Harry Potter turns 20.. I reflect on my experiences on the movies..

There isn’t much to tell, to be honest.

I started working for The Moving Picture Company shortly after the first Harry Potter movie had finished.  The proceeds from that went into expanding the company’s offices through the appropriately named “Shower” entrance (since beforehand it really was a shower – the wall had just been knocked down to allow entry into the office beyond, and it would be used pretty extensively for all subsequent Harry Potter movies, until the great department reshuffle sometime around the 5 or 6th movie when rather than whole projects working together, the company was split up into departments based on disciplines).

It was all quite exciting of course, but WB was constantly throwing challenges my way as a production systems administrator, not least a VPN which initially was a PITA to get going again (our endpoint broke – the kit supplied was now obsolete and we didn’t have a decent VPN endpoint until I converted the Checkpoint Firewall to a Netscreen appliance).  Things improved immeasurably when Sohonet completely kitted out Leavesden Studios with a decent IT infrastructure (Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone had to make do with an ADSL line and motorcycle couriers for data transfer).

I did get to visit Leavesden Studios a few time to set-up new workstations and to firewall off our kit from other vendors.  It was lovely having a VFX editor there who knew the VLAN layout of the local switches, which made my knees and not-so-slim frame very happy.  Whilst out at Leavesden having finished work, my colleague and I got to enjoy a mushroom burger overlooking the Dursley’s home (and street) at one point.

Day to day stuff was the same old thing – nothing to report there.  You did get to see bits and bobs that were being worked on.  It was quite a thrill to see us working on the opening for one of the films – incorporating the famous WB shield – as well as an entire Quidditch match (that I believe we won from Sony Pictures Imageworks – quite a coup!).  Then there was the artwork – absolutely beautiful conceptual art that if you visit the Harry Potter Studios Tour, you’ll be able to see some of it.  The best things, however, were the life scale maquettes of the creatures – Professor Lupin as a werewolf and Scabbers the rat.  The werewolf’s head was detachable and was occasionally spotted being used as a hat in the production office.

I seem to recall that Voldemort’s rebirth was a difficult scene that caused quite a few arguments at one point.  It’s one of the highlights of the movies, in my opinion, but apparently getting there wasn’t so easy.  Computer imaging, in the eyes of the public, seems easy.  But it’s absolutely not.  It requires a HUGE amount of human labour to get what you see up on the screen.  People with mathematics degrees and physic degrees.  Artists.  Systems administrators.  Vendors.  It’s very labour intensive and costly.  So having to re-do stuff isn’t cheap (yet you’ll find in the VFX business that changes are expected within the bidding price, which ultimately knocks down the profit margin of the VFX company every time a client wants to make a change).

After leaving the VFX/film biz, I’ve been to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  It’s remarkable how much they’ve tidied the place up.  But it’s a definite recommendation of mine if you’ve loved the movies.  And I got to see the big castle “bigature” that I spotted whilst working on another movie – Wimbledon (starring Paul Bettany and Jon “Jungle Book/Iron Man” Favreau).  I was working at Shepperton Studios and spotted a sound stage with one of the doors open, and this massive big castle which looks suspiciously like Hogwarts.  Given I drove past two trailers for David Thewlis (Lupin, but can now be seen in the new Wonder Woman movie and the superb third season of Fargo) and the late Alan Rickman (Professor Snape), it had to be Hogwarts.  So being able to see Hogwarts castle up close at the Harry Potter Studio Tour was the highlight for me.

I’ve also been to Alnwick Castle back in April this year, which is where they shot the first broomstick flying lessons for the first Harry Potter movie (it also turns out, having seen the trailer, that it’s also where the new Transformers film was partly shot too).  And I’ve been inside the Elephant House where J. K. Rowling started writing the novels.  I also bumped into the Hogwarts Express at the Railway Museum at York Station (before they moved it down to Leavesden).

I’ve only ever been involved with Harry Potter in the tiniest way imaginable, but I am proud to have been part of it.  It helped pay my salary for a good few years (along with the other film productions, of course), so I’m grateful to J. K. Rowling for writing it, and for David Heyman for producing.

And I absolutely loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  I sincerely look forward to seeing the next films in the series.

Back from Edinburgh

My destination directly after my little London trip was to the capital city of Scotland, Edinburgh.  I fell in love with the place last year when cPanel were hosting a one day conference.  I extended the stay for 4 days, but it wasn’t enough to explore the city.  This time I had 9 days, and let me tell you, I saw (and drank) a lot.

The next few posts will recount my Scottish adventures, but let me just say that during my time in Edinburgh I was a tad annoyed at Disney/Marvel’s presence in shooting Avengers: Infinity War in the city which meant that tours (or anything) involving the Royal Mile was interrupted throughout that time.  And on my way home that also meant Waverley train station.

I suspect in order to qualify for the British film tax credit (read: free taxpayer money) which requires productions to pass a British cultural test (how the other Marvel films passed I just don’t know), I like to think the Avengers were fighting giant space haggises. Given how terrible Marvel has shoehorned British locations to get their tax credits, I reckon for the next Marvel film it’ll probably be shot in Blackpool where Captain America wears a knotted handkerchief, Thor judges a knobbly knee competition, and the Hulk becomes a ballroom dancing champion…

Flashbacks to my time in VFX came flooding back to me.. Hope Marvel’s Avengers enjoyed a nice cup of coffee while saving the universe from mutant space haggises.
Marvel was in town for over THREE weeks…
.. which meant that the section they closed involved a LOT of steps or significant detours up and down hills to get around them..

