VFX and Story in Harry Potter

One of the many things that the current mega-blockbusters have in common is their reliance on visual effects (VFX) and computer generated imagery (CGI).  These incredible tools now allow filmmakers to tell fantastical stories and showcase stunning visuals that would otherwise be impossible to create.  However, there are also instances of CGI being used unnecessarily and not for any particular reason, but just because they can.  Harry Potter is one franchise that has examples of CGI being used in ways that tell the story and convey character as well as examples of CGI that is used solely for spectacle which diminishes the impact of incredibly important moments.

Certainly the most obnoxious use of CGI is in the penultimate fight between Voldemort and Harry in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2.  In the book the climax of the fight is the two men circling each other in front of the whole school with their wands drawn as Harry explains why Voldemort will lose before they shout their trademark spells.  Just as Harry had explained, Voldemort’s killing curse backfires on him causing his lifeless body to collapse on the ground in full view of students, teachers, and Death Eaters alike, proving that he was just a man.  Obviously there have to be concessions when adapting a book, but in the film they turn this incredibly tense scene into a visual clusterf*#k of the two men flying all over Hogwarts punching at each other before they both stand alone shouting their final spells.  Then, to add insult to injury, instead of Voldemort fa
lling to the ground which is what would happen with such a curse, his body turns into ash and disintegrates into the wind.  The tension and build up to this battle over the course of 7 movies is scrapped in favor of a quick pacedvisual roller-coaster where you learn nothing about the characters and is essentially the magic version of two transformers fighting in a Michael Bay film.

Contrast this with the fight between Voldemort and Dumbledore in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix which conveys character through the visual storytelling.  In this sequence we see the two most powerful characters in the series performing feats of magic that look unlike anything we’ve seen in previous films and showcases just how capable they are.  We can visually see the contrast between both characters when Voldemort creates a massive snake made of flame which is countered by Dumbledore who then uses a nearby fountain to contain Voldemort in a floating ball of water.  The Dark Lord then retaliates by expelling some form of black energy which shatters nearby windows and uses the shards to attack Dumbledore who creates a defensive shield that turns the glass into dust.  This move leaves Voldemort surprised at how Dumbledore was able to counter his attack and he appears somewhat afraid of this underestimation as he disappears into smoke.  This fight, while incorporating incredible and compelling visuals, is essentially a chess match between two grandmasters.  Throughout the confrontation we see Voldemort become frustrated and use aggressive forms of magic while Dumbledore remains calm and counters the attacks waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

Unlike the final fight of the franchise, in this scene we learn about these characters through the way they attack each other  which is all created with CGI and enhanced by the performances by both actors.  Also, it’s important to note that both sequences were directed by David Yates, so clearly it’s not that different people have different ideas about how CGI should be used, since the same person who created the most intense and memorable sequences of the franchise also completely dropped the ball when directing the climax of the entire series.  Even though many people like to blame CGI for ruining a lot of modern films, it’s clear that it can enhance and convey story in very unique ways, but it has to be used correctly and not just for the sake of showing off what’s technologically possible.

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