Holy. Crap.
Universal is creating a Harry Potter theme park (actually just a section of their “Islands of Adventure” park) that will open in 2009. They even hired Stuart Craig, the production designer from all the films, to oversee the design of the park. They also have J.K. Rowling on board, which makes fans happy. Coincidentally, I got to see Stuart Craig give a great talk at The Dryden theater in Rochester about a year ago. He had a lot of interesting things to say about working on the Harry Potter films. Now would probably be a good time for me to dig up my moleskine and let you in on his anecdotes and advice:

Craig started out by comparing film and theater. He has a theater background and complained that film has a horrible tonal range compared to real life. (There is no black in film unfortunately.)

He added that theater is often more powerful than film simply because the performer and audience share the same physical space. (I tend to disagree – I am often more aware that I am watching actors when I am seeing a play. Also I miss the closeups.)

A film like Harry Potter must be tangible. Craig was in charge of building a recognizable world, with some exaggeration. He based his ideas of Hogwarts Castle on Westminster Abbey, Christ Church College, and referenced Oxford for the Great Hall. (Good thing they got a British designer, eh?) As Craig said, “Steal from the best and heighten reality.” (This certainly applies to production design in animation as well!) He also mentioned Durham, Canterbury Cathedral, and Gloucester as sources of inspiration/shooting locations.

On the first few movies a lot was shot on location. For the fifth movie they have moved to building EVERYTHING on set. He says this allows more control over silhouette and composition…what he called, “Fantasy, but not Tim Burton.” (haha.)

He also mentioned that Hagrid’s Hut, the bridge, and the pumpkin patch were the only sets in the third movie to be built on location in Scotland. Everything else is on a sound stage. These ext. sets were seen as an “escape” from the Cathedral/Hogwarts Castle.

Craig says, “A production designer’s job is to sell the image.”

He also talked briefly about directors: Mike Newell (HP4) was the most concerned with spectacle – he was always looking for something dynamic. Alfonso Cuaron (Hp3) was “brilliant at telling a story in pictures.” (Very true indeed…if you haven’t seen Hp3 or Children of Men…do it.)

Craig explained that only the production designer is looking at EVERYTHING beyond the actor. He also said that filmmakers often deliver a better film than the studio wants. (Hard to believe.)

Craig also gave a rundown of his working methods:

1. Research: The real world is too complicated (and dull, and boring) to reproduce exactly. Try to point out what is telling the story. Exaggerate profiles/silhouette. (Animators should all know this.) He mentioned it in regard to the Durmstrang ship in the 4th film. He said it had to be, “the shippiest of all ship-shapes.” As in, it had to read as a massive ship immediately.

2. Create a rough plan to scale. Technical drawings with measurements and angles can be used for 3D models (in the computer or practical.)

3. Incorporate your shots. Most directors direct TEXT, not IMAGES. Also, the production designer should have some say in the lighting of the scene. He mentioned that 3/4 back lighting is most appealing. Go for the widest shot possible, at the most dynamic angle. (Good advice for all artists!)

Craig also compared cinema in America to cinema in England. In America it is about the “boldness of expression.” In England it is more meager, more austere. They enjoy restraint for it’s own sake.

He also talked a little about the huge amount of visual effects. Apparently there was only one virtual set in HP4. (You listening George Lucas?) You can tell! The film is beautiful and feels real. (Because it is.) Craig mentioned going back to the earlier artists for inspiration. Don’t look at Frazetta (sorry John K), look at Frazetta’s influences…people like Albert Whitlock and Vermeer. (mmm…Vermeer.) He said something along the lines of “CG artists bastardize things” (I may be paraphrasing here) and that we need to blend the old crafts better with the new software. I couldn’t agree more.

Also, going back to the theme park, someone in the article I read mentioned that they would go to a Harry Potter park over Disney world…I agree. But as much as I want to roam the corridors of Hogwarts and the streets of Hogsmeade…I don’t want to see crumpled napkins and melting ice cream next to a screaming child in the Great Hall of Hogwarts. Maybe I’m a little too attached to the material. ;]

And just to make this ridiculously long post longer, I was just watching an interview with this amazing 9-year old girl named Adora, who had first book published when she was only 7. She’s got a mad crazy vocabulary and is witty and intelligent and types 80 words a minute. (She started writing longhand when she was 4, and typing on a laptop when she was 6.) She continues to write and now lectures and teaches! She left the audience with the message to go out and dream big and use your imagination and that we can all accomplish big things. And just how did this all start? What books where her parents reading to her that she loved so much as a kid? That’s right, Harry Potter.

P.S. Book 7 is coming out so soon I think my head might asplode.

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