Set Visit : Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

On the 19th November 2010 a very different kind of ”Harry Potter” film will reach cinemas worldwide with the release of ”Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1”.

We reconvene with Harry, Hermonie and Ron, who are feeling increasingly isolated and hunted by the forces of evil. In previous installments there has always been the the refuge of Hogwarts, ringed by magical protection and staffed by the most powerful and well meaning teachers in the wizarding world, who our heroes could turn to if their adventures became too much to handle, much as any child should feel the safety net of the adult world if needed. However, recent developments have shown that Hogwarts can be infiltrated, first by Delores Umbridge in ”The Order of the Phoenix” then besieged by Death Eaters in ”The Half Blood Prince”, when finally the world’s most powerful wizard and Harry’s protector, headmaster Albus Dumbledore is shockingly murdered. This leaves our trio of heroes on their own and on the run for most of the film, denied the comfort that they would find in family or friends as offering help will be met with dire consequences. The children have now become the protectors of their parents, and the stakes are rising as childish distractions must be put aside. What we have left is an extremely focused race to the conclusion of the story, a mission with clear purpose in the discovery and destruction of the horcruxes and the the whole wizarding world to be rescued from the grasp of evil. It promises to be a thrilling ride.

Moviehole was granted access to the set of ”The Deathly Hallows” and spent time with the actors and filmmakers before, during and after the shooting of the film, but was also allowed to observe some controversial choices firsthand which have been the subject of gossip and whispers by other media outlets. We took the time to set the record straight and ask the filmmakers directly.

It seems to this onlooker that the production of ”Deathly Hallows” has been slightly more turbulent behind the scenes than previous installments. To begin with, the simple translation of ‘one book = one film’ has been put aside in favour of two films, which was greeted by some naysayers online as an attempt by the studio to drink twice from the well. However, to anyone who has read the books and appreciated the increasing complexity of the plot, the development of the characters (not to mention the accompanying page count), it was clear that either the film would have to be a bum-numbing epic, be split into 2 films or be editing down to a typical feature film length and loose a lot of the nuance. It really would have been a shame to have rushed through the plot, without giving the audience the chance to say goodbye to these characters who we have grown up with over the past decade. Producer David Barron explains “From the fourth book {The Goblet of Fire} onwards we’ve looked at each one and asked ‘Is this two films or one?’ and in each of the previous cases we have decided that there was insuccificent story to warrant 2 films. There’s lots of character and colour… lovely things like Ron’s Quidditch in the 5th film, we had to cut that out as it was colour and character rather than story. But when it came to the 7th book we just couldn’t fit it in”. Screenwriter Steve Kloves has said that in this book, everything is relevant, so the decision was made that two films did justice to the finale.

The studio allowed the films to be shot back-to-back with no clear decision being made at the time of shooting where part 1 will end and part 2 begin. “Its a huge benefit really because we get to interchange things if we want to and we can decide in the editing room where the split will occur” David Barron explains. “When we first started the development process we all had different ideas as to where it should split. But, luckily because we’re shooting both films back to back… we don’t actually have to decide at the moment, which is a luxury that we wouldn’t have had if we were shooting them singly”. This seemed at the very least highly unusual, but at the same time entirely logical. You never can tell how a film will turn out exactly until its assembled and only in experiencing it can you tell if its emotionally satisfying to say “part 1 ends here”. The studio should be commended for allowing both Parts 1 & 2 to be shot together and allowing the film to dictate where the split occurs. Of course, the curmudgeon in the room would also point out that its probably cheaper to film continuously, rather than pay the production costs for two separate films.

Next came the decision to release the film in 3D. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) admits “we didn’t hear until halfway through shooting that they were going to be able to put it in 3D” and David Yates (Director of ‘Harry Potter’ from film 5 onwards) seemed extremely cautious about the idea when we spoke on set. “We only decided to go to 3D very late in the process, so it was never really a consideration while we were preparing the films, it kind of came late.” Reading between the lines it seems that pressure was put on him from above to turn it into a 3D film, possibly from Warner Bros, who had enjoyed a remarkable opening weekend just two weeks previous with their 3D ”Clash of the Titans” remake. Its clear from Yates’ previous contributions to the ”Harry Potter” franchise that story, character and emotion are carefully thought out, and it seemed that he really hadn’t been able to pair those concerns with the flavour of the week: a 3D spectacle of a film. He seemed in an awkward position where he couldn’t change the way he was shooting the film halfway through when the decision was made, suddenly having things flying towards the screen without creating a jarring effect, and the artistic side of his nature questioned whether it was right to be doing such things in a Harry Potter film anyway. “We’ll use it in a very subtle way” he concedes, “…and in a way ‘Potter’ has worked perfectly well in the past without 3D. I think what it will do is enhance some of the bigger set pieces we’ve got…for a lot of the subtler more emotional scenes I’m not sure what it quite brings. I’m just wondering if there’s a very creative application of it basically, if we’re going to use it to enhance story, to enhance character rather than it just looking cool…. But I think, 3D you have to use it with real caution. My biggest concern about it is if you overuse it it can push the audience away from the emotional experience rather than pull them into it”. We left the topic with Yates saying that “I’m intrigued, but approaching it carefully”.

