There’s a lot of magic in Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, from the eponymous beasts to the secret community of witches and wizards in 1920s New York where the film is set. But unfortunately for us muggles (non-magical people) creating the visual effects to bring JK Rowling’s story to life didn’t come at the wave of a wand.
The Drum met with one of the real life wizards behind the Oscar nominated film, Framestore creative director and VFX supervisor Christian Manz, to find out how he crafted the magic.
How early on in the film making process did the creation of the VFX begin, and how did you move from ideas to creation?
I started on the film at the very start of preproduction - eight months before filming began. We were tasked with designing the Fantastic Beasts themselves as well as the key action set pieces they would be involved in.
Starting with the descriptions in JK Rowling's script, as well as the book, we had a team of concept artists tasked with coming up with designs. Director David Yates wanted them to be fantastic but not fantasy - realistic enough that you could believe they would exist in the real world. We moved quite a few of the designs into animation tests - building simple models and finding their characters through situations derived from the script.
We also had a team of previsualisation artists working with us who helped us create the action for scenes involving the Niffler, Erumpent [some of the Fantastic Beasts] and Newt's [Scamander, the film’s protagonist] briefcase amongst others. These were key references for David when shooting the actual scenes on set with the actors.
How daunting is the prospect of creating a whole new world, particularly given how precious Harry Potter is to many fans?
It was a great privilege to be part of bringing JK Rowling's world back to the cinema screens but also, as you say, a little daunting. We wanted to make sure we created creatures that lived up to the expectations of the audience in both character and design. All of the background magic was something I really enjoyed in the Harry Potter films as it made the world feel more real - it was really fun to add these details into the various magical scenes.
How have you enhanced the VFX since you worked on Harry Potter? What different challenges occurred?
The world of VFX has moved on to the point where almost everything is possible - the biggest challenge now is thinking of innovative ideas and ways of portraying them.
The advancements in the tools we used as well as the talents of the artists we collaborated with meant that we were able to show David our ideas in a fully rounded way quicker than we could have done five years ago. I supervised the Dobby and Kreacher characters for [Harry Potter and the] Deathly Hallows Part One, and for Fantastic Beasts we were able to offer a first look at our Gnarlak Goblin character in about a quarter of the time.
Why did you make the decision not shoot in New York where the film is set and how did you go about creating the VFX to get around this?
It was decided fairly early on that we wouldn't shoot in New York itself - the city now is very different from what it looked like in 1926. Production designer Stuart Craig also felt a more cohesive look could be achieved by creating our own streets.
A nine-acre set was built on the backlot at Leavesden Studios and we collaborated heavily with Stuart and the art department in realising his vision for the look of the city in our digital extensions.
We did an extensive two-month photo shoot in New York to gather period building textures and combined these with those from the set piece. The set represented four key areas - Downtown, Tribeca, Tenements and Brownstones. Along with practical redressing we digitally revamped the streets to contain different buildings, signage, crowd and vehicles in multiple scenes.
The film is obviously full of creatures, can you talk me through the different stages of creation, and how the production process worked?
As described above the process was a very creative one involving the collaboration of concept artists, animators and previs teams. We wanted to make sure the creatures were unique in look and could also carry out the action required of them in their scenes.
Artwork was turned into 3D sculpts, which were then put through their paces in animation tests; their performances and character were as important as the actors. Once David was happy with the look of a creature we then worked with a team of puppeteers and the props department to create simple puppets for Eddie Redmayne and the cast to interact with - these became invaluable in making the performance between human and Fantastic Beast as authentic as possible.
What did you do if a creature design didn’t work?
We created a lot of creatures that didn't make it to the finished film - our design process meant that we were able to show David various beasts in animation and in context of a scene. Often with this type of work the best ideas and designs come out of being brave enough to leave the less good ones behind.
Which sequence was the most complicated to create and why?
The interior of Newt's case was the most complex to create. We again worked closely with Stuart Craig as he designed the set and we created the multiple creatures. David Yates wanted the scene to be as immersive as possible and for each animal to have a story.
We created a detailed previs over several months – which was used as a blueprint for the shoot – whilst allowing David flexibility in finessing the scene with the actors on the day. Six VFX studios in London, Montreal and Vancouver created the finished shots, sometimes playing in the same one.
This meant a lot of collaboration between teams and a huge amount of data flying around the globe. I was able to show David different sections of each shot as they were in progress but we had to wait to the very end of the schedule to see the jigsaw finally put together. It was sometimes nerve wracking but the finished result was a testament to everyone's hard work.