Looking cool is, of course, the main concern for any teenager lucky enough to live outside a war zone. This would presumably also include teenage wizards.Looking cool, however, also became an issue when Tim Alexander, ILM’s visual effects supervisor for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “had to match real fire” in the footage coming over to him from England, in a tale that starts with a sprawling “Quidditch World Cup” sequence, and ends with Harry and his cohorts trying to hold up Hogwarts’ honor in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, while simultaneously battling He Who Must Not Be Named.“It wasn’t something we could just make ‘look cool,’” he says of the digital combustion. It had to have a certain fire-like authenticity. So the ILM folk “spent a long time on simulation,” getting the faux fire to move, spin and roil. And then they combined it with smoke.Most sensible BTL readers might already assume that where there’s smoke, there is indeed fire, but in the FX world, that wasn’t always the case—until now. Smoke had to be rendered separately from flames, but Alexander and his crew decided to push the combustible envelope, as well as ILM’s Zeno toolkit—the software pipeline through which the shop channels its fabled effects.So the ILMers combined both smoke and fire, marking a digital first, which “gave us intricacies we hadn’t seen before.” As well as some new problems: “Flames move more quickly than smoke does,” Alexander reports. So to have both unfold within the same software design required some careful tweaking.George Lucas has described himself, in part, as a Buddhist, and in that cosmic view, each moment also contains its opposite, a yang for every yin. And so, fire must therefore conjure water.And so it was at ILM. “The water we did on Potter,” Alexander says, “is way past what we did in The Perfect Storm.” So far past it that it took one team all of 20 weeks to work on that one sequence—the arrival of students from Durmstrung (the German equivalent of Hogwarts)—up from beneath the British school’s Great Lake. And there was another interplay of textures between the lake’s waters and Durmstrung’s great sails.The Teutonic spell casters were showing up as part of the aforementioned wizard tourney, and it is a sequence within than championship event—which transforms, much to Harry and company’s ever-increasing endangerment—to a showdown with Lord Voldemort.But prior to the mortal peril that earns the film its PG-13 rating, there are dragons. “The dragon sequence is one of the major tasks of the (tournament’s) three tasks,” Alexander notes, and like “everything we did on the movie, it was fairly dark.”But—Zen again—darkness implies light, and the upside of all these effects was the additional tweaking of Zeno, in this case to make even more believably textured dragon skin, for those of you familiar with the material. Though, like the fire, this also had to be matched to “the real thing.”Or at least, the real mock-up on London soundstages. There were photographs of the paint job. It had to be matched, with sheen added to the skin, making it look more lizard-like, with bat wings used as a reference, yielding a “thicker, leathery look,” as Alexander describes it.The dragon takes a wild-ride from “the stadium into the forest,” providing, for the “first time, a full, virtual Hogwarts,” from, of course, a flying lizard’s POV. The entire dragon sequence is quite long, according to Alexander—somewhere between 140 and 160 shots.The other major sequence that Alexander’s crew worked on was the Quidditch World Cup at the film’s outset, attended by “85,000 CG people,” specifically wizards and witches, “all wearing kind of goofy outfits—big hats, wands, and flags.” Alexander describes the assemblage as “kind of bohemian.” The Zeno toolbox was upgraded to that they could “randomly pick” small CG cup-goers from the crowd, assigning “different hats,” and other individual features, to make the stadium in question feel like it was really filled up with people. Real, magical people.But again—each moment containing its opposite—the bohemians are soon assaulted by angry control freaks, in this case, the Death Eaters who follow Lord Voldemort. The Death Eaters bring a major bummer down on said bohemians by launching the “Dark Mark” into the sky—the sign of Voldemort’s return.The noxious mark was “all done with particles,” Alexander says, making use of Apple’s Motion2 graphics software, especially for “pre-vis for the Dark Mark,” which was supposed to look like the aurora borealis, only, one assumes, eviler.“I had big feet to fill,” Alexander observes of stepping into ILM’s effects supervisor role on the fourth Potter film. But then, he’s logged time in blue chip franchises before, as a digital compositor on both a Star Trek and Jurassic Park installment, and a computer graphics supe on Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.“ILM’s worked on all of them,” he avers. But the big feet this time—dragon shaped—were ably filled. And cool looking.
Written by Mark London Williams