We met John Richardson, Oscar and BAFTA winning special effects supervisor across all eight Harry Potter films at the preview of Platform 9 3/4 at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London
Special effects are leaning more towards CGI these days. Where you would draw the line between actually using CGI and doing something physically?
I don’t think you really draw the line between the two. The trick is to submerge the two as best that you can. I think the way that you do that is to look at whatever the effect is, whatever has to be done, and figure out as much as you can do for real, do as much as you can do for real. And then you enhance that with CGI or add to it with additional work or use it to paint rigs out and paint wires out.
If it’s impossible to do it for real, then you have to go into the CGI world. And if you go into the CGI world, again, you look at what elements you can create for real. That’s why we did what we did throughout the Harry Potter films: we’d make the effects rigs and the CGI guys would paint things out that we didn’t want to see. They’d add to it to enhance it, make it look bigger or better or brighter, whatever. When it was something that was really pure CGI, we would go out and create elements for them, meaning explosions or a rocket or a firework or something, and would film it and they would incorporate that into the CGI world. And I think that’s one of the reasons why the Harry Potter movies stand out, because they look as real as could be.
I hear you like doing explosions…
Well, blowing things up is always fun!
Is it difficult creating fire with CGI as well?
The CGI has got better and better and better. I think that if you use it all, though, it tends to look a little bit like an animated film. So I’m always pushing for the reality side. You can do real explosions and make them look really good and they work really well. The other thing is that you get the reaction from the people around them, when it is real rather than just standing in front of a green screen, so when you make the big bang, people react to it and that enhances things as well. You know, it all counts.
How do you feel about the way visual effects are leaning today, especially during a sort of superhero heavy time in cinema?
We made Superman - I forget how many years ago, thirty-something odd years ago. You look back and there are parts that look a little bit cheesy, but it’s still pretty good for the day. I think one of the reasons for that is that the director, Richard Donner, didn’t try and take things too far, he didn’t try and get too clever with it. He tried to stay within certain confines, and it worked. I still think the original Superman that Richard Donner made is better than anything that’s come out since. Somewhere in there lies the answer to your question.
You won a BAFTA for Special Visual Effects for the second Deathly Hallows…
I won a BAFTA for Potter, but we were nominated eight times. You know, people say that a nomination is as good as the statue. Not quite, but you know, it’s good enough.
Deathly Hallows Part II was my favourite special effects wise, especially because of the big battle at the end. I’m wondering what was your favourite part of that battle to work on?
Well it was obviously blowing things up. We’d looked at it long enough, so to have the chance to do a few real big bangs… We hadn’t really done it throughout the Potter films. We’d had some spell hits and small stuff. Most of the time throughout the Potters we were dealing with quite young actors so we had to be really careful with what we did.
A lot of the explosion effects that we did, we did without using any explosives at all, just repressed air and flash bulbs and all the different tricks of the trade. It was only in the latter four that we were filming adults and we had a little bit more latitude to use the real stuff, as they say.
What have you learned about special effects from working on Harry Potter, which started a decade before it finished?
I’ve learned you can do anything if you try, and I’ve learned it’s a lot of fun doing things like Harry Potter. They’re so different to the other films I’d worked before. The closest I’ve ever come to it - funnily enough, sitting here - was The Railway Children many years ago. I’ve worked on a lot of Bond movies and space movies and different things. But Harry Potter is completely unique in what it’s given us the chance, the opportunity to do.
Can you tell me a little bit about the steam that is constantly blowing from the Hogwarts Express here at Platform 9 3/4?
Well, the steam going on back there obviously isn’t real steam. If it were real steam it would make everything in here wet and damp and all. And we couldn’t have people close to it because of the danger of getting burnt by a blast of steam. So we’re using a special... they call it pro steam fluid, it’s a quick disintegrating port fluid. And we use it through regular port machines, but we’re blasting it out with compressed air and fans and little things to recreate the look of the Hogwarts Express.
Mr. Weasley tells us what it's like to be back at Platform 9 3/4
Junior brings you a first look at the new addition to 'The Making of Harry Potter'… Your chance to step aboard the actual Hogwarts Express