Ahead of the DVD release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Tom Beasley gets on the phone with VFX supervisor Christian Manz to discuss the enormous people power behind the extraordinary visuals of the Potter universe…
One of the great joys of last year’s magical blockbuster Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was its visual effects and, specifically, the titular creatures. From the leonine Chinese Zouwu to the almost impossibly adorable litter of baby Nifflers, the Harry Potter world got a brand new injection of awe-inspiring critters this time around. Whatever the criticisms of the rest of the film – of which there are many valid ones – it’s tough to fault the visual invention on show.
With the movie due to arrive on DVD and Blu-ray soon, we got chance to chat with seasoned VFX supervisor Christian Manz, who has a long history with the franchise…
You’ve been working on Potter on and off since 2004. Would you say your job has got easier or harder in that time?
I think it’s got easier and harder. Obviously, technology has made it more possible to do stuff. It has made the impossible possible. But what has become more difficult is to innovate and come up with new ideas that the audience has never seen before. It’s becoming tougher to meet the audience’s expectations because the bar raises every year, especially when it comes to awards season time and you see the films that have risen to the top.
With JK Rowling writing these films as well as coming up with the ideas, this is very much her vision. How much pressure do you feel as someone who’s bringing these ideas from her head to life?
A lot, I think! You do have a sense of freedom. David Yates is very good at engendering a creative atmosphere where we’re all coming up with ideas, so you do have that creative energy to it. But obviously, when Jo comes in and sees what you’re doing, you do feel nervous. She obviously has a very clear idea in her head of what this thing might look like.
It’s just generally very exciting though. We’ve got all of our artists in house and it’s really exciting to have the person who has created this world in the room with you talking about it. She’s such a lovely person and generous enough to let you explore, so you get the best out of us by having her there.
When you’re working on a film in the Potter universe, you’ve got almost 20 years of big screen history. Given that you’re working in a world that’s so established, how careful do you have to be about ensuring things are consistent with what has come before?
It’s really important that we do obey our own rules in terms of looks of things. But of course, you’re trying to make things look better when someone Apparates or there’s a wand effect, for example. I think as long as you’ve got the flavour. Where we do have the freedom is that the Potter films are in a school where people are learning, and that was 70 years after the Fantastic Beasts stories. Here, these wizards have all learned magic slightly differently, so they can validly look different. We work so closely with production designer Stuart Craig and the art department to make sure we keep the aesthetic.
What I’ve always really liked about the Potter films, and what we try to bring to what we do effects-wise in these films, is that there’s a sense of reality. They feel real. They’re not fantasy in that respect. So when we’re designing even bizarre things like women turning into snakes, you want to really feel like you’re actually watching that happen and it’s not designed in such a fantastic way that it feels like an effect.
One of the things you mentioned there is that the Potter films were quite stuck to the school, but Fantastic Beasts is a proper, globe-trotting journey. How did you go about differentiating different wizarding locations and even nations?
Obviously we shoot on a backlot rather than on location, although we did a bit of location filming for London, so it’s always a Stuart Craig designed version of that city. When we had the magical circus, there was an opportunity to have things like the moving statue and moving posters, as well as the oddities and circus stalls. We were just brainstorming as to what would be at a carnival or fete in reality and then what the magical version of that would be.
But we started with reality all the time. I’ve been with my kids near the Science Museum and there was somebody making huge bubbles and I thought it would be amazing if children could leap into them. David loved that idea and then we worked that up into a finished effect. It’s a real collaboration between pre-viz artists, concept artists, stunt co-ordinators, second unit directors. We all come together to think of lots of ideas for David to hone into the vision for the finished film.
You mentioned the studio there. For you as a Brit working for a British effects company, how important is it that this big, blockbuster world remains in Britain as its home?
I think it’s really important because, from a visual effects perspective I can say that I think the Harry Potter franchise helped build the British visual effects industry. Suddenly, we were working on films in London that you only dreamed of having to go to the West Coast to work on. Likewise, on the production side, Leavesden Studios itself is here because of the Harry Potter franchise.
It’s really important we keep that going because there’s a huge amount of talent here. I think it also gives the films a slightly different aesthetic than if we were in the States. These movies feel like European or British movies. We actually get to do a lot of the post-production here, with help from companies across the pond, but it’s very much a British-led thing.
Let’s talk about some of the beasts themselves. Do you have a favourite creature from these movies?
I always go to the Niffler. We created him for film one and then got to revisit him again. It’s so rewarding when you watch the film and you hear people chuckling or saying how much they enjoy that character, even though he’s an animal. I think it’s because of the characteristics that we have given him that, although he is a platypus-mole thing, but he is kind of like a loyal dog or sometimes a bit of a playful pain in the backside. Everybody sees something in him that you’ve seen in a pet, which is why I think people love him.
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