Alfonso Cuaron brought his independent sensibility to the Harry Potter franchise, turning “Prisoner of Azkaban” into a visually sumptuous feast, pulsing with a sense of nature and a much darker mood.
“One of the premises we had early on was grounding the place in reality,” says Cuaron. “With Hogwarts, the important thing was trying to understand the geography of the place. We show the Great Hall and in the same shot you see the kids walking to the Magic Staircase so you understand how you get from one place to the other. The audience may not consciously notice it, but it’s in the back of their minds. And then you feel you are in a place that really exists.”
Cinematography also played a vital role in the film’s look.
“With Michael Seresin, the cinematographer, we didn’t want to overtly stylize the whole thing,” says Cuaron. “We wanted to keep a constant flow, to constantly move the camera.” /While Seresin initially balked at what he thought were “unmotivated camera moves,” says Cuaron, “by the second day, he was the one saying, ‘We have to move it a little bit more.’ This film’s about motivated camera moves. It’s not about physical motivation, but an emotional one.”
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Cuaron took the film on location in Scotland, a country awash in wild and unruly landscapes, for much of the action on the Hogwarts grounds, including Hagrid’s hut.
“We rebuilt Hagrid’s hut on location,” says production designer Stuart Craig, who has worked on all three “Potter” pics. “But we added a lot more detail, more than the audience can see, really, just a lot of little creatures everywhere.”
“You are in the studio for so many months and when you get to go outdoors, you feel so free,” says Cuaron. “When we were shooting in Scotland, it started raining. That made the whole thing a little stressful for some people, but for me, it was great. We’re on this beautiful mountain in this amazing place and it starts raining, but you have your whole rain gear on, so you don’t care about the rain. You just get to watch nature unfold.”
Producer David Heyman remembers it a little differently. “We had to transport the crew up and down this rather treacherous landscape. Every day we were fighting between raindrops. Even though it was very difficult to film and we went a few days over schedule, ultimately it was incredibly rewarding because of the look that Alfonso and Michael were able to achieve. It wasn’t the bright blue sky, it was the muted gray weather, which was evocative and magical but also real.”
Adds Cuaron: “It really grounded where all this action was taking place. We wanted the context to be as important as the characters. Hogwarts had to be powerful and magical, so we feel its presence.”
Cuaron says that at first his team tried to do everything mechanically rather than resort to CGI. “We did a test of the Dementors as puppeteers under water. They were so beautiful and looked very much like what you see in the final film, but it proved to be completely impossible, so we ended up doing CG,” he says. “And Michael lit all the CG stuff. If you see a hippogriff, the light is hitting him exactly the way it would if it were there on location.”