Jim McKeown: Building the worlds of Harry Potter, James Bond and Captain America
Jim McKeown has been building props for the film industry for over 20 years. Recent work includes Hogwarts School for the Harry Potter films and Ridley Scott’s Med Pod for Prometheus.
Photo: Redpill | VForVendetta.com
Whether it’s prop-making for feature films, creative solutions for interior designers or innovative stainless steel movie posters, Jim McKeown’s work incorporates a number of avenues with one defining quality – a wonderful imagination. This has enabled him to enjoy a career spanning over fifteen years working in film production. His unique talents in prop and model making, special effects and costume design have been utilised on a number of high profile films as well as in music video, television and the theatre. He’s worked with some of the industry’s most renowned filmmakers including Ridley Scott, Andrew Stanton, Joe Johnson, Danny Boyle and Sam Mendes, on films including Prometheus, John Carter, Captain America: The First Avenger, Sherlock, Wanted, Stardust, The Golden Compass, Casino Royale and Harry Potter.
It is an enviable list of credits for a man who was stuck between deciding whether to major in music or art in high school. Luckily, for the films that have benefited from his unique and inventive approach to design and those audiences that have been thrilled by the realisation of such make-believe worlds, he chose art. Indeed, it was a pushy art teacher who sat him in a room with a phone and told him not to come out until he’d spoken to Wallace and Gromit animator and idol Nick Park. Jim was having to research an artist he admired for a project. As luck would have it, not only did he manage the feat with only the Yellow Pages to hand, he managed to talk his way into a luncheon meeting.
“I walked out of her office with a smile you could see on Google Earth,” he says. “This challenge definitely started my drive to be a go-getter. I enjoyed drawing and makings things but I didn’t realise that I could make a living out of it. I used to do commercials with my Art Foundation course tutor on the side to make some cash whilst studying. The first adverts I made were for billboards for the National Lottery depicting a man who had just been run over and flattened whilst using a scratch card. To see this on billboards around the country was very strange and a new experience.”
Learning from the creators of Wallace and Gromit and Spitting Image
At the time, during the mid-1990s, one of the biggest shows on British television was Spitting Image, a political satire involving puppets made to look like caricature versions of leading politicians. Jim set his sights on developing something inspired by the show and contacted Spitting Image creator Roger Law. Getting the opportunity to work in Law’s workshop, Jim sculpted, moulded and developed a puppet resembling television personality Bruce Forsythe. He admits he was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Law, but seized the opportunity, learning from the industry veteran and getting to work with some of the leading sculptors, model makers and animatronics technicians in Britain.
Jim had a real thirst for the industry now. He had a foot firmly in the door and was eager to progress from television into film. “I have always loved watching films,” he tells me, remembering early childhood memories of watching Bond on the sofa with his family and making fruit salad with his Granddad whilst watching black and white Tarzan movies. The opportunity to transition to film came in 1997 when Working Title Films began production on The Borrowers. The fantasy-comedy, which starred John Goodman and Jim Broadbent, followed the exploits of a family of tiny (only six inches tall) “borrowers” who live in a house that is planned for demolition. Think Honey, I Shrunk the Kids with a British touch. Jim was tasked to create the oversized props for in-camera effects as the actors interacted with them. This involved building an assortment of household items such as a six-foot tall walkie-talkie and an eighteen-inch paper clip.
“When I start on a film the art department give me either drawings or a story board, depending on what you are doing. The drawing could be anything from a model, hand prop, set dressing item, stunt prop, sculpture, jewellery to some other form of in-camera effect. Whatever has been envisaged and drawn has to be brought to life and look real.”
“To be part of the process of making a film is both a great experience and a hell of lot of very hard work which takes up your life when it is in full swing,” explains Jim. The film proved to be another great learning curve for the prop maker who was beginning to make the right noises with the right people. “The Borrowers was for a company called Evolution. They were into both special effect and props and models. I must have spent six months making props for them and also going on rain, wind, and fire effects projects. It was a great way of getting experience in many areas of the industry.”