However, what has happened between then and now is that a dialogue has been initiated across all levels of the industry, led by the fact that that movie audiences have started to discuss ‘good 3D’ and ‘bad 3D’. The studios have certainly fed the public’s newfound desire for 3D films, and the movie-going public have moved from being mere consumers to becoming connoisseurs. The general consensus being that in retrospect the kind of conversion that was done on ‘Titans’ is seen as “bad 3D”. At a recent public forum even filmmaker and 3D innovator James Cameron chimed in with “I maintain you can’t do a good conversion of a two-hour movie with high quality in a few weeks like they tried to do with ‘Clash of the Titans’. I don’t mean to throw that movie under the bus …but I think everybody realised that this was a point at which people had gone too far.” Blockbuster maestro Michael Bay estimates that converting a 2D film into 3D in post production costs $120,000 to $150,000 per minute, and questions the point of doing so when the finished effect “kind of sucks”.

Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, Warner Bros. have recently announced that “Despite everyone’s best efforts, we were unable to convert the film in its entirety and meet the highest standards of quality.” James Cameron’s personal take on it was a little less forgiving, “You see another stumble with the most recent Harry Potter movie from the same studio making the same mistake – except really getting spanked for it now because they didn’t get the film done. They announced it in 3D – threw a bunch of money trying to convert it to 3D in post-production and it simply didn’t work” whilst concluding that “…Post conversion should be used for one thing and one thing only – which is to take library titles that are favourites that are proven, and convert them into 3D – whether it’s Jaws or ET or Indiana Jones, Close Encounters… or Titanic.” Of course, his opinion has nothing to do with the investment that he has made in developing 3D cameras, and he seems to forget that audiences are vocal in their dismay at tampering with ‘the classics’, or the practice of double dipping to get more money from the audience. However he does get points for placing one of his own films amongst the greatest films of the modern age, its nice to see the ego is still functioning.

So, in this case it appears that Warner Bros have indeed done exactly what is right for the film on all counts. They have listening to the artistic vision of the director and the expectations of quality from the audience, and put aside the promise of a few extra bucks per ticket that they could charge for a 3D film. Part two of ”The Deathly Hallows” is intended to be released in both 2D and 3D next year, with the time between films being used to get the 3D conversion executed right. For those that want something a little extra from their Harry Potter experience, the film will also be released in IMAX, and I for one will be be taking advantage of this, for very geeky reasons…

When the ”Harry Potter” films are done and dusted, they should be recognised for giving a Production Designer the opportunity to create more of a world than any other undertaking in film history. The unique structure of the series (returning to familiar setting such as Hogworts but expanding the world outside the walls with each film), as well as the deal to occupy Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire uninterrupted for a decade, has allowed a team to build on a grand scale. Sets haven’t been torn down and props discarded or sold as is commonplace on films, on ‘Harry Potter’ they’ve just been moved out of the way until needed again. This has resulted in an incredibly immersive world, at the centre of which stands Production Designer Stuart Craig like some kind of hybrid Artist/ God creating his own reality. Craig admits “My secret ambition has been to improve”. This is a tall order for the three time Oscar winner (eight times nominee), who also happens to have been awarded an Order of the British Empire. He has also been responsible creating memorable worlds for two of my personal favourite films, ‘The Elephant Man’ and ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, and it is for his contribution above all others that I will be seeing the film in IMAX; I want to see every detail.

As these are the final films in the series, I use the opportunity to speak to him about his approach for the franchise. “We’ve treated it almost like a period piece. In the magical world they don’t need technology, so technology seems to have stopped around the 1950s, about 1955 – the Hogwarts Express is a 1950s steam engine. They just don’t need it [technology] because they have magic. Also its very important to establish the great antiquity of Hogwarts, the fact that its this thousand year old institution and so we’ve very consciously gone for medieval gothic style in architecture, furniture and so on”.

He remembers the early days, prepping for ”The Philosophers Stone” back in 2000, when the franchise was more of a wild gamble and the budget was somewhat leaner “As we’ve gone on we’re been able to build our own world, it was impossible in the beginning, we couldn’t afford it and didn’t have the space for it…we used a lot of real locations and took our inspiration from things that we found”. The unprecedented success of the first film (just shy of $1 billion worldwide box-office) gave him the resources to continue and now “…with so many sets already standing we can afford to build almost our entire world.”

I ask him to explain what he means by ‘improve’, and he uses Hogwarts as an example. The earlier films placed some flaws in his work “In the early days we shot on location quite a lot, so Hogwarts was an amalgam of a bit of Christ Church College Oxford, a bit of Durham Cathedral, a bit of Gloucester Catherdral all kind of slammed together, and actually that didn’t make for a very satisfactory, whole thing. The silhouette of it, the profile, design-wise wasn’t as graphic and as strong as it could have been.” Since managing to get things more under control at Leavesden Studios however, “I’ve taken every opportunity to revisit that and improve it, so I’m much more pleased with Hogwarts as it appears in [films] 5, 6 and 7, than I am in 1 and 2.”If anyone points out that the school looks different he has a good answer prepared: “Its a magical world! Its an easy cop-out actually – Nobody to my mind as really minded very strongly, I know there are legions of people who adore pointing out continuity errors, but this has been quite a deliberate re-invention sometimes to accommodate a new story, and to improve.”

If the success of the previous films are any indication, we’ll all be able to judge whether improvements have been made this weekend when ”The Deathly Hallows – part 1” is released. The world will be watching.

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