Cover Story: 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows'
Issue: November 1, 2010

Cover Story: 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows'

HERTFORDSHIRE, UK — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is J.K. Rowling’s conclusive book seven, transformed into Warner Bros.’ final two-part movie of the Harry Potter saga that reunites director David Yates, editor Mark Day, post supervisor Katie Reynolds and visual effects supervisor Tim Burke. All four previously collaborated on the last two pictures, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and in some cases are culminating a 10-year-plus collaboration on the Potter franchise.

One of the main differences between the previous films and Deathly Hallows, says Burke, is the setting. This movie takes you through several different locations in the UK searching for the Horcruxes, the parts of Lord Voldemort’s soul. This leads us to the epic battle that takes place in the end of the book. Many of those settings were greenscreen “illusions” shot right on the back-lot at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire, England.

“In part one,” says Day, “they are not in Hogwarts at all, so it’s more like a road movie.” This film, he notes, was also given more of a contemporary look and feel by first-time Harry Potter cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Blood Diamond, Defiance).

The Potter films have definitely evolved. As the actors have grown up, the story has become a lot darker. The visual effects have spanned 10 years and have become more sophisticated and seamless. “What’s written down on the page is not always easily achievable,” says Burke. Some of the things in the past would have been simplified and now we seem to be attempting more and more ambitious things.”

Burke set up a previs team at Leavesden, along with animation director Ferran Domenech from Moving Picture Company. “We were basically making two films at the same time: Part 1 and Part 2,” he explains. “They were shot as if they were one big film over 18 months. We spent over a year prevising fairly major sequences because shooting was not in chronological order.”

In addition, Yates had Day come in and do additional editing on the previsualizations, looking at them from an editor’s point of view and making them “work even better.”

For example, the film opens with a massive chase scene. The rescue party comes to take Harry away and they make six additional Harry Potters. “We use a lot of split-screen techniques using Dan Radcliff to play seven different characters.” The characters get on their brooms and CG thestrals and Harry and Hagrid ride off on a motorbike and sidecar. They get attacked by the Death Eaters and the motorbike drives against traffic and rides upside down in a tunnel.

Burke says he really pushed every technique in the book, including the sophistication and detail of the facial motion capture using Mova’s Contour, a UV-based mocap system, and making high-quality digital doubles and face replacements to perfectly match and scale the actual actors to both their stunt doubles and digital doubles in the scenes.

“All the ideas came from [Yates] and the book,” explains Burke, “but we didn’t go through storyboards, we went straight into previs. We worked out all of the shots. That’s how we were able to piece together this jigsaw puzzle. There’s actually no other way we could have done it otherwise.”

Burke supervised a global visual effects team that included The Moving Picture Company (London, Los Angeles, Vancouver), who did the big chase sequence that opens the movie; Framestore (London), who did the animation of Dobby; Double Negative (London). who worked on a lot of the CG environments; Rising Sun (Adelaide, Australia), who animated The Dementors and the Ministry of Magic; Baseblack (London), who had the highest shot count of all, including a large amount of composting work; and Cinesite (London), who did all the Lord Voldemort shots (see sidebar). Additional effects were done by Gradient Effects (Los Angeles) and Rise Visual Effects Studios (Berlin).

“Action is quite easy to cut because it’s so quick and very fast,” says Day, who remembers being inspired by the Bourne trilogy films while he was cutting that sequence.

Generally, says Day, visual effects gives him previs of all the complicated sequences and gradually as the live-action footage comes in he starts intercutting it with the previs footage, working with Yates, and “getting it into good shape.

“When David Yates directs he gives me the rushes [dailies], and as soon as I get those in I start assembling them in the way I think they should go. The only way I can do that is by gut instinct, the way I feel it should go story-wise. I’m spoiled because most of the time there’s a lot of coverage. They shoot mostly two or three cameras on Harry Potter.”

Having production and post both housed on the Leavesden Studios lot made it convenient for Yates to pop over to editorial after a day’s shooting and see what Day had put together. A scene, he says, can take a couple of days to assemble depending on how big it is. “He’ll give me comments on how it’s working or not working...that’s the kind of process we have together. “

On a conventional movie, describes Day, you edit scenes, lock the picture and that’s it. On a big visual effects movie “you have to semi-lock scenes. You ‘lock’ scenes to hand over to visual effects.” Those scenes come back and “then David and I work on it together again and the movie evolves gradually back and forth between visual effects and editorial.

The process takes months. “You have to wait for the effects to get put into the scene to understand the pacing and to get the scene to work properly,” he says. “When you get a scene back from VFX you might want to extend the scene because it’s so good or you want another shot. It really changes the dynamic of the scene.

Post supervisor Reynolds notes that they had over 5,000 feet of footage come in every day during principal photography. This kept the assistant editors — Hermione Byrt, Kate Baird, Alex Fenn, Adam Gough and Myles Robey — pretty busy prepping rushes, cutting sound, syncing sound, trimming sequences and making select sequences. Editorial used Avid Media Composer Nitris DX systems — 10 in total — distributed between the editors and assistants.

The negative footage, Kodak Vision2 5205 and Vision3 5219 was scanned at Cinesite at 4K downrezed to 2K and turned into HDCAM dailies that were ingested every morning into a Baselight and graded by colorist Peter Doyle in collaboration with DP Serra for offline editing.

“I’m really very lucky,” says Day. “I get really well-graded rushes instead of a “one light” that one gets from the lab. It’s almost like the final grade.”

“I am very much from the, ‘I hope you don’t see the effects’ school,” says Burke. “I like to hide them in the story. A lot of people watch this film and go, ‘Well there aren’t many effects in it.’ That’s good because there’s over a thousand effects in it, so apart from the very obvious ones they are not seeing them.”

“I’ve never done something as big as having two films simultaneously,” says Day. “We were shooting for nearly 16 months, and I was getting [footage] in from Part 2 one day and Part 1 another day — all to do with the scheduling. By the end of the shoot I had both films assembled. A lot of footage and a lot of storytelling and a lot of scenes, but it’s very exciting. really. Certainly a challenge, but one I love doing.”