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.

I. AM. (G)ROOT!

In lieu of a lunch date last week (unfortunately my companion was not able to make it), I took myself to the cinema.  Despite not getting much use of the Odeon Limitless pass last year, I’ve nevertheless decided to renew (albeit paying monthly rather than one lump sum) as even if I can try to aim for two movies a month, it’s still ever so slightly cheaper than the full ticket price.

So I went and saw James Gunn’s Guardian of the Galaxy, Vol 2,  and I have to say I’ve never had such a great time at the cinema watching a movie.  It is a FUN film.   A fun, fun, film.  It never takes itself too seriously for the most part, but for even for the hardest of hearts, you’ll be shedding a tear by the end.  I have never laughed so hard at any film before – and the audience loved it too.  The gang are back – Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Baby Groot and Rocket Racoon – but this time they’re joined by Yondu and Mantis.   I’ll say nothing of the plot, other than it essentially picks up from the first film and explores Star Lord’s paternity.  The film is peppered throughout with a stonking soundtrack, picked out by Gunn himself, and the use of John Lennon’s Oh My Lord and Cat Steven’s Father & Son is just beautiful – as is the opening titles featuring ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky.  You’ll be wanting to download the full playlist from Apple Music (or Spotify) afterwards and play it over and over again.  A soundtrack selection like this hasn’t been this good since Harold & Maude (which made very heavy use of Cat Steven’s repertoire) – and of course the original Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 1.  James Gunn has said on social media that he’s aware of, and is trying to get UHD release of GotG Vol 2 – if so, this would mark the first Marvel Studios film to get one, and given how colourful and epic the cinematography is in this film – would be the right way to view the film at home.

Almost immediately afterwards I went and saw Alien: Covenant (or as my autocorrect likes to call it, Alien: Convenient!).  I know a lot of people didn’t enjoy Prometheus, but I liked it.  It’s nice to try and provide a back story to the origins of everything that’s happened up until the original 1979 Alien, and Alien: Covenant takes that further – but tries to get back to its horror roots.  We have chestbursters, backbusters, vomitbursters and all sorts in this one.  There are some very effective scares brought on by a wonderful sound mix.  I’m not a person to jump out my skin easily, but there were at least two points in the film I did so (as I’m sure did the audience, when they weren’t playing with their bloody mobile phones) – mainly due to the sound design.  If this film is going to win anything, it’ll be for sound design and VFX (by my former employers, MPC, of course).  Alien: Covenant is an intriguing film – and if you’re a fan of the original Alien I’d recommend it.  It doesn’t quite have the same impact (when you seen one chestbuster, you’ve seen them all), and the characters are definitely not the sharpest tools in the box.  But it makes for an entertaining 2 hours romping through the mythology of Alien and preparing us for the third and final prequel in the trilogy.  As a side note – it’s interesting that this film has been rated 15.  It features a fair amount of gore – but I suspect as technology has improved, audiences have become wiser to how things work and these things are just not as shocking or as bad as they seem back in the olden days of filmmaking.

On the home entertainment front, I watched A Monster Calls on iTunes.  It is a magnificent effort in storytelling – simply a beautiful, wonderful film.  Essentially it tells of a young boy who is being bullied at school and is being raised by his mother, who is dying of terminal cancer, summoning a monster – a walking and talking yew tree that comes to life.  The monster tells the boy that he will tell him three tales, but the boy must tell the monster a fourth tale, which is the nightmare the boy has been suffering from each night.  That nightmare is of a church and graveyard falling into a massive hole, with his mother holding on to her son for dear life.  This is, of course, a symbolism of the boy losing his mother to cancer.   A Monster Calls treats the subject matter very well indeed: how do you cope with the forthcoming loss of your mother?  It made me appreciate the 24 years I had with my mum before she passed away back in 2000.  It was maybe because of this that I cried – hard – throughout the film.

A Monster Calls treats the subject matter sensitively, and is well handled: how do you cope with the forthcoming loss of your mother?  It made me appreciate the 24 years I had with my mum before she passed away back in 2000.  It was maybe because of this that I cried – hard – throughout the film.  It brought up memories, and that as my mum started become ill and weaker, that I had to prepare for the inevitable.  That sort of thing was very hard – and the film serves as a reminder for that.

The tales that the monster (which is voiced and whose motion capture performance is by Liam Neeson) tells the boy are beautiful animations that resemble watercolours – traditional fairytales but with a bit of twist to them – and that forms a relevance in the boy’s life.  A Monster Calls combines fantasy and realism in such a natural manner that even you’ll forget what’s real and what’s not.  A beautiful film that deserves all the praise it can get.

