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UK vfx work on Harry Potter

Five of London’s leading vfx facilities have spent much of the last year working on sequences in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.

As is commonplace in vfx-heavy big budget movies, work is shared out to a handful of different companies – in this case, a who’s who of the UK’s vfx facilities – Framestore, MPC, Cinesite, Double Negative and Baseblack. Added to this, there were other vfx houses in India, USA and Australia working on the title too.

Here’s a round-up of the UK vfx work on Harry Potter.

Framestore worked on 110 vfx shots, mostly involving two elves – Dobby and Kreacher, which are apparently both house-elves. Framestore’s vfx supervisor Christian Manz says the Framestore team of up to 60 vfx artists spent 16 months of “toil and creation” to complete its sequences on the film.

Framestore’s elves are keyframe animated rather than motion capture animated to be able to “carefully craft emotive and believable human performances from careful observation of a variety of sources,” says Manz.

The vfx facility concentrated on tweaking the appearance of both Dobby and Kreacher, compared to how they looked in previous Harry Potter films. Some of their more grotesque features were “softened out”, so Dobby’s neck was smoothed out, his arms shortened and his eyes were made less saucer-like. Meanwhile, Kreacher’s nose was shortened and his ears trimmed.

As well as the elves, Framestore was involved in a three-minute animated interlude in the film, which comes in when Hermione begins reading aloud from The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

A 37-strong team assembled from Framestore’s commercials vfx wing, led by sequence supervisor Dale Newton, worked on the animation, inspired by stop-frame silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger, who animated from the 1920s to the 1950s. Working in Maya, Framestore emulated the characters and motion of Reiniger’s hand-cut paper silhouettes.

Cinesite’s work centred on three key elements – Lord Voldemort’s snake-like nose, the ghost of Dumbledore and a Patronus doe.

It replaced Ralph Fiennes’ nose area with Lord Voldemort’s cg snout throughout 46 shots, which involved having to build a rig with three layers of animation controls to enable all the 16 tracking markers attached to Fiennes’ head to be exploited.

For Dumbledore’s ghost, Cinesite took a clean plate of the corridor in which the ghost appears and a green screen plate of Sir Michael Gambon and generated a digi-double of Gambon’s character. The digi-double was match-moved to Gambon and projected back on to his green screen performance to create the desired effect.

The Patronus doe appears in the film in the form of a light expanding into a semi-formed character. To achieve the effect, Cinesite generated a fully-rigged photo-real animated cg doe.

Cinesite also worked on additional effects such as a cg wreath of Christmas roses that are conjured up by Hermione at Harry’s parents’ grave.

MPC completed over 180 shots on the film. A good deal of its work went into the transformation sequence where six members of the order of Phoenix take a polyjuice potion and assume Harry’s form to confuse Voldemort.

For this sequence, MPC had to create fully cg versions of the six characters. The actors were motion captured, including a facial motion capture shoot, to provide the level of detail required.

MPC’s concept artists then tried out different ways to best achieve the visual effect of the transformation, blending features, sizes and skin textures from Harry and the other characters. A custom rigging system controlling the blending of data from the facial capture shoot provided the animators with control over the finer details.

Other characters created by MPC include cg thestrals (a cross between a horse and a dragon) and over 100 cg characters for the Death Eaters’ chase scene, including full screen digi-doubles for Harry, Hagrid and the Death Eaters.

It also worked on set extensions, and vfx work including explosions, wand effects, cg water and a bike crash during a wand duel between Harry and Voldemort.


The smallest of the UK facilities to work on the movie, Baseblack, ended up doing the largest number of shots. It worked on 45 sequences and over 300 shots, including every appearance of the Golden Snitch and all work on the final scene of the film, involving a huge lightning storm and Dumbledore’s tomb.

It also created the effects for spells such as Obliviate, the Deluminator and Lumos, the Horcrux Locket’s underwater attack on Harry, a wand shoot out in a café, Hermione’s magic handbag and moving photos in newspapers, as well as major background replacement throughout the film.

Double Negative

Double Negative’s work on the film was mostly focused on set and environment extensions. It extended the Burrows and its surrounds and also extended Xenophilus Lovegood’s home.

In addition to this, Double Negative added an extra dimension to the Death Eaters, introducing a ‘flayed man’ stage between their fuid, flying state and their live-action presence when they land. Double Negative also created the Patronus charm that interrupts a wedding party to inform guests Voldemort has taken over the Ministry of Magic.

