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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

THE BREAKDOWN
No. of f/x shots: 885
F/x shops: ILM, The Moving Picture Co., Framestore CFC, Cinesite, Double Negative, Baseblack, Machine, Northern Lights Post
Why it will be nommed: These effects — and the story — are more sophisticated than the first two “Potter” pics.
Why it won’t: Acad may see a sequel as “more of the same” in a very competitive year.

If ever a franchise seemed to depend on its visual effects, it’s the Harry Potter stories. From talking paintings to games played on flying brooms to a menagerie of mythical beasts, much of the texture of the young wizard’s world depends on the magic of effects technology.

Still, none of the Potter pics has snared an Oscar nom for visual effects. This may be the year, though, because helmer Alfonso Cuaron, who took the reins for “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” pushed the film — and its effects team — in a different direction. (Also, this is the first Potter pic not to have to face “The Lord of the Rings” franchise.)

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Roger Guyett, one of the four visual f/x supervisors (with Tim Burke, Bill George and John Richardson) who are on the official Oscar slate, says, “If you look at the style of the movie, it’s darker, it’s more adult, and it has a different tone than the previous two, because the effects aren’t so fantastical. You don’t have all the colored light. You have a much, much more restrained palette.”

Guyett also points to Cuaron’s fluid lensing, with its emphasis on single wide-angle shots, as a special challenge. “It makes (the effects) considerably harder, because the shots are so much longer, you’ve got to think about so many more different elements. With quick cuts you can hide so many things.”

Several of “Azkaban’s” effects broke new ground. The Dementors, the film’s otherworldly prison guards, are not only made of difficult-to-render fabric, but they move in a way that confounds most cloth-simulation software, as the garb of a Dementor sometimes floated ahead of rather than trailed it.

Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Bill George says, “Sometimes we ran the simulations backward, sometimes we used very viscous material, like they’re underwater, but basically we had to throw out the rulebook.”

George also points to the first appearance of a Dementor, on the train early in the film. “That is a nice long elegant shot, and I’m especially proud of how that shot turned out,” he says.

Guyett, for his part, is especially proud of the film’s hippogriff, part eagle and part horse. “I challenge anyone to find a more difficult creature to work on,” he says. Each of the hippogriff’s hundreds of thousands of feathers was individually modeled. Plus, it had fur and, most of all, Cuaron wanted it to look like a real, living beast.

It’s not the year’s flashiest effect, in part because the creature looks like a real animal. But the lack of flash is part of what makes it work, says Guyett. “You’re not aware of it in some ways that you would if we made it look less real. Too often when you’d see a creature in previous movies it would jump out at you, and this is a much more integrated world.”

In the end, he credits Cuaron, who had never worked on such an effects-heavy film before, with being a quick study when it came to using visual effects to his advantage. “That’s the thing you often miss, the moment when the director understands what it is you can actually contribute to the movie,” says Guyett. “That’s something Alfonso did very cleverly.”