And finally on to Passengers.  I had heard a lot about this film (none of it good).  But I very much enjoyed it.  It provides us with a big dilemma – if you were on a long voyage in which you had to be put into hibernation, but the system fails halfway until you get there, and you can’t go back under – what do you do?  You have to live the rest of your life on the ship.   This is the dilemma faced by Jim Preston, a passenger on the Avalon on the route to a new homeworld.  He’s woken up 90 years too early by a fault in his hibernation pod.  He’s the only human being around – the ship is fully automated (but due to damage caused by a meteor storm, various parts of the ship start to fall to bits).  His only companions are an android bartender (played by Martin Sheen), and the restaurant robots.  As he’s an engineer, he tries to figure out his situation – and tries to wake up the crew, but is prevented from doing so due to security barriers. After wondering through the hibernation bays (there are some 5,000 passengers in total) he comes across Aurora, a beautiful young woman.  He starts to think.  He’s all alone.  But if he was to wake somebody, it would essentially be condemning them to death – they wouldn’t reach their destination alive, and going back to Earth would result in the same fate.   I won’t go any further into the plot – but needless to say, it becomes a bit of a rollercoaster ride from that point onwards.  It’s a bit like Titanic in Space meets Pixar’s Wall-E (ironically Wall-E’s composer, Thomas Newman, also scores this film).  Enjoyable film.

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).

The curse of the digital tiger!

When Life of Pi won the best visual effects Oscar back in 2013, it was a bittersweet victory.  Shortly after the win, the industry saw the collapse of the VFX studio, Rhythm and Hues.  Lots of people lost their jobs.

The following 30 minute documentary explains what happened, and why.

I was checking Twitter yesterday and came across the following tweets:

followed by:

.. which is incredibly disturbing if true. The tweets come from the VFX chapter of BECTU (which is the media & entertainment union here in the UK). I have no reason to disbelieve them as a result.  More information can be found here.

MPC have been fighting unionisation over the past couple of years, but it is nevertheless one of the few companies where employees are members of a union (via BECTU). The VFX sector is one area of the film industry where unionisation has been extremely difficult. Given the costs of VFX which is a highly labour intensive industry, many VFX companies operate to extremely small profit margins. Unionisation is highly unattractive to these companies, and to their clients.

I’ve been talking to a few VFX companies over the past couple of years and my view is that the picture remains bleak, with limited technical resources and staffing costs being a big concern. The smaller boutique companies have had to combine resources to be able to survive (Cinesite & Image Engine springs to mind). For those going alone, you’ll find one member of staff doing one or more jobs. Even the bigger companies have merged (Double Negative with India’s Prime Focus), or bought out (Framestore with China’s Cultural Investment Holdings Co.). And VFX continues to produce significant losses – whether through expansion/R&D (Digital Domain (now owned by a Hong Kong firm) losses double at $64 million) or other means.

Meanwhile, the big corporations that run the film studios continue to get free taxpayer money through the use of film credits for filming or utilising resources in a particular country. Both Britain and Canada are currently the winners in the tax credits game – the US, not so much. It seems the US is not able or willing to financially support its own industry for whatever reason. Just bizarre.

I love film & TV, but bloody hell, the whole industry is a mess. Heavily reliant on state handouts, if this continues we’ll likely to see massive redundancies across the creative industries as film companies go bust. What cost to the UK taxpayer to keep our film industry alive and well?

I am very disappointed with my former employers if the redundancies/replacing with less experienced workers issue is true. It’s bad for the client, bad for the taxpayer, and more so – super bad for those who are being replaced – who took the company an Oscar and BAFTA victory.

It seems to me that any VFX company that provides a CG tiger (Life of Pi & The Jungle Book) and wins a major award is likely to let people go afterwards – for whatever reason. The Walking Dead recently featured a CG tiger – let’s hope it doesn’t win award. If it does, pray for the VFX people on that show. Perhaps the bad luck has to be balanced out by creating two CG magpies? Or better yet – sort out the tax credits issues which is leading the industry to this sorry state, and start making these companies profitable again.

All this has lead to another documentary being made, “Hollywood’s Greatest Trick” in which artists tell of their experience within the VFX industry.

The VFX of The Jungle Book

Update: The Jungle Book won the 2017 BAFTA for Best Special Visual Effects.

In the run up to the various film awards, here’s a look at the VFX of The Jungle Book with Adam Valdez, a VFX Supervisor at The Moving Picture Company (for whom I used to work).

The Jungle Book took a plethora of trophies at the recent Visual Effects Society Awards, so I reckon they stand a good chance at this year’s BAFTAs and Oscars.  I sincerely hope MPC win – it would be another major award for them, and deservedly so.  I’m also betting on Kubo and the Two Strings, a beautiful animated film from independent studio Laika that also deserves to win for their technical and creative achievements.

MPC are currently working on Jon Favreau’s “live” adaptation of The Lion King.