Jim’s big break came early in the 2000s when Warner Bros. began working on the Harry Potter films. Working directly for production on the Harry Potter model unit, Jim was part of the crew tasked with creating the colossal grandeur of gothic-tinged Hogwarts School where Harry Potter and his friends would do battle with the mighty Voldemort.
“When I start on a film the art department give me either drawings or a storyboard, depending on what you are doing. The drawing could be anything from a model, hand prop, set dressing item, stunt prop, sculpture, jewellery to some other form of in-camera effect. Whatever has been envisaged and drawn has to be brought to life and look real,” Jim says of the process.
If that sounds difficult consider that sometimes a prop maker will only be given hints as to what is required. This hint is delivered without any conceptual art meaning the filmmakers only know what they want when they see it. If it isn’t right, it is back to the workshop.
“Each job is completely different. There aren’t many occasions where I have to make something which I have done exactly the same before. This does keep it interesting. Film work can last for anything from three months to ten months. The work can even be on a day-to-day basis if you are brought in on dailies to help get something finished.”
You realise just how small and close-knit the industry is, Jim recalls. “After a job you could get a call from someone you worked with asking you to join them elsewhere and so it goes on. Not for one minute did I ever think I would work for Jim Henson but because of somewhere I worked and the people I worked with I received a call to work on a Henson-produced children’s television series. That then led to building a forty-foot U-boat for the film Enigma, which was to be shot out at sea. That led to Hogwarts. My whole career can be mapped out by who I have worked with and where. It would look like a huge family tree.”
Jim admits he feels privileged to have spent time on a variety of major productions. He says humbly, “From creating Hogwarts School for wizards, working on forty-foot long U-boats shot in the sea, to creating talking construction vehicles, blowing up iconic buildings of London, making jewellery for creatures from Mars and “Medipods” for extracting aliens from people, I realise how lucky I have been.”
Building the world of Harry Potter
Of course, the piece Jim is asked about the most is the Hogwarts model for Harry Potter. Now that it is available for everyone to see at Warner Bros. Harry Potter Experience in London, the work Jim and a talented team of designers and artists worked many hours developing is exhibited in all its glory.
“Harry Potter was my first real big budget feature film. I was still quite young and although I did know this was to be a big film, I never thought it would end up in a museum. Usually, everything we make ends up in storage for years or in the skip.
“The build was about six months long. There were around thirty crew to start with. This increased as the deadline grew closer. There must have been sixty to seventy model makers by the end and then on top of that the painters, like ants all over it.
“The surface area of Hogwarts is vast and each process of colours and washes to make it look as it does is quite a task. The whole model is made from steel, plaster, resin, MDF, pine, polystyrene, sweat and tears.
“As the shoot date was getting closer it was only then that the lighting of the model came up. Three of us had to put in an amazing number of fibre optics to light flambeaus to highlight rooms in and around the whole castle. Each room was accessible with some having to be tunnelled through solid polystyrene. From the front boathouse and up the stairs was the most interesting. There was a massive amount of polystyrene under that rock facade which had to be tunnelled through to receive fibre optic cables to power those flambeaus.
“When there are two grown adults standing up in a 1:24 scale Great Hall threading fibre optics and positioning them to light the interior and windows twelve to fifteen feet up in the air, it tends to be quite an interesting challenge. Other areas required a smaller member of the crew to access.”
The Hogwarts School model currently resides at Warner Bros. Studios in London
Intricate details bring out the finer points of the model
…every door, window frame and brick is meticulously detailed
I can attest to the fact the Hogwarts model is a mightily impressive piece of work. On a recent visit to Warner Bros. Studios I was able to look at this 1:24 scale model up close and personal. The level of detail is indeed astonishing. It is even more striking because the minutest details are so authentically realised. Fleeting moments of film capture Hogwarts school, with added computer-generated imagery to bring out further detail, its life-like splendour a fully enveloping and believable presence. Yet nothing can prepare you for the intricate details evident in everything from the windows, doors, pathways and stone-like spires atop the medieval building’s imposing towers. For example, each individual brick, of which there must be a hundred thousand or more, is perfectly rendered, the stains of time and war giving each one character and vitality.
