“I obviously had big feet to fill,” Tim Alexander says, of supervising ILM’s visual effects contributions to the latest Harry Potter installment. “ILM’s worked on all of them.”And while it’s true that the visual effects house that brought us the Skywalker family saga has likewise left its digital footprint on every filmed installment of the Potter clan’s scion as well, Alexander is no stranger to bigness: he was also ILM’s VFX supe for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, as well as a digital effects artist on Titanic.He’s done digital tours of duty on various Star Wars, Star Trek and Jurassic Park installments, as well.The specific bigness on the fourth Potter film included overseeing the talked-about “dragon sequence” during the first test in the film’s “Tri-Wizard Tournament,” where Harry finds himself entered against his will to compete for a trophy that contains a dark and deadly surprise.“The dragon had to be on the ball,” Alexander notes, since the large lizard has several tests of his own, chasing a broomstick-riding Harry around, over, and sometimes through Hogwarts and its carapaces and edifices.There’s even a spectacularly choreographed scene as the dragon works his way around a castle-like turret to get at Harry, as both beast and boy find themselves clutching to one of the castle’s outside walls after a mid-air mishap.“It’s quite a long sequence,” Alexander allows, comprising anywhere from 140 to 160 shots.But ILM’s notable Zeno software was used for more than just dragon scales: there were breakthroughs in water texture and fire, as well. For the former, in scenes set in and around the lake at Hogwarts, Alexander observes that a “whole new engine” was put into place to supersede the “Perfect Storm water” that served as the benchmark—high water mark?—for CG H2O.As for fire—for you can’t have dragons without fire—the new and enhanced tools “gave us intricacies in fire we hadn’t seen before.” Such intricacies resulted in having to time flames and smoke separately, ignoring the actual physics of burning in order to have everything “look right.”With so many breakthroughs, what does Alexander see as the next hurdle? Melting ice? Flowing lava? In fact, he sees a new arena altogether: “The next big area will be videogames,” he avers. “Movies that are interactive. Hopefully, in 10 years, we’ll have something that’s not film and not videogames.”And whatever that new, digitally realized beast is, it seems pretty safe to assume Alexander will be in awards contention for helping design the way it looks.
Written by Mark London Williams