Fantastic Beasts’ True Stars Were Its Special Effects


We all love Newt Scamander, Tina & Queenie Goldstein, Jacob Kowalski and the niffler. But did Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’s special effects outshine our heroes?

As we Potterheads know, nothing new in the Potterverse comes without serious debate. Fantastic Beasts was no exception. While some were ecstatic for any new wizarding content, others, like me, were wary. Attempts at worldbuilding and expansion are always a dangerous prospect, as Star Wars fans know too well.

We had all just recently made our peace with the end of Potter as well. Other than the horror that was The Cursed Child and some questionable Pottermore updates (cue the debate in the comments), it’s been a few years since any major Potter media hit the mainstream. The Fantastic Beasts franchise announcement felt like seeing a family member rise from the dead – wonderful, but also kind of terrifying.

This is why Fantastic Beasts was such a refreshing relief.

I walked into the theater a true Slytherin – skeptical, and decked in green and silver. Rowling couldn’t just win me over again with that WB logo and a few notes of Hedwig’s theme.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers

At first, I didn’t know if I’d like, or even connect with, these new characters. The actors did a fantastic job, but I had 7 books and 8 movies worth of proof for my love of Ron Weasley. It was an ultimate paradox – how do you make people care about these characters while leaving room for further movies?

The answer lies in the magic itself.

If you really think about it, what about The Philosopher’s Stone captured you in the first place? You didn’t know there would be more books, or even movies, and didn’t know who any of the characters would become. The readers, just like Harry Potter himself, were drawn in by the magic.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers

This is why the first novel and book are so beloved, and often judged and discussed differently than the rest of the franchise. Rowling used Harry’s Muggleborn perspective to induct you into a magical world, then built on the characters once you were already hooked.

Now, with late 2010s technology and all eyes on screens, J.K. and the Beasts gang are doing the same thing, just with bigger stakes for wizarding history.

Sometimes it takes a little flash to get our attention, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t substance (niffler pun intended).

The movie started with that dazzling, scary, and destructive obscurus ripping up the streets to shock us. It was a clear message – the wizarding world is back, and it’s not screwing around.

Also, we first meet Newt chasing the comic relief, the niffler, to remind us that magic can be fun, but chaotic and uncontrollable. (Control over one’s magic seems to be a running theme in the film, anyway).

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers

These are both easy visual storytelling devices. What better way to show the alluring danger of magic than to show and not tell? Dazzle us by ripping up an entire cobblestone street of New York City, take us on an adorable animated creature chase, then get to the story. The audience now knows two things – magic is becoming a serious problem, and animals are great – which happen to be the main two points of the movie.

All this showing-not-telling and audience dazzling could only happen with some expert special effects.

However, wizarding SFX present a unique challenge. Big franchises like Harry Potter are usually at the forefront, establishing audiences’ expectations for how realistic something fantastical should look on screen. Every new wizarding movie basically has to compete with each other, and look good doing it.

Also, with the new setting in the past, these movies have to produce historical locales as well as the magic. Sure, the characters are new and use magic, but we can connect with their world if there are recognizable parts of real history.

It’s still Prohibition, and there’s still speakeasies, just some of them have goblin bartenders. We’ve never seen MACUSA, but the CGI recreation of its crest with a bald eagle establishes an instant visual parallel to the American presidential seal.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers

So how did they recreate the 1920s, modify human actors into magical beings, and render fictional beasts?

Every film does this differently. From LOTR and The Hobbit‘s extensive use of motion capture, to the Star Wars prequels contested CGI backgrounds, there’s actually a lot of choices. While some may expound on the benefits of “practical effects”, it’s usually a very interesting combination of puppets, prosthetics, models, CGI and more.

Next: Behind the Scenes: Warwick Davis Discusses Professor Flitwick

While I love Eddie Redmayne dearly, I’ll let the true stars, animation director Pablo Grillo and VFX supervisor Christian Manz, take it from here.