Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a 2001 book written by British author J. K. Rowling.
There’s a lot of magic in Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, from the eponymous beasts to the secret community of witches and wizards in 1920s New York where the film is set. But unfortunately for us, muggles (non-magical people) creating the visual effects to bring J.K. Rowling’s story to life didn’t come at the wave of a wand.
The Drum met with one of the real-life wizards behind the Oscar-nominated film, Framestore creative director and VFX supervisor Christian Manz, to find out how he crafted the magic.
From concept to the silver screen: the real magic behind Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
How early on in the filmmaking process did the creation of the VFX begin, and how did you move from ideas to creation?
I started on the film at the very start of preproduction - eight months before filming began. We were tasked with designing the Fantastic Beasts themselves as well as the key action set pieces they would be involved in.
Starting with the descriptions in JK Rowling's script, as well as the book, we had a team of concept artists tasked with coming up with designs. Director David Yates wanted them to be fantastic but not fantasy - realistic enough that you could believe they would exist in the real world. We moved quite a few of the designs into animation tests - building simple models and finding their characters through situations derived from the script.
We also had a team of pre-visualisation artists working with us who helped us create the action for scenes involving the Niffler, Erumpent [some of the Fantastic Beasts] and Newt's [Scamander, the film’s protagonist] briefcase amongst others. These were key references for David when shooting the actual scenes on set with the actors.
How daunting is the prospect of creating a whole new world, particularly given how precious Harry Potter is too many fans?
It was a great privilege to be part of bringing JK Rowling's world back to the cinema screens but also, as you say, a little daunting. We wanted to make sure we created creatures that lived up to the expectations of the audience in both character and design. All of the background magic was something I really enjoyed in the Harry Potter films as it made the world feel more real - it was really fun to add these details into the various magical scenes.
How have you enhanced the VFX since you worked on Harry Potter? What different challenges occurred?
The world of VFX has moved on to the point where almost everything is possible - the biggest challenge now is thinking of innovative ideas and ways of portraying them.
The advancements in the tools we used as well as the talents of the artists we collaborated with meant that we were able to show David our ideas in a fully rounded way quicker than we could have done five years ago. I supervised the Dobby and Kreacher characters for [Harry Potter and the] Deathly Hallows Part One, and for Fantastic Beasts, we were able to offer a first look at our Gnarlak Goblin character in about a quarter of the time.
Why did you make the decision not shoot in New York where the film is set and how did you go about creating the VFX to get around this?
It was decided fairly early on that we wouldn't shoot in New York itself - the city now is very different from what it looked like in 1926. Production designer Stuart Craig also felt a more cohesive look could be achieved by creating our own streets.
A nine-acre set was built on the backlot at Leavesden Studios and we collaborated heavily with Stuart and the art department in realising his vision for the look of the city in our digital extensions.
We did an extensive two-month photo shoot in New York to gather period building textures and combined these with those from the set piece. The set represented four key areas - Downtown, Tribeca, Tenements and Brownstones. Along with practical redressing, we digitally revamped the streets to contain different buildings, signage, crowd and vehicles in multiple scenes.
The film is obviously full of creatures, can you talk me through the different stages of creation, and how the production process worked?
As described above the process was a very creative one involving the collaboration of concept artists, animators and previs teams. We wanted to make sure the creatures were unique in look and could also carry out the action required of them in their scenes.
The Artwork was turned into 3D sculpts, which were then put through their paces in animation tests; their performances and character were as important as the actors. Once David was happy with the look of a creature we then worked with a team of puppeteers and the props department to create simple puppets for Eddie Redmayne and the cast to interact with - these became invaluable in making the performance between human and Fantastic Beast as authentic as possible.
What did you do if a creature design didn’t work?
We created a lot of creatures that didn't make it to the finished film - our design process meant that we were able to show David various beasts in animation and in a context of a scene. Often with this type of work, the best ideas and designs come out of being brave enough to leave the less good ones behind.
Which sequence was the most complicated to create and why?
The interior of Newt's case was the most complex to create. We again worked closely with Stuart Craig as he designed the set and we created the multiple creatures. David Yates wanted the scene to be as immersive as possible and for each animal to have a story.
We created a detailed previs over several months – which was used as a blueprint for the shoot – whilst allowing David flexibility in finessing the scene with the actors on the day. Six VFX studios in London, Montreal and Vancouver created the finished shots, sometimes playing in the same one.
This meant a lot of collaboration between teams and a huge amount of data flying around the globe. I was able to show David different sections of each shot as they were in progress but we had to wait until the very end of the schedule to see the jigsaw finally put together. It was sometimes nerve wracking but the finished result was a testament to everyone's hard work.
With 'Fantastic Beasts,' costumer Colleen Atwood conjures her 12th Oscar nomination
“Early on, people would say that their wives could probably do what I did.”
Colleen Atwood laughed softly into the phone as she spoke of her career as one of the most Oscar-celebrated costume designers of all time. “It’s sometimes underrated in terms of the level of skill it takes to accomplish,” she said.
