‘Harry Potter’: Did 3-D really make the film more magical?

July 29, 2011 | 6:35 a.m.
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A scene from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Just like Severus Snape, Hugh Murray presented an ambiguous figure in the “Harry Potter” universe. In the end, would he be an unexpected hero — or just another 3-D bad guy?

Hugh Murray, IMAX’s senior vice president of film production, performed his dark arts as the stereographer on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” guiding and filtering the 3-D conversion process for director David Yates. The stakes for Murray and Yates were high; the finale film in the Warner Bros. eight-film adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s “Potter” epic was the first to be released fully in 3-D, and the demands of history — not to mention muggle fans all across the globe — put plenty of pressure on the team.

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“It’s always interesting and scary,” Murray said, “to wait and see what the world thinks.”

The world seems pretty happy. The movie was released July 15 and is now north of $900 million in worldwide box office and top critics have adored the film, with many of them praising the 3-D in particular as “outstanding,” “subtle,” “the finest I’ve ever seen” and a “substantial and organic part of the film.” Not everyone agrees, of course. Roger Ebert wrote that the film is appropriately “dark, gloomy and filled with shadows,” which makes 2D a better option considering the image-dimming that is a side effect of 3-D conversion; Peter Travers of Rolling Stone weighed in that 3-D was simply unnecessary amid the film’s larger triumphs.

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A scene from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

For Murray, a native of Scotland with more than 20 years at IMAX, it was not his first time at Hogwarts — he worked on previous “Potter” releases that had isolated segments offered in 3-D, never the entire film — but it was his most intense visit.  The “Deathly Hallows” conversion process from 2D footage to an immersive 3-D release took seven months, which suggests that executives at Warner Bros. remember the scathing reviews earned last year by their “Clash of the Titans,” which was jarring and visually jumbled thanks to a two-month 3-D rush job that cashed in on steeper 3-D ticket prices after the success of “Avatar.” Filmmakers and studios know that moviegoers are increasingly skeptical of 3-D in these harsh economic times and that meant the “Potter” farewell film had to be truly magical to win over the world.

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“For David Yates,  it’s all about the story; it was critical that the 3-D supported the story and didn’t look like a plug-on thing that had nothing to do with what was happening scene to scene and shot to shot,” Murray said. “We talked quite a bit before we started. The Harry Potter films require you to believe that, parallel to the reality is this magical version of reality and you must believe that this is an ordinary world that just runs by a different set of rules. It was really critical for us going in that the 3-D didn’t undo that. This is not a flash-bang science fiction movie. We don’t do gimmicks or impossible spaces.”

The key to great 3-D, Murray says, is to make people forget there’s a pair of glasses between them and the screen. “If you realize you’re watching 3-D, which is what happens in a lot of the recent releases, you can’t simultaneously be lost in the story and the narrative. That was the starting point instruction from David…. Just make this 3-D a richer way of telling the story.”

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A scene from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Murray has worked on the majority of the 3-D films IMAX has directly produced over the last two decades and he co-wrote and produced “Cyberworld,” which took existing CGI animation into “true” 3-D and was the first step toward the “Polar Express” IMAX 3-D release, the Robert Zemeckis film that had Murray on board to lead the stereoscopy process. That 2004 fantasy film became an early watershed moment in the modern era of 3-D, a format that surged to new heights with the release of James Cameron’s “Avatar” in late 2009.  There is considerable angst and debate about the stereoscopic approach. Filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan have resisted the industry pressure to go along with the 3-D parade, citing the limitations and downside of the technology as it stands now, and there have been some ominous fiscal signposts for the format (among them the the anemic opening of “Shrek Forever After” and, more recently, the bruising shareholder news for IMAX and RealD).

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Right now, Hollywood knows that 3-D is a great way to reach out for more money — but it’s also a good way to get hit in the face.

Murray has watched the industry saga with fascination and come to the view that less is more when it comes to 3-D. “One of the mistakes that often happens in 3-D conversion is people force 3-D into shots where they shouldn’t be and what you get is things that should look really big take on the quality of a miniature,” Murray said. Thinking big and staying big were the guiding philosophy, but Murray still fretted for weeks that the shift in public opinion might cast a bad spell over the climactic “Potter” film.

“With all the recent criticism of 3-D, we were all very aware of all of that,” Murray said. “We were all quite nervous at  the very beginning whether we could pull this off.  In this case we were lucky that Warner Bros. really, really wanted a 3-D but also wanted a really good 3-D movie…. The 3-D in fact adds to the spaces and the enjoyment of the film and doesn’t ever distract from the enjoyment.” Since shooting was not done with 3-D cameras, “there were no shots obviously made specifically to do that gimmicky sort of 3-D. We  don’t push spears at people…. And if you have a really big dragon, it should look really big. You shouldn’t add 3-D and sacrifice scale. Hogwarts is a really big place and it should always look really big. We had a determination that all the way through we should never do anything that stopped the audience in their tracks or made the movie less grand.”

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Severus Snape, played by Alan Rickman, in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

To that end, Yates said he wanted a conservative approach to the 3-D on character- and dialogue-driven scenes and, essentially, wanted people leaning forward during emotional moments, not leaning back because of 3-D’s intrusion or distraction. “We never wanted the dimensionality to disrupt this bond between the audience and this world they care so much about,” Yates said on the eve of the film’s release. Overall, “Deathly Hallows — Part 2” uses stereoscopic effect to push back into the screen — creating a depth or a shadow-box effect, of a sort– as opposed to creating the illusion that objects (or magic) is constantly flying off the screen and into the face of moviegoers. There are a few moments, however, where the wizarding world does seem to leap into the auditorium.

