‘Harry Potter’ countdown: Stuart Craig’s designs on life
Hero Complex continues to reach across the pond in our countdown to “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” which arrives in theaters July 15. Today our Jevon Phillips digs into the Hollywood magic of “Potter” production design.
Academy Award-winning production designer Stuart Craig has been one of the major creative forces behind defining and shaping the distinctive look of the world of “Harry Potter.” There have been different fantastic locales, leaps in the technology for computer-generated effects, and quirky characters to constantly adapt as the franchise has rolled along, but Craig takes it all in stride. He likes simplicity, but seems to understand the necessity of having complications.
JP: I was looking at things that you’ve done like “Gandhi” and “Dangerous Liaisons” …
SC: Yeah, it does go back a ways, doesn’t it?
JP: A little. How does the fictional world of “Harry Potter” relate to those very real worlds and situations?
SC: I guess I’ve done much more fictional stuff. “Gandhi” was exceptional in many ways, and I guess you’re right if you’re saying that it has a much more documentary style. I think, though, that I’m really more of a theatrical designer than … the other kind, if there is another kind. In other words, I think that images should be designed and I think that the real world is often kind of disappointing. It’s all extraneous information. And it’s better if you can eliminate — I find myself eliminating a lot of stuff, simplifying things in order to make it more theatrical.
“Gandhi” was so ambitious, and it’s very difficult to simplify or tidy up India. Without even trying, it had a documentary feel to it. That’s not to say that we didn’t try desperately to design certain aspects of it in a pleasing and theatrical way.
JP: You have something real to work from like Gandhi with historical references, but how do you come up with historical references for scenes in fictional worlds — like the memory scenes in “Harry Potter?”
SC: It’s a fairly haphazard process … The starting point is always the books, you know. She [J.K. Rowling] describes where he [Dumbledore] keeps the memories in these little glass vials — so that’s a given. And then, since the style of Hogwarts has been established as this very antiquated medieval style, and Dumbledore’s office is like that, I began to look through books of church architecture, cathedral architecture … and I delved in there for this Gothic look. The reference I found was for a font. So I adapted it.
The memory itself is poured in to a basin and we thought that a highly reflective liquid surface, like mercury, would be most effective.
JP: What substance did you actually use for the memories?
SC: It was a computer-generated, CG effect, as many of these things are. These movies have been done for nine years now. When we began, there was much more done physically — and it’s amazing when you look back on the progress of digital effects in the last nine years.
JP: When dealing with CGI, do you suddenly see some things and think ‘that would be better computer-generated?’ Or do you just design everything as if you will physically have to build it?
SC: A lot of that has to do with physical limitations. Obviously the actors would prefer a physically real set to react to and respond to as directed. The CG effects encourage you to be bigger and more ambitious and scale things up, so what we try to do is build a physical set — which is always limited by the soundstage it’s on or the corner of the soundstage you have available — and then the CG extension becomes hugely important. Most of our sets when we began “Harry Potter” were real or were fully realized prototypical sets, and now most of them are part built with a bigger part that’s a CG extension and then occasionally and increasingly, some sets are almost totally computer-generated. We just build the floor that actors stand on.
JP: What would you consider to be the downside of that?
SC: If I were a younger designer, I’d probably say that there are none. This is a really exciting world and the world is expanding and the possibilities are expanding. That’s true. As a 67-year-old that’s been doing this for quite a long time, I still enjoy my wooden pencil and the kind of variation in texture and strength of line that it gives me, and I enjoy the old tricks … I think it’s an age-related thing, though. The benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.
JP: So what, in the “Half-Blood Prince,” are you excited to see the reaction to — specific scenes or places?
SC: Well, there’s always a new character. And in the case of “The Half-Blood Prince,” it’s Professor Slughorn — the new potions master. You know, Imelda Staunton was in “Harry Potter 5,” and now it’s Jim Broadbent in “Harry Potter 6.” So, one of the biggest challenges is to create the stage and environment for that new character, and Slughorn is a rather theatrical character who enjoys an eventful social life. He kind of lives in the reflective glory of some of his more famous students and invites them constantly to dinner parties. And he’s very into lavish parties…. So creating his house, his classroom, his study … they were the fresh new challenge.
JP: Was there a specific thing that you would’ve liked to have done for Slughorn that you didn’t get a chance to do?
SC: Not particularly. These films are very popular and successful, so therefore there is enough money to do things really well. There are always constraints, and you have to decide where you can best spend your money … I don’t believe that there was anything we didn’t get to do that we wanted to.
Some of the omissions happen more with trying to condense the novel into a two-hour movie. Now that happens all the time. We have to cut things just because the movie would be too long. I’m thinking, in “Harry Potter 6,” of Dumbledore’s funeral for example. That’s the big event, but it was decided in the end that it couldn’t be done for reasons of time and extending the story. Actually, dramatically, it didn’t provide any sort of new information — it didn’t advance the story or the narrative.
JP: Going back in “Potter” history, has there been something that you were forced to omit that you didn’t really want to? I know it’s made money, but …
SC: I don’t have any deep regrets, no. It’s always really more for reasons of time. Certain things are kind of painful, though. You see a movie years later and sort of cringe and think — ‘… there’s that same damn thing.’ But certainly in terms of “Harry Potter,” that hasn’t happened.
JP: The most spectacular set?
SC: Voldemort has hidden a Horcrux … The construction of that cave, the design of that cave and entrance is on the ocean in a cliff face beside the ocean. The most spectacular piece of coastline in these islands is in fact the Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland.
So having found the entrance, we thought ‘What should the interior be?’ Well, stalactites and stalagmites. Yeah, they’re exciting and sort of interesting formations, but they’re familiar. So we found some material about a cave in Mexico that has huge quartz crystals in it. So we began to look into crystal caves … but [we] also discovered that near Frankfurt in Germany there’s a cave with salt crystals in it, so we went off there and it was indeed amazing. It was the cave where Hitler stored all the gold bullion and precious works of art taken from the European countries that he invaded. There were photographs of Eisenhower after the war entering this giant salt mine and discovering all this stuff. But, I’m rambling.
JP: No, no … that’s very cool.
SC: The Horcrux is hidden in a hollow in the middle of a lake in this cave, and it’s vast. Then came the question about how much do you build physically and how much would be computer-generated extensions. We did go quite large, in two quite large chunks physically — but again, there is a physical limitation governed by the stage that you’re in. But it is a massive digital construction.
That and the Slughorn construction were the two most challenging sets.
JP: But would you consider those to be your favorites? Do you have a favorite set?
SC: There’s some 60, 70 sets on “Harry Potter” — it usually works out to that number. The young Tom Riddle is in an orphanage, and there’s a set I’m quite pleased with there — the exterior and interior of that orphanage. It’s not really spectacular in any sense, but sometimes quite modest things can be very successful,
– Jevon Phillips
Photos: Top – Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe. Middle – Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). Bottom – A young Tom Riddle (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), Mrs. Cole (Amelda Brown) and Dumbledore. Credit: Warner Bros.
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CREDIT: All images courtesy of Warner Bros.