A touch of wizardry

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A studio tour with a difference, The Making of Harry Potter aimed to ensure visitors feel not just that they are walking around a film set, but that they are ensconced in the world that has mesmerised them on screen. Jill Entwistle explores the trickery that casts a spell over those travelling to Hogwarts and beyond.
The Daily Telegraph reviewer extolled The Making of Harry Potter as being “as wonderful up close as it is on screen”; no doubt Michael Finney, director of special projects at the California-based Thinkwell Group, would be chuffed because that was really rather the point.
Finney led the team that created the award-winning lighting for the Warner Bros attraction in Hertfordshire, which opened last year. The aim was to make all the sets, which were constructed in Leavesden Studios, appear as they did in the films – an entirely different proposition from lighting them for filming.
“We wanted to come up with the image of the set that people had in their head, as opposed to what they would have walked into on set,” says Finney. “We started by working with stills from the film, which is a little different from how it would appear lit live – that would have been a lot brighter and the contrast levels would have been a lot lower.”
The process inevitably involved close collaboration with the professionals who worked on the original films. “We worked backwards from where the fixtures were positioned on the movie set so we could get the angles to mimic what was used during filming,” says Finney. “Then we got the fixture package used on the sets so we had relative intensities and relative colour temperatures of the different lamps. We then translated that into architectural fixtures because, practically speaking, we needed to be able to maintain it, and we didn’t want anywhere near the energy consumption that a film set would have.”
Going green
With two-thirds of the fixtures being LED (RGBAW and AW) and one third metal halide – primarily for profile spots “where we needed punchy highlights or to frame the field of a fixture” – meeting tighter energy targets was less onerous than it might have been 10 years ago. But for a leisure project, efficiency was perhaps unusually high on the agenda. “Warner Bros has a corporate mandate to be as energy efficient as possible,” says Finney. “The decision was made very early to go for BREEAM certification.”
With the help of Hoare Lea – “the guys there were brilliant in walking us through BREEAM; we’re used to working with LEED” – the lighting contributed to the overall site achieving a Very Good rating. The installed load is 32W/m2 while the night/grey day operational load is 19W/m2 for display and public areas; the figure decreases further when back of house is taken into account.
Fittings had to be very precisely angled and positioned, with two levels of mounting options: within the architectural features of the scenery and on the building itself.
“We made a decision very early on not to try and make the building look like a slick, finished facility. We wanted it to look more like a movie stage set,” says Finney. “So we did have a pipe grid and fixed positions overhead above the scenery. It wasn’t just about the fun of the set; in many cases we were highlighting how the set was built and so lit the part of the set that you never saw on camera.”
The main challenge, though, was integrating fittings into the scenery. “Because the sets were built to be taken apart, the problem was getting a permanent mounting location and getting the angles right to work with the set and the openings that were available. When you’re doing a film set you’re adjusting things constantly. No matter how close you get on paper, sometimes things will surprise you, or the drawings you think you’re building to may or may not be accurate.”
On the other hand, set details can be easier to adjust than real life architectural ones. “The film guys are really used to having to open up a set so you can get a fixture where architecturally you wouldn’t. That was great being able to work with them, extending a moulding by three or four inches so a fixture would fit.”
True colours
Colour was a key ingredient in achieving the right cinematic look, which is why LED fittings with their high controllability were the predominant luminaire type. The ETC control system involved around 11 universes of DMX512, providing more than 5,000 channels. “The main advantage of the LEDs was being able to control the colour and the colour temperature. We got a much closer approximation of the film fixture,” says Finney. “For instance, it’s a common conceit in the film world that night-time shots have a dark blue shadow to them, so we repeated that language live. We could shift it off a perfect colour temperature and make it more blue or spike it in the green a little bit to really punch up the scenery.”
The LED wash fittings from Austrian company Leader Light had no pre-programmed colours available in the console. “We were having to create colours from scratch, which was challenging and took some time, but it meant we didn’t get lazy and fall back on a pre-programmed colour – we were forced into fixing the right one.” Which is how programmer and assistant designer Jim Beagey arrived at brown light.
“We had had an awful time getting the colour right on the large round metal Snake Door. He created this odd russet-toned red that just punched up the rusted nature of this metal like nothing I’d ever seen,” says Finney.
One of the qualities for which the film series is celebrated is its fidelity to detail. It was one of the factors that drove the lighting says Finney. “You look at Dumbledore’s office, it’s not a big set but everyone has seen every little bit of it – how the cabinets are dressed, down to the crown moulding details. You really have to showcase those,” he says. “We intended to light it as one static look but we just kept finding different things that were important, so we built seven different looks to transition from one to the other to focus your eye on different areas.”
The ultimate judges of the scheme, in Finney’s eyes, are the professionals who worked on the original films. All were invited along with their families for the test shows. “A number said how thankful they were to finally see their work in three dimensions, and they seem to be happy with it,” says Finney. “When he saw Diagon Alley, one said, ‘That’s the way it looked in my head.”’
PROJECT: Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making Of Harry Potter, Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden, Hertfordshire
CLIENT: Warner Bros. Entertainment
LIGHTING DESIGN: Thinkwell Group with Warner Bros and CD+M Lighting Design Group
ARCHITECT: KMG Partnership
BUILDING SERVICES ENGINEER: Hoare Lea Consulting Engineers
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR: Derry Building Services
GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Bowmer and Kirkland
PROJECT MANAGEMENT: Landid Property Holdings
Longevity strategy
To ensure the studio tour can stand the test of time, a longevity strategy was incorporated into the lighting scheme’s design:
A sequenced ‘power-up’ programme built into the controls helps reduce the chances of harmful voltage drops by hitting everything to full at once. A fade-up on all LED units avoids sharp spikes in voltage to the individual modules and, as Finney says, “it’s also more pleasant to be around than flashing everything on at once”.
Thinkwell also built a controlled/forced cool-down period in the channels for metal halide fixtures to help reduce the chances of repeated hot restrikes. All the mounting locations provide full venting to the rear and top of the fixtures so housings are not overheated. “This is a problem we often see in themed environments where the fixtures need to be hidden,” says Finney.
Maintenance strategy
Thinkwell built a number of test cues into the system that the operators run daily, which gives them a quick way to identify lamp