Posted 26 November 2010 by Jake Bickerton

REVIEW : Veebeam HD

Online catch-up TV services, YouTube, LoveFilm streaming, etc, all mean more and more TV content being viewed on laptops rather than on TV. The small laptop screen and tinny laptop sound is a less than enticing viewing experience compared to TV so the Veebeam – a newly released consumer device – aims to put laptop content back on TV.

The makers of Veebeam sent Televisual one of its £139 Veebeam HD devices to see what we thought. Out of the box, the first impressions are favourable - it’s a fairly small, agreeably designed piece of hardware that sits relatively unobtrusively next to the TV.

The first task to get it up and running is to connect the Veebeam to your TV, which, with the HD version, is via an HDMI cable. An SD version is also available (for £99) that uses a composite a/v cable rather than HDMI.

Next up is installing the Veebeam software. It works on a Mac or PC, and you can install it on as many laptops as you have in your home.

Slotted into the Veebeam is a removable USB antenna that you take out and plug into your laptop. Then you have to sit your laptop in line of sight of the Veebeam, and no more than 10 metres away, and wait a few moments for the two to make a connection.

Once connected, your laptop screen is mirrored on the TV, so you can start full-screen streaming from iPlayer, YouTube or whatever and it’s all shown on your TV. The audio also comes out of your TV speakers, so it’s a very TV-like viewing experience.

The Veebeam software also installs a Veebeam player that, rather than mirroring your laptop screen on TV, ‘sends’ movie files stored on your hard drive to the Veebeam, making it possible to watch them on TV while still being able to use your laptop.

The Veebeam HD player enables high-quality 1080p HD files to be displayed in full-res on your TV, but currently Mac users can only use the player for .mov and .mp4 files. Other commonly used file formats, such as .avi files, aren’t presently supported. Veebeam says this will come in a future version of the Mac software, while the PC player already works with a much broader range of file formats.

Having used the Veebeam fairly extensively for the last few days, overall I’d say it’s a useful device. It’s very straightforward to get up and running and is much less cumbersome than connecting a display port to HDMI adapter and HDMI cable to a MacBook (along with a set of speakers as the display port adapter doesn’t carry sound for some reason) every time you want to watch laptop-hosted content on TV.

As long as you keep the laptop in line of sight, the Veebeam link seems to work fine. There’s a delay of a few seconds in whatever you do on your laptop being shown on TV – it’s not instant as it is when using cables – so this takes a bit of getting used to. And you’ll want to point your laptop screen away from you as it’s pretty distracting seeing the content a few seconds ahead out the corner of your eye on the laptop screen.

Not having a good range of movie files supported for the Mac Veebeam player is frustrating as using ‘screencasting’ (ie. displaying the laptop screen on the TV) ties up your laptop so you can't use it for anything else.

The Veebeam’s image quality – even when streaming from online catch-up services (assuming you’ve a reasonable broadband speed) – is consistently good, and downloaded 1080p HD files look suitably impressive on the TV screen, not dissimilar to watching a Blu-ray.

The main issue for Veebeam will be how long it will be relevant. Once the likes of YouView are available, Veebeam may well struggle to get much of a look in.

Veebeam Overview from Veebeam on Vimeo.

Posted 22 November 2010 by Jake Bickerton

Creative iPhone gadgets

Japanese artist Jitsuro Mase has created an innovative iPhone/iPad gadget that turns the iPhone/iPad into a nifty little handheld 3d cinema.

Dubbed the i3dg, Mase’s device uses mirrors set at 45-degree angles to project mini movies into the space around your iPhone or iPad. You don’t need any special equipment or polarised lenses or anything to view the 3d projections.

The visuals are created in a layout corresponding to the position of the mirrors and Mase has already created dozens of animations that show off the i3dg's capabilities. A series of i3dg films and animations are being shown at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2011, early next year.

To see clips from some of these animations and find out how the i3dg works, see the video below.

While we’re on the iPhone, here’s another interesting device to maximise its creative potential. The Owle Bubo slots around the iPhone 4 to further enhance the 720p video capturing capabilities of the phone - providing it with a custom 37mm wide-angle lens, a high-quality microphone, and the ability to use any 37mm thread lens.

According to Owle, the Bubo gives the iPhone 4 “better colour saturation, contrast and sharpness, crystal clear sound and hugely reduced hand jitter”. It also makes it possible to use interchangeable 37mm lenses.