“To be part of the process of making a film is both a great experience and a hell of lot of very hard work which takes up your life when it is in full swing.”
Jim hopes that those who don’t get the opportunity to see Hogwarts and other Harry Potter sets, costumes, concept art and props at the studio tour in London, will at least get a chance to see some of the detail on high-definition home video.
What is surprising is that the model wasn’t used in the final two Harry Potter films, the filmmakers choosing instead to use only a computer-generated version of the school. Jim, although admitting a kinship to the model, believes it was a strange move to make. “The idea of using the model and finessing it with digital CG effects is great. Both processes help each other and create an amazing result. To rebuild from scratch in digital and end up with a lower quality final result did confuse me.”
It does appear, however, the way modern film production is heading, that more effects will be created in the computer rather than in the workshop. This has meant Jim has become more focused on props than models. “With more digital work taking over, the model making departments are becoming less and less popular.
“It was the Golden Compass when my work became more prop based. I was turning down model unit work to head towards an area I enjoyed and that had more of a future in it. I still think that models have their place with CG making them look that much better. However, in a CG environment there is more control and you can continue to do more rather than be stuck with a model shoot and only have what is done in that short time period.”
“Using technology in the right capacity becomes a very good tool but you still need the skills and knowledge of good prop makers to make it all happen – so our jobs aren’t defunct yet.”
Computers are also having a big impact on prop making. Some of that is down to digital enhancement in post-production but an increasingly popular process is computer numerical control (CNC) which is used for precision cutting amongst other things.
“Getting things CNC’d is a growing method. Laser-cutting, water-jet cutting, CNC routing or getting things “grown” are options we now have. I am very much in favour of these techniques as it takes some of the repetitive builds away and gives you more time to get a better end result.
Blowing up a model in V For Vendetta
“Good examples of this are when we draw up the prop on CAD (computer aided design) and separate any CNC parts and email those off, then make and mould the other parts. When the CNC items return you can then put it all together like a big jigsaw.
“Using technology in the right capacity becomes a very good tool but you still need the skills and knowledge of good prop makers to make it all happen – so our jobs aren’t defunct yet.
“The digital world does try to take work from us but it also helps us as it improves and simplifies some of our work. However, I feel there will always be a need for things to be made for real. Actors will always need to hold things, even if it’s an MDF shape painted blue or green. There are so many areas where our work crosses.”
Jim recently spent time in the costume jewellery department on the film John Carter making items for the Tharks. “There were specific characters needing items for each limb (four arms and two legs equals a lot of work for me!). Then there was a range to dress the other background Tharks. These Tharks were CG creatures, so everything I made was created for real then digitally scanned and put on the characters and animated digitally. In every shot of that film my work is everywhere. Shame it didn’t do too well at the box office.”
Making the Med Pod for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus
Of course, he is particularly proud of his work on Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, creating the Med Pod which was central to the film’s stand out scene. It was a challenging project given he had a short deadline to work with and the fact he was senior prop maker on it. “What an amazing prop to have made,” he says, enthusiastically. “The special effects department was making our parts move for real, opening and closing our doors amongst other things. There were some long hours and when that scene was playing out, I was definitely speechless. Thank god it all worked!”
Jim’s latest venture is bringing his imagination and skills direct to your home. In between his time on film sets, Blue Print Jim draws on his experience, methods and technology to produce bespoke items for the home environment. Still in its early stages, current items include innovative key and post racks, coat hooks, and laser cut stainless steel film posters.
See more of Jim McKeown’s work at his portfolio site here. You may also be interested in purchasing some of his bespoke household items at his newly launched Blue Print Jim shop. Blue Print Jim ships worldwide!
Written by Daniel Stephens