I’ll be talking more about various movies in the coming posts – particularly Skyfall, Harry Potter (I went to Hogwarts – but not the version I worked on), Downton Abbey and Angel’s Share (a Ken Loach film).

A Day in London

Every year I try to spend at least one day in London as a tourist to see what’s what with our nation’s capital.

So for this Easter weekend, I stayed at the Premier Inn York Way that’s just opposite King’s Cross station.  It’s conveniently located to everything – there’s a Tesco Metro just around the corner if you’re looking for snacks and drinks, but the Premier Inn itself has its own steak restaurant and Costa Coffee if you’re feeling peckish.  I decided to buy a Meal Deal for the two nights I was staying – this entitles you to a 2-course dinner and breakfast.  Breakfast is an all-you-can-eat buffet-style service and offers free Costa Coffee alongside the usual fare.  The restaurant offers a great choice of meals – I enjoyed the 8oz Sirloin for the first night and a very generous portion of fish and chips for the second.

Sock choice is important if you’re visiting London.

I booked a Big Bus tour for the Saturday and picked up the green route bus from directly outside of King’s Cross station which took me to Waterloo where I changed to the red route.

This was an opportunity to test out my new camera kit before I take it on my P&O cruise coming up later this year.  I have got to say that I absolutely bloody love my Sony RX100 M5 compact camera.  I’ve had the M3 and M4 (albeit briefly) and found them to be worthy cameras – but the M5 knocks my socks off with just how easy it is to use.  The autofocus and shutter speed on this thing is so fast and accurate (even in full auto mode) that practically all photos have come out super sharp.  When you’re on a bus, you’re a limited amount of time to frame and take a picture – and when you’re moving, it’s even more difficult!  But the Sony RX100 M5 is just a beautiful, beautiful piece of kit.

King’s Cross Station – where my adventures started

The camcorder, the Sony FDR-AX53, is also a wonderful bit of kit.  I haven’t had a chance to get to edit together the footage, but it’s super sharp and the sound (especially using the external hot-shoe microphone with dead cat) is spot on.

The London Eye, taken while the bus was travelling at a fair pace along the Embankment

The bus tour itself was hugely informative.  The blue route has earphone-based audio commentary (as it’s intended for multi-lingual tours), but the red route has a live English guide.  Both routes weren’t packed, and I even got to sit up front at one point which allowed me to take some great photos (albeit slightly reflective).

I was giving serious contemplation to taking a Duck Tours trip, but decided to leave this until another time

London itself was doing very well.  Despite that absolutely horrible atrocity that happened at Westminister recently, people were out in full force.

Westminister Bridge
Richard the Lionheart at Westminister. This shot really surprised me, since the bus was moving at speed and I just literally pointed it generally in the statue’s direction & hit the shutter button. It came out much better than I could have ever hoped.

I also used my “backup” phone, a OnePlus 3T, that I bought that I’m intending to use with the Samsung Galaxy S8+.  I wanted to have a spare phone in case I smash, lose or – heaven forbid – have the S8+ stolen.

The 3T is a lovely Android phone.  It’s much, much cheaper than most other flagship phones – but it has a decent spec that doesn’t compromise on anything.  My only complaint with it is that updating the thing is a pain in the rear end, and the battery life isn’t super great.  But it charges exceptionally fast using the proprietary Dash charger.  That said, the camera is pretty decent, and it’s now running the latest version of Android.

The following photos were taken on the OnePlus 3T as were passing Knightsbridge and other posher parts of the London.  As with all photos on this blog, click to enlarge – but please be aware that for optimisation purposes (to make things load faster), all photos have been lossy compressed on upload to the blog.  They should all look pretty decent, though,  I’m looking to make them all available in original formats at some point soon.

Heading back to Westminister and the Sony RX100 M5:

Not the Nine O’Clock News.
A recently wedded couple taking a horse drawn carriage just by the Queen’s stables.
This made me chuckle a lot more than it should have.
National Gallery, St. Martins-in-the-Field, Trafalgar Square & the Canadian High Commission in a single photo
Directly opposite Downing Street

It was a good day, and I look forward to spending more time in London next year – perhaps more than a day.  When I was booking back in January I completely neglected to notice it was Easter weekend.  That said, everything was open and it wasn’t as busy as I thought it would be.

Smoke me a haggis, I’ll be back for breakfast..

(To paraphrase Ace Rimmer from the popular television series, Red Dwarf)

If the overall theme of last year was gadgets, the theme for this year is wellbeing & travelling.  I’ve just booked all the bits and bobs for a 9 day trip to Edinburgh – one of my favourite places on this tiny island that I call home.

I’m starting in London – staying two nights at a local Premier Inn and having a full day to explore the capital.  I like doing something like this every so often – trying either annually or at least every two years to get out and about around the capital to see what’s what.  London is huge, and despite living on the outer edges of the place for approximately half my life, there are still many things to see and do.  For example, I’ve never been to the Tower of London.  I’ve not been up the Shard.  So those two are on my list.

After my full day in London, it’s first class all the way on a train up to Edinburgh. I’ll be staying at The Hub by Premier Inn again – after such a great experience last time, I’d be a fool not to – and especially when the overall cost works out at £38 a day  – including breakfast.

I’ve got a rough itinerary worked out for the nine days – including hiking up to Arthur’s Seat that overlooks the whole city.  A trip to see the Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith.  A day trip to see Loch Ness and the surrounding area.  Another trip to some whisky distilleries.  A day trip to Glasgow.  A day at Edinburgh Zoo – I’m a member, so makes sense for me to go visit when I can get in at a discounted rate.  And another trip to Edinburgh Castle.  Amongst other things.

Stay tuned – I’ll be sure to blog about it as and when.