Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald – the VFX secrets behind the movie magic

Den of Geek catches up with the film's VFX supervisor to find out how the Bafta-nominated effects team brought the Wizarding World to life

Let’s face it: The Crimes Of Grindelwald wouldn’t be a Fantastic Beasts film without some, erm, fantastic beasts. But luckily for writer JK Rowling and director David Yates, they had a world-class army of visual effects artists at their disposal for the second installment in the latest Wizarding World film saga.

It’s a good job, too. As well as the return of Newt Scamander’s (Eddie Redmayne) existing pals like the Niffler and his pet Bowtruckle, Pickett, Beasts 2 sees the introduction of a whole new menagerie of creatures, including the magnificent, dragon-like Zouwu and the sinister, cat-aping Matagots.

It’s not just the beasts, either: The Crimes Of Grindelwald expands the scope of the first film, with the adventure taking place across 1920s Paris, London and New York. Physical sets can only go so far, meaning that the effects team also had their work cut out making the wider world look as good as its magical inhabitants.

One of the men ultimately responsible for making the onscreen magic happen is Christian Manz, a Potterverse veteran and creative director of London-based effects studio, Framestore. Along with Tim Burke, he served as The Crimes Of Grindelwald‘s joint overall VFX supervisor – and the team has now been rewarded with a Bafta nomination for their efforts.

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“As we’re going through the process of creature design, Jo [Rowling] will come in and have a look at what we’ve been up to,” says Manz of the writer’s involvement in bringing her creations to the screen. “On the second film especially, she really wanted to understand the process of what we do in effects. She has a lot of input and some very definite ideas of what she wants, but she’s also willing to let other people explore her universe.”

Here, Manz takes Den of Geek through some developing FX shots, and throws in a bit of behind-the-scenes insight for good measure…

Broadening horizons

“There’s a huge amount of collaboration with [production designer] Stuart Craig and his team when it comes to deciding what’s built physically and what’s built digitally. He’s the man who’s visually created the universe that we’re playing in. I think we’re there to augment that reality, not to create it.

“For interiors like the French Ministry of Magic, the level of VFX augmentation all comes down to Stuart’s concept designs and what is going to be built physically on our backlot. For the scenes in real places like Paris, there’s a lot of background work – our backlot is big, but Paris is massive! But we could actually go and film reference plates. We digitally scanned 90 locations – full buildings and full streets, like the whole of the Avenue de l’Opéra and the Sacré-Cœur.

“I think what sets these films apart visually is there’s still a lot of set, which is there lighting the actors and giving them something tactile to interact with. But we’re obviously still creating a massive part of it; we’re like the digital construction crew. We have a lot of magical creatures rampaging around, and one of the biggest reasons why a lot of the environment is digital is to allow for that creature interaction to be as authentic as possible.”

Niffler returns

“We had a physical version of Newt’s case on the set for when Eddie points his wand at it, but then we replaced it with a CGI one so we could animate it to open and let the Niffler out, before he sits on top of it. [The first picture] is the stage before the animation is rendered, where we work out how the animation is working in the scene.

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“We go through a three-stage process with visual effects. The first is ‘pre-vis’, where we create a lot of the set-pieces as lo-fi animated sequences before filming so that we’ve got a guide to shoot what we need. The second stage is ‘post-vis’, where as we’re filming, we’ll start putting lo-fi versions of the visual effects into every single shot – so as they’re cutting the film together, they’re seeing the creatures. And then the third process is that the animation goes off to be done properly by all the companies all over the world who are doing the work. There are about 1,500 people working on the VFX on a film like this, which is bigger than the crew that actually shot it.”

Enter the Zouwu

“It’s about a year’s work to get that shot looking great. We have puppeteers who have performance experience with very low-tech puppets, and we have a Zouwu head. The reason for that is if the actors are just looking at a tennis ball, you just don’t get a performance or an interaction that makes the shot believable. And then it doesn’t matter what we do. If the actor isn’t feeling like he’s actually touching that thing, then the shot’s broken no matter how well we render our Zouwu, so that’s a really important part of the process.

“For the Zouwu itself, we started the initial simple designs in March 2017. And then by the time we were filming – from July to Christmas 2017 – we’d kind of worked out what he would look like, because we’d done lots of little animation tests to show David and Eddie, so he knew what he was acting against and how it behaves. And then we go through to post-production, where the artists at Framestore are building the creature for real, deciding how this creature looks when it’s fully fleshed out – what the mane is made of, how much hair it’s got… By March 2018, they just start putting it into the shots and then they had until the end of September to finish it. So it’s really much more than a year’s work.”

Wizard’s best friend

“Giving CG creatures a personality is challenging. What we’re trying to do here is to not think of the beasts as characters, but as real animals. We’re always looking at references of real animals. Like with the Zouwu – this huge Chinese dragon-like creature with big eyes. Getting some emotion out of it was quite hard. But the scene in the film where Newt brings up its little toy to get it into the case and it behaves exactly as a dog would do… Every time I watch the film, I see people laugh at that because they see something that they see in reality at home, only in this massive creature.

“With Pickett, it has always been a little bit more difficult because he is literally a little stick man. These pictures are from the beginning of the film, where he takes the button from Newt’s coat and then chases it. We thought it would be funnier if he doesn’t notice Newt at all at first – and then suddenly he does notice him, but carries on for a bit. Again, we are relating to the sorts of things that domestic animals do that we all see.

“The most difficult thing is to work out how to make those moments really sing. With Pickett, it’s almost like the Gromit effect – those simple poses and expressions that replicate what we see as humans in each other, which get across those emotions – that he’s really cross or he’s really happy. Everybody loves those moments because you really get his connection with Newt.”

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Cat people

“As the guardians of the French Ministry, the Matagots had to have a bit more menace. We went through quite a journey with the design of them. Because they are more ‘familiars’ than beasts, initially we had them posed on two legs – almost human-like but cat-like at the same time.

“But again, we went back to nature. We started looking at bald cats, and how evil they can look. And then we added the slow gait of a prowling tiger. Then we started playing around with the proportions, so that they’ve got greater limb length and more human-like front legs so it just feels a little bit more uncomfortable. And then obviously the glowing blue eyes, so they have have a bit more sense of threat – we initially tried them with more realistic eyes, but they just looked bizarre.

“The idea of them turning into real black cats came to us quite early in preproduction. We had a wonderful artist who had the idea of what they would look like when they come out of the magical boundaries of the Ministry and how they would appear in the real world. That idea actually did make the cut. It’s a good example of where we are given the freedom by David and Jo to play and come up with stuff, which makes these films – and we’re going into the third one now – such a collaborative experience. It’s not a bad job!”

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald will be available in the UK via digital from 9 March, and it’ll be out on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray and DVD on 18 March.