The Owle Bubo for iPhone 4 costs £150, or bundled with a Rotolight RL48-A, Rotolight Stand and belt pouch costs £275. For more information, go here

Posted 19 November 2010 by Jake Bickerton

Pro Tools 9 - the lowdown

Following the launch of Pro Tools 9 earlier this month, Avid held an audio event for press yesterday to run through and demo the newly improved functionality of the industry-standard audio toolkit.

The overwhelming feeling following the event is the latest version is quite a leap forward in providing users with options for using Pro Tools with a much wider assortment of control panels and audio interfaces, or even on the move on a laptop with no hardware at all.

One of the key upgrades as part of Pro Tools 9 is it is now available as a software-only version. This is the first time it’s been available as a standalone piece of software, enabling full access to Pro Tools for audio prepping, mixing and editing on a laptop.

Another significant improvement is Pro Tools 9 now supports a much broader range of control surfaces (through the Avid EUCON open Ethernet protocol), including (naturally) Avid’s newly acquired Euphonix consoles and controllers, which have been rebranded as Avid Artist Series and Pro Series consoles.

Added to this, Pro Tools 9 also supports a much larger range of audio I/O interfaces, as a result of new Core Audio and ASIO driver support.

At yesterday's event, Avid announced it is no longer going to sell a handful of its formerly separately available Pro Tools add-ons, including the popular Music Production Toolkit. These are now bundled in with Pro Tools 9 as part of its expanded features set.

The functionality added to Pro Tools 9 by the addition of these add-ons includes automatic delay compensation, ending the need to manually compensate for latencies from hardware I/Os and plug-in algorithm processing.

Other improvements to Pro Tools includes the ability to do OMF/AAF/MXF file interchanges and MP3 exports, there's also enhanced accuracy when syncing audio to video in post, through a new built-in time code ruler, and an updated 7.1 surround sound paner.

Pro Tools 9 is available as a software-only version at around £500 or packaged with different audio interfaces at increasing price points.

Here’s a collection of music and audio post people giving their first impressions on the upgraded system...

Posted 18 November 2010 by Jake Bickerton

Super-slo-mo art films

Newcastle’s live action and animation production outfit J6 Films has completed a series of 30 extreme slo-mo films of people laughing for an art project commissioned by BBC Radio 3.

Each of the films is a visual portrait of someone from the North East, with the 30 people filmed ranging in age from 2 to 80 years old. They were shown on a series of flatscreen TVs throughout the concourse area The Sage, Gateshead earlier this month as part of an installation called the Free Thinking Festival.

Image credit: BBC/Dan Prince

The theme of the festival was ‘the pursuit of happiness’ and the films are “a visual metaphor of the pursuit of happiness, contemplated with a magnifying glass,” says film director Chuchie Hill.

“When high speed shooting, at approximately 1000 frames per second, we can capture every little movement of the face muscles and skin not appreciated when normal speed or live,” adds Hill.

The films (four of which are below) were produced by J6’s James Baxter.

Posted 16 November 2010 by Jake Bickerton

Foundry's all-in-one post tool

The Foundry is extending its sights outside of vfx with the development of STORM, which the company says will grow to be an affordable, all-in-one vfx, editorial and finishing tool.

Best known for Nuke (which was initially developed inhouse at vfx giant Digital Domain) and visual effects plug-ins, The Foundry has developed STORM from the ground up, and has just released a beta version of the software available at

STORM has had a fairly low-key release so far, with news of the product slipping out quietly at NAB, but this is largely down to the initial release being a relatively unassuming precursor to what’s likely to follow.

As it currently stands, STORM is simply pitched as a more fully featured replacement to Red’s own free (and perpetually in beta) raw rushes colour corrector RedCine-X. Red’s Ted Schilowitz describes STORM as ”REDCine-X on steroids”.

It currently captures picture, sound and metadata from Red cameras, where it can be reviewed, quality checked, tagged and organised and cinematographic looks tried out via colour correction tools.

However, the £250 software package also crucially bundles in a timeline editor. The editor is relatively feature-light at present, but, says The Foundry’s head of product development Richard Shackleton, “Next year we want to expand it and create a big brother STORM product that’s a full production hub.”
The enhanced version (which will be closer to £1,000 than £250) will have a much more advanced timeline editor, be able to do basic vfx as well as the conform and grade.

“It’s not going to be for high-end work,” says  Shackleton, but will do “the bulk of work” that passes through a post production facility. The enhanced version of STORM could be ready for NAB 2011, he adds.

