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Fade to Black: Alfonso Cuarón, Director

Among other things, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban taught Alfonso Cuarón the subtle difference between stress and exhaustion.

Taking over the directorial helm on the third installment of the Warner Brothers’ franchise, Cuarón got involved in a much bigger film than what he was used to. He had directed major studio films before (Great Expectations, 1998), but achieved acclaim as a director and screenwriter in 2001 for a small indie film from his native Mexico — Y Tu Mamá También.

Compared to that project, Cuarón entered a new universe when he hopped on the Potter train. “I had to work more closely with [DP] Michael Seresin and [visual effects supervisors Roger Guyett and Tim Burke] than I had ever done on my films previously,” says Cuarón. “I understood the principles, but I had never worked with visual effects at this level. Fortunately, the concept is the same as working on a smaller movie in terms of applying these effects shots to tell our story. What’s different is size and logistics. For the most part, it all went like clockwork. I was never stressed on this shoot in that way. I was very tired, exhausted, though, because when directing a movie like this, you are driving a much bigger machine.

“Ang Lee said it best when he once referred to filmmaking as being about endurance. This project was about endurance, from my perspective. A lot of it was fun, not stressful in any way, but all of it was exhausting. I’m not very prolific for this reason. I respect those prolific guys and envy them, but I also like to live my life and take siestas.”

Cuarón’s exhaustion came from running shoots at London’s Leavesden Film Studios, outside of London at Shepperton Studios, on location in Scotland, and all across the city of London. Simultaneously, on the technical side, he endured a visual effects learning curve for some 1,000 digital shots (created at Framestore CFC, London; The Moving Picture Company, London; Double Negative, London; Cinesite, London; and Industrial Light + Magic, San Rafael, Calif.), and was involved in his first digital intermediate, performed by colorist Peter Doyle at the PostHouse, London. Creatively, Cuarón labored to ensure that Azkaban both respected and evolved the established look and feel of the previous two Harry Potter films directed by Chris Columbus.

“Chris Columbus produced this film, and from the get-go, I understood the rules,” says Cuarón. “The idea was to use them to your advantage — to inherit this universe of the school and the characters, and then work with Chris and Stuart Craig, our production designer, and Michael and Roger and Tim and this beautiful cast to give the audience a spectacle like they have come to expect, but a new one. We have a different color palette, for instance, from the previous movies, but within that, the same architecture. We go to places and new sights that haven’t been seen before. And, of course, a lot of that is where the visual effects came in.”

In particular, Cuarón says the big effects challenges revolved around the issue of consistency. “We wanted to achieve unity of light,” he says. “It’s true that there are amazing things that our visual effects people did with fabric and creatures and rendering and things, but what I found most complicated about effects was having the post people match what the cinematographer was able to do — to filter all the cool things we designed and created in the computer through the light we captured on-set.

“As artists, our people should be proud of how they matched the light from our photography. When they have to do dozens of passes on a single creature and then render it, and you have maybe 120 shots of that creature in the film and each shot is slightly different, even if they are all beautiful, you have a problem. The creature has to look identical in each shot. I look at it like the visual effects people were covering my back — they didn’t tell our story, but they facilitated my ability to tell the story.”

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