours, while the Mad-Eye prosthetic was a two-and-a-half-hour job. "If an actor is well known, his contract usually stipulates the hours he can work and that limits the time in makeup," Dudman points out. "So at the beginning I spend time thinking about how we can get that time down. We could have airbrushed the veins on Voldemort every day but it would have taken a long time. Instead, we airbrushed them onto a model, photographed the veins and scanned them into a computer where we could map them, have them printed out with codes on them and then we could put these temporary tattoos on every day and match them up. It knocked two hours off the makeup."
In turn, that saved money. None of the interviewees would comment on the budget, which was rumored to be in the $150 million range, and was somewhat affected by the dollar-pound exchange rate. "We don't cut corners," says David Heyman, but he does find ways to spend sensibly. "Often a scene becomes stronger because you're forced to analyze it and get it down to its essence and look at the ways you can get more bang for the buck."
For example, John Richardson says, "We can pull something across the set with a wire whereas if somebody does it with a computer, it's several weeks' work, so in some cases it's a lot cheaper for us to do it."
From Book to Film
As with any project that takes a book to film -- especially one as popular as this series -- the filmmakers must consider the quality of the franchise and the mandate not to disappoint avid fans of the previous "Harry Potter" films and books. "It would be impossible to include everything. It would be an eight-hour movie," notes Yates. "You certainly keep the spirit and you try and keep your favorite details while serving the medium you're working in, which is very different from a book."
Heyman reminds that the films are seen from Harry's point of view, "and sometimes things will be cut that don't relate to that point of view. That means we've lost certain things from Hermione and Ron and other characters. But as long as we capture the spirit of the books it's OK."
Nick Dudman, a veteran of the "Star Wars" movies -- his first gig was assisting the creator of Yoda --knows from experience that it's sometimes impossible to please the most rabid fans. "There are people out there who are so obsessed with a particular aspect of something that they have an absolutely rigid black and white view of how it should look. All you can do is make sure that you've honored the text of the story and all that you're doing blends in with the art direction of the project."
Helpfully, author J.K. Rowling made herself available to offer approval and suggestions. "She's delightfully supportive," says Yates. "She read two or three different versions of the script, was very positive every step of the way, and offered opinions which we listened to very carefully but they were never proscriptive. They were always given in the most positive way. She's pretty hands-off but she came down to the set a couple times. We showed her bits of what we shot and edited and she was very kind and complimentary."
A Richer World
With new characters like Dolores Umbridge and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) joining familiar faces Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson) and the various wizardly faculty members, the Potter world is richer than ever in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." "I love the visual effects, but what makes these films work -- and has always made them work -- is the characters," states Heyman, who's partial to scenes involving Harry and Sirius Black.
For David Yates, it's the moment "just after Harry kisses Cho, and he sits with Hermione and Ron and they ask him what the kiss was like. A close second is the wizard fight. I love the intimate stuff and the big spectacle stuff." In the IMAX version of the movie, that spectacular battle will be shown in 3-D.
Richardson's favorite is the Weasleys' firework-throwing sequence. "It's on the screen for probably not much more than a minute or two at the most and it was a great number of weeks of testing, preparation and shooting. It was fairly complicated for us."
The Half-Blood Prince and Beyond
Richardson and his colleagues are currently in pre-production on the sixth film in the series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
"The script is still going through that evolving stage where we're trying to sort out what's in and what's out and how to do everything. There's going to be a lot of effects, both practical and visual," Richardson assures. "I think the main problems for us are going to be in the sequence at the end where Dumbledore and Harry go into the underground cavern."
Heyman counts that scene and a battle at Hogwarts among the sixth film's challenges. "This one is a little more comedic and at the same time find out a little bit more about Voldemort. Finding a young Voldemort will be challenging." As for Dudman's assignments, "A lot of it is up in the air, but we know we'll have a giant dead spider to produce."
Filming starts in September, with a shorter preparation and shooting schedule than "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." had. Yates will once again direct. "I've got a year less on the next one but I've gotten used to the world now so it's a bit easier," he figures. It's due for release in November 2008, and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" will follow in 2010.
By then, most of the creators involved will have spent more than a decade of their lives working on Potter films. "I'll be incredibly sad when it ends because it's a very close-knit community here, people enjoy each other and work together -- it's like a family. I've seen Dan and Rupert and Emma and the other kids grow from age 10 or 11 and that's been a fantastic thing to see," comments Heyman. "I feel blessed. "But I'm looking forward to filling the void with other things."
After Harry Potter
A producer on the December Will Smith vampire flick "I Am Legend," Heyman's currently making "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "about the relationship between the son of a commandant in a concentration camp and a boy on the other side of the fence."
Richardson, who likens his long Potter run to "almost having a proper job," finds it "really nice to have that continuity of work, to be asked back that often." A veteran of films like "Aliens," "Rollerball," and several in the James Bond franchise, he followed his father into the special effects field. "I worked on pictures like "Exodus" and "Lawrence of Arabia" with him while I was still in school. Now my son's working with me on the "Harry Potter films"," he notes. Post-Potter, "I hope that I will be in a position where I can pick and choose a little bit more."
Similarly, Dudman has felt like less of a freelancer working in Potter-world and will also miss much about it, including relationships and his workshop. "But it can also be very refreshing to tackle something completely different," he says, mentioning a musical, anything shooting outside England, "or something with an awful lot of blood in it."
The latter is not surprising, considering that Dudman's sideline is manufacturing non-staining theatrical blood. "There are several formulas for blood that people have used over the years. We tinkered with one a bit and found that if you took certain things out of the old recipe it stopped staining. I started making it and then so many people asked for it that we made it on a larger scale," he explains.
His company, Pigs Might Fly, references the fantasy aspect of his vocation, which makes the impossible possible "but with an air of silliness that's very important. In this job, we laugh that we get paid to do this."
For more information on Harry Potter and related topics, check out the links on the following page.
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More Great Links
- Personal interview with David Yates, May 14, 2007
- Personal interview with John Richardson, May 25, 2007
- Personal interview with David Heyman, June 13, 2007
- Personal interview with Nick Dudman, June 25, 2007