“Level of skill” is something of an understatement. This year’s nod for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” brings Atwood’s nomination tally to an even dozen; if she wins, as she did for “Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Alice in Wonderland,” it will be Oscar No. 4.
Atwood, who launched her costuming career on the set of Milos Forman’s 1981 Oscar-nominated film “Ragtime,” has spent more than three decades creating iconic designs that fold invisibly into the characters of films like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Ed Wood” and “Sweeney Todd.”
For “Beasts,” she and her crew designed and dressed thousands of extras in vintage and custom-made duds that helped bring J.K. Rowling’s unique vision of 1920s New York City magically to life.
“The thing that makes it special is that you have all these different cultures coming together in New York at an alive kind of period,” Atwood said, speaking from London where she’s working on Disney’s live-action “Dumbo” movie with director Tim Burton. “It was great to take the palette and the energy of New York in that period and merge it with the secret wizarding world in the story.”
And yes, ahead of Sunday’s Oscars she has already custom-tailored her red carpet ensemble. “I made a top with my team and I bought an amazing Alaïa skirt that I took and reworked,” Atwood said. “It’s probably not the fanciest Oscar thing, but it’s something that I feel good in and I know I can wear again.”
On “Fantastic Beasts” she learnt that trademark eye for practical but dazzling design to the wizards, witches and “No-Mas” (the American version of “Muggles”) caught up in the mayhem that ensues when “magic zoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) unleashes magical creatures into the unsuspecting civilian world.
For the lead cast, she crafted costumes tailor-made to amplify character. Alison Sudol’s Queenie pops in light, bright Jazz Age satins and silks, while Katherine Waterston’s Porpentina goes modern in trousers and Colin Farrell’s security officer Percival Graves sports a sharp black and blue ensemble threaded with Lurex for a sinister sheen to match his personality.
Atwood, whose 2016 work also included the stunningly detailed gowns of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” and the Victorian-inspired costumes of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” is famous for her meticulous attention to detail — even those details the audience will never see.
With Redmayne’s input, Atwood combined a rumpled brown suit with a peacock-blue wool coat that moved with the actor’s physicality and magnified Scamander’s quirky outsider sensibility. She sewed multiple hidden pockets into his coat, envisioning hiding places for Scamander’s creatures.
“We know they’re there,” she said. “It’s our little thing. Sometimes things like that are character-building for actors, and to be honest, you never know what’s really going to play in the film and what doesn’t.”
British actress Carmen Ejogo, who plays the commanding Seraphina Picquery, head of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, sports a series of dazzling African-inspired headwear throughout the film paired with period power suits and, in one pivotal wizarding summit scene, a regal Art Deco-inspired navy and gold gown.
“Carmen pretty much has a perfect face for anything,” said Atwood. “The crown she wears there is based on an Indonesian wedding headdress.
“Because there were people in ethnic attire from all over the world in that scene,” she added, “I wanted her to have something with a scale that would hold up in that room. And the way [cinematographer] Philippe [Rousselot] placed it in that shot. … I walked in and went, ‘Oh, this looks amazing.’”
Her trick of the trade? “Perseverance. Keep moving forward in time. Stuff changes and you always have to be able to move with it,” she said.
She also credits her mentor, the first woman to win an Oscar for costume design.
“I started my career working for Patrizia von Brandenstein in New York as a PA in her department,” Atwood said, “and she was one of the first women to ever crack the production design world.
“She was so formidable and such a force,” Atwood added, “that I never thought about being a woman as being a liability.”
Now in a position of influence, Atwood tries to do the same for others. Her department can swell from four to 150 employees at various stages of production on a film the size of “Fantastic Beasts,” which is also nominated this year for best production design.
“I have a roomful of mentees around me on every job,” she said. “I just never know who’s going to crack it.”
WATCH: VFX reel for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
It may have missed out on an Oscar nomination for this month’s 89th Academy Awards, but Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them still featured some very impressive visual effects, and Rodeo FX has released a breakdown video showcasing their work on the Harry Potter spinoff prequel; take a look here…
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens in 1926 as Newt Scamander has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. Arriving in New York for a brief stopover, he might have come and gone without incident…were it not for a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob, a misplaced magical case, and the escape of some of Newt’s fantastic beasts, which could spell trouble for both the wizarding and No-Maj worlds.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” stars Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), Katherine Waterston (“Steve Jobs,” “Inherent Vice”) as Tina; Tony Award winner Dan Fogler (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) as Jacob; Alison Sudol (“Dig,” “Transparent”) as Tina’s sister, Queenie; Ezra Miller (“Trainwreck”) as Credence; two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (“In America,” “Sweet and Lowdown”) as Mary Lou; Oscar winner Jon Voight (“Coming Home,” TV’s “Ray Donovan”) as Henry Shaw, Sr.; Ron Perlman (the “Hellboy” films) as Gnarlack; Carmen Ejogo (“Selma”) as Seraphina; Jenn Murray (“Brooklyn”) as Chastity; young newcomer Faith Wood-Blagrove as Modesty; and Colin Farrell (“True Detective”) as Percival Graves.
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