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“There’s one shot where a dragon crashes through the floor of Gringott’s Bank and we came a little bit into the theater space but we didn’t overdo it… [and during]  high points or dramatic points in the story David didn’t want people thinking, ‘Oh, this is cool, I could reach out and touch it,’ instead of getting lost in the moment,” Murray said. “There are a lot of scenes of battle in this movie compared to the other ‘Potter’ films and there are great set pieces where we let rip with the 3-D and really enjoyed it. But always with a view to staying natural. There is one shot near the end of the movie after Harry defeated Voldemort and Voldemort disintegrated into pieces, which is the one shot that actually was designed to take real advantage of the 3-D image. As Voldemort comes to pass there’s a top shot where pieces of him, in large flakes, come up  toward the camera  and we allow those to come out into the theater space. We kind of joked among ourselves that we wanted everybody to take a piece of Voldemort home.”

Evil is vanquished on the screen but even with its success, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2” might be held up as an example by both sides in the ongoing 3-D debate. The film scored the biggest worldwide weekend total in Hollywood box office history (although that opening weekend record would not top classics of past eras if adjusted for inflation) but then fell 72% in its second weekend, which may suggest that the pricier 3-D tickets discouraged the multiple viewings that are common among the franchise’s diehard fans.

— Geoff Boucher


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14 Responses to ‘Harry Potter’: Did 3-D really make the film more magical?

  1. Ali says:

    3D is WAY too expensive. And the glasses were uncomfortable, i had to adjust them every 5 minutes.

  2. Julie says:

    I'm not a big fan of 3D to begin with because it's pricier and, quite frankly, the glasses are annoying and give me headaches. I also opted not to see Deathly Hallows in 3D because I knew I was going to cry. Those glasses are not conducive to emotional reactions. I learned that while watching Toy Story 3.

    • Megan says:

      I'm glad I wasn't the only one who had that same thought. I didn't see it in 3D either, and I knew I was going to cry, though I had no idea how much… let's just say that I didn't leave the theater until basically everyone was gone because I was so embarrassed at how loudly I was crying during the movie!

  3. Guest says:

    The 3D computer graphics in Deathly Hallows part 2 were unimpressive and basically just a box office rip off. I have also observed that, in general, movies that have primarily actual people in them rather than CGI or animation are not enhanced or improved by 3D. The 3D technology is apparently limited to CGI, animation or special effects, video or other visual graphics that can be electronically and technically manipulated. I saw the movie at AMC IMAX 3D and was unimpressed with the AMC IMAX screen which seemed no larger than the regular screen and the 3D was more of an annoyance with the glasses. I also saw the movie in the regular film version and that projected as a low grade regular dvd with poor resolution – hardly HD quality. The IMAX 3D was much superior (of course) to the low resolution format. So, now I must go back a third time to view the movie in the HD digital presentation format or wait until it's released on bluray to see it in HD without 3D.

  4. chloe says:

    i love harry

  5. João says:

    I Love Harry Potter

  6. sara says:

    I luv HP!!!!!!! I already saw it 2 times & I might g2 watch a 3rd time but this time in 3D!!! I hope its going 2 b good in 3D!!!

  7. Jim says:

    I'm sorry but 3-D is a stack of dirty dipers and does not add anything to the film.

  8. naarm says:

    only movie worth viewing in 3D

  9. Paul says:

    3D certainly did not make the HP finale any LESS magical. Although (spoiler alert) I am curious as to why the best application — the disintegration of Voldemort into flakey pieces of skin — was something the filmmakers are thrilled about. "We wanted everyone to take a piece of Voldemort home." Ewwww! I disagree that when the dragon pops out — that would be an excellent time for '50s retro 3D magic to have viewers jump out of their seats. The screenwriter should not write for 3D but certainly the director can find or invent sections where it is more magical as opposed to more subtle. All in all, I liked the 3D in this film for no other reason than I felt I was looking through a widow at something that was 3 dimensional and it was pleasantly cool.

  10. Kate says:

    I LOVE HARRY POTTER!! And I loved watching it in 3D! it was a different cinematic experience! I think it was really cool!

  11. jim says:

    I was modestly impressed. This author's description of the effect of pushing "back into the screen" was spot on. There was very little of the pop out of the screen type of action and nothing that looked like it was only going for the 3D "wow" reaction that we have seen and can expect from future 3D releases (the trailer for Hugo, which played in my theater was an example, when you see a hand reaching out of the screen or a train coming full-bore towards you, you think, okay, this was done for 3D "wow" and was thus distracting) In many places the 3D added impressive depth to the scene; the otherwise blank white background at Kings Cross was notable. In all, the 3D wasnt overdone, it was subtle and effective, and I think that is a credit to Hugh Murray.

  12. Fountain says:

    I saw the movie first in 2D, then went to IMAX 3D and LOVED the 3D. It added more depth. I didn't care about the snake striking or the flakes at all, but LOVED the dragon scenes and would watch that part over and over if I could rewind in the theatre. LOL Yes, IMAX 3D was expensive, but I just saw it again at a regular 3D theatre and paid the same as the 2D because I went to a late morning show. I will continue to do that once a week as long as it is playing. I think this is a fantastic movie and the 3D effects were perfect to me.

  13. Latest news says:

    I love harry poter. especially last part of the harry poter. I saw in both 2-D and 3-D versions. Some of the seens in the movie only satisfied by 3-D. It was just awesome

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