The Foundry is investing heavily in STORM’s development with a team of four dedicated to building up the product’s feature set.

The market for combined editorial, vfx, grading and finishing tools is already quite crowded, with the likes of Avid, Apple and Autodesk already offering similarly broad reaching products, so only time will tell if there’s space for The Foundry’s own addition to the marketplace.

Posted 12 November 2010 by Jake Bickerton

Avatar Blu-Ray 3d delayed

Back in April, when Avatar first came out on DVD and Blu-Ray, it was released as a 2d-only version and with no extras whatsoever.

Now the iconic film is being reissued as a three-disc Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition, complete with 16-minutes of added scenes and hours of bonus features. Which sounds great. But the catch is, it’s still not going to be in 3d.

The only way to get hold of a 3d copy of Avatar to watch at home is by buying a Panasonic Blu-Ray 3d player or Panasonic 3dTV, as a specially made Blu-Ray 3d disc is bundled in as a freebie. But this version doesn’t of course include the extra 16 minutes that's been added to the new Collector’s Edition release, or any of the bonus features.

According to industry website, Panasonic has bought a one-year exclusive window on the Avatar Blu-ray 3d release and is holding fire on its release until the home 3d market “grows big enough to justify it”.

Quite how long the wait will be is anyone’s guess, but the lack of a Blu-Ray 3d of Avatar on retailers' shelves leading up to Christmas is going to do little to boost the so far very modest sales of Blu-Ray 3d players and/or 3dTVs.

Posted 11 November 2010 by Jake Bickerton

Do DSLRs live up to the hype?

Producer/director Charles Kelly emailed me recently about how frustrated he was by DSLRs being hyped up to the point where no one has a bad word to say about them. He asked if he could air his views on using the Canon 5D/7D and here's what he has to say. It makes interesting reading.

Kelly works for CSK Integrated Solutions (, a production company working across all media platforms. A much shorter version of Kelly's opinion is published in the November issue of Televisual (p.21).

"Every time I pick up a magazine someone seems to have 'fallen in love' with a Canon 5 or 7D. The footage can look impressive and the price offers great value, but is true love really blind? How do these cameras actually hold up in a real-world scenario?

We used a 5D Mk2 on a project for a major financial institution, which involved a good mix of interiors and exteriors across multiple locations in the UK and India. Overall, I was impressed, but, strange as this may sound to its army of lovers, it’s certainly not perfect.

It very quickly became apparent that the majority of reviews I’d read in advance had either been penned by those from a photography background or by some over enthusiastic video-bods who’d simply taken a unit for a quick spin round the block. The 5D delivers a filmic look with a shallow depth-of-field – and that’s where most of the reviews end. In reality, the camera slightly frustrates various elements of the production process by having a plethora of operational idiosyncrasies.

I’m sure these issues are not limited to Canon models, so my experience may be of interest to anyone thinking of using one of the DSLR cameras currently on the market. So, what should a DSLR virgin be aware of?

Unless you’re simply capturing a few scenic shots it will probably be best to hire one of the bespoke mounting rigs now available. This will support the camera and allow accessories such as a monitor, matte box and follow-focus to be added with relative ease. 

The sound quality derived from on-board recording is not broadcast standard and works on automatic gain circuitry – fine as a guide or a reference but not suitable for a final programme. An external sound recoding unit is required, preferably along with some method of adding its time-code to one of the audio channels on the Canon to assist the syncing process in post production. 

The twelve minute clip record duration doesn’t sound like a big issue when you’re sitting in the comfort of your production office but you can more or less guarantee the best flurry of action, or the most important sound bite, will begin at exactly eleven minutes fifty five seconds – on a fairly regular basis!

The 5D operates on a rolling-shutter principle and this can cause some strange motion artefacts, so keep a close eye for any such aberrations as you could be able to correct many of these while filming. You also need to take care to ensure any camera pans are fairly slow and smooth; not a big deal, just be aware of it. 

The lightness of a DSLR unit can make it more prone to vibration when used with standard TV grip gear. There are lightweight jibs and arms that will give short, smooth moves so take time to investigate these options. If you’re planning a mix of track, dolly and jib moves on location make sure you’ve got plenty of time to set the whole thing up and rehearse – and have a good supply of sandbags for extra ballast.  

Hand-held work offers up new challenges; the LCD monitor on the rear of the camera is far from ideal – unless you happen to be working down a mine. Add this to the rolling-shutter and the unfamiliar / uncomfortable operating position and you have a recipe that lends itself to (very) short hand-held sequences. 

The video monitoring would make a certain Mr Heath Robinson very proud. As previously mentioned; the LCD screen on the rear of the camera is not particularly useful for daylight operation but there is the option of a viewfinder eye-piece extension – worth buying or checking to ensure it is part of your hire package. But remember, if you connect an external monitor the feed to the camera LCD is disabled

For many set-ups you may want to use two monitors; one fitted to the camera rig for the operator and another screen for the director, producer and clients. The snag is the 5D only has one HDMI output. No worries I hear you cry – use a splitter. The second snag is the camera gets confused when it senses a splitter in the cable chain; it will allow you to view both screens in preview mode but as soon as you hit record you will lose the feed to the second monitor. If you’re thinking about utilising the analogue output, be prepared for some pretty abysmal picture quality. 

In certain monitoring set-ups the 5D also has the annoying habit of changing the aspect ratio; going from a 16/9 in preview (live-view) mode to a 4/3 format in record. Very disconcerting, but this has apparently been fixed on the 7D. 

Financial savings are often cited as a great advantage of going down the DSLR route and you probably will save money on camera hire. However, you’ll need additional lenses, probably a set of four primes plus a zoom or the cheaper / faster option of two quality zooms. You will also require the external sound recording device; obviously, this will all add cost back in to the budget.

For those who have little or no experience of working on film, or high-end HD, you need to be aware that shallow depth-of-field work brings its own fairly literal challenge of maintaining sharp focus. This is much more difficult, and time consuming, than when working with an old trusty DigiBeta and standard zoom lens. It makes a lot of sense to have a focus puller, or decent camera assistant; more money on crew, but well worth it in the long run.

Although not the biggest of issues, you should also be aware the 5D only records at a standard 25fps, with the 7D offering the option of filming at 50fps, which is an improvement but still not ideal. For slightly arty scenes I often like to film just off reality, something like 30fps which isn’t as ponderous and obvious as half speed but does take the edge of straight reality. This isn’t an option with either of these cameras.

Anti-aliasing can also be an issue with some shot content, and the BBC technical department has flagged this up as a concern over the use of this camera for broadcast HD TV projects.

When you move in to post production, ingesting the large media files is slower than some other formats and you need to allow time to import the separate sound files and sync them up to the visuals. 

The Canon’s file format is H246 – great for viewing, but not so great for editing. If using FCP, you will probably want to convert your footage to Pro Res files. In Avid your optimum workflow plan will be dependant on the version of media composer you’re using. 

You also have to consider how you’re delivering the end product. In the corporate world, standard DVD is still very much the norm in meeting, training and boardrooms across the country; you may have hours of lovely HD footage but you could be delivering a standard definition programme.

Whether you create an HD master for subsequent down-conversion, or convert your rushes at the onset of editing, will probably be dictated by a number of issues; the time and money you have available for post production, whether you’re incorporating a large amount of SD material into the programme, the specification of edit suite you’re using and the current and future needs of your client.

But, either way, if not delivering in HD, take some time to investigate the HD to SD conversion process. The different software and hardware options for doing this can deliver quite a variation in end results. Image quality can also vary between Avid and FCP systems as they process and handle the media files in different ways.

Updates and software 'fixes' are available for some of these operational issues but if you’re hiring the camera these aren’t going to be an option you can explore. If you’re planning to be a camera owner you can investigate further but these downloads are invariably supplied by third parties and will invalidate your original warranty. Magic Lantern specialise in this area but their homepage clearly states, “…this Magic Lantern release comes with no warranty for any use; you use it at your own risk.”

There’s no doubt, working with a DSLR requires a bit of thought and preparation; supporters would claim some of the comments above could apply to any film camera. There’s an element of truth in that but I’m highlighting these operational idiosyncrasies because these cameras are invariably being used by people from a video background, some of whom have never even seen a film camera let alone used one. 

Plan ahead, carry out some pre-shoot tests, be aware of the challenges and all should go well. We’ll use the Canon again; for the right project, and in the right circumstances, it’s a very good option. I particularly enjoyed the discipline of using prime lenses, working with shallow depth-of-field and having access to a film-style ISO control. But I can’t help wondering; will the lover’s affections start to wander when a proper broadcast equivalent comes on the market?"

Posted 04 November 2010 by Jake Bickerton
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