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Behind the scenes: Hippogriffs

Half bird, half horse, the Hippogriffs are one of the more spectacular species we encounter in the Harry Potter series. Even more spectacular perhaps, is the fact that a life-size, moving Buckbeak was created for the films.

An illustration of Hagrid and Harry with a Hippogriff
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Extracted from Harry Potter: The Creature Vault
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The Hippogriff is an eagle-headed equine that can fly as well as gallop. As taught by Rubeus Hagrid, Care of Magical Creatures professor for third years in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, proper etiquette must be observed when meeting a Hippogriff: bow, and always wait for the creature to come to you.

Buckbeak, the Hippogriff that Hagrid introduces during his first Care of Magical Creatures class in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, needed to be able to bow to Harry, and even be ridden by him. Buckbeak is valuable to two rescue operations during the events of Prisoner of Azkaban, the first when Harry and Hermione are pursued by the werewolf form of Remus Lupin, and then again when Harry and Hermione save Sirius Black; Buckbeak flew Sirius away from Hogwarts castle.

An illustration of Sirius and Harry on Buckebeak
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The designers of Buckbeak drew upon the mythological representations of Hippogriffs when developing the creature for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as well as real birds, primarily the golden eagle, for the creature’s profile. To develop Buckbeak’s movement, they studied the flight motion of birds and the gaits of horses. They also consulted with veterinarians and physiologists to ensure that there was logic to the proportion of Buckbeak’s wings to his legs.

Buckbeak outside Hagrid's Hut
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Early development sketches were turned into computer-generated models to test all aspects of the creature’s motion—galloping, flying, and, most important, landing. The CGI model was also used to explore Buckbeak’s personality, which is alternately regal and coltish. One challenge accomplished by the visual effects team was to create smooth, uninterrupted movement as Buckbeak’s wings went from a twenty-eight foot extended wingspan to fully folded wings.

Four models of the Hippogriff were constructed to satisfy different needs. Three were life-size: a digitally controlled standing Buckbeak on a counterbalanced pole arm was used for foreground shots, a freestanding Buckbeak was used for background shots, and the third was the condemned Buckbeak who sat in the pumpkin patch behind Hagrid’s hut. The sitting Buckbeak was literally placed into his environment — a very muddy, rocky Scottish hillside — and controlled by Aquatronics.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

These three Hippogriffs needed to match exactly, and utilised time- and labour-intensive construction methods. Their bird half was accomplished using the same sizes and colours of feathers for each version, with each feather cut, coloured, and inserted or glued on individually.

Their horse half had their hairs inserted by the complicated flocking process, like the method used for the centaurs, with additional hairs inserted one at a time. It was then airbrushed and art-worked. The fourth Buckbeak was created digitally and used whenever the animal needed to walk or fly.

Concept art for Harry flying on Buckbeak
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter: The Creature Vault book cover

Extracted from
'Harry Potter: The Creature Vault'