How 'Fantastic Beasts' Created a CG World of Magical Creatures

To bring J.K. Rowling's latest wizarding realm to the big screen, special effects gurus carefully crafted the look and movements of hand-animated animals (from the Niffler to the insect-eating Bowtruckle).
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
The Erumpent, modeled after rhinos and bisons.

A stampede of new, computer-generated magical animals from the imagination of J.K. Rowling will be let loose on the screen when Warner Bros.' Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a five-film follow-up to the Harry Potter franchise, opens Nov. 18. Author Rowling described their powers in detail, but it was up to the visual effects team on the $180 million production to figure out how the whole menagerie should look and move.

"We were briefed that they should look like real animals, not fancy animals — creatures you might come across if you were on a safari, but slightly odd," says Tim Burke, who served as VFX supervisor with Christian Manz. The pair are both Harry Potter alums, reteaming here with director David Yates, who helmed the past four Potter movies.

The largest of the creatures is the rhino-like Erumpent, whose thick hide wards off curses and charms. "She's a very large creature, standing 17 feet high and 20 feet long," explains Burke. "The rhino was an obvious reference; she's not dissimilar in shape and form. We also looked at bison for the way our Erumpent could move."

Pushing the boundaries of the creatures' performances — all of which were hand-animated — presented the biggest challenge. Says Manz: "There was also complex stuff from a technical standpoint, like this sort of liquid sack on the Erumpent's forehead that made her slightly more unusual than a normal creature. That had to move and have internal lighting."

Extra planning was required for the creatures who interact directly with the movie's "magizoologist" Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne. Typically, to help actors establish an eyeline when playing opposite a CG character, simple devices like a tennis ball on a stick are used as a stand-in for the eventual fantasy creations. "But Eddie needed to build a relationship with all of the creatures and wanted to work with something while he was on set. So we had to give him something more," says Burke.

Once the visual effects artists decided on the look and scale of the beasts, they turned their 3D models over to the props department, which created lightweight props for each of the creatures. Continues Burke, "We had a puppeteered maquette that represented Pickett [a tiny twig-like 'Bowtruckle']. And we used puppets to represent things like the Niffler [a small, furry rodent with a duckbill]."

The stand-in for the Erumpent was even more elaborate — the production created a full-size wire-frame puppet, which required four operators, who took their cues from the animation studies that had been created and then reproduced the Erumpent's movements on the soundstage.

Says Burke, "We used the team that puppeteered the War Horse character in the stage play. They came in during preproduction and rehearsed with Eddie so that Eddie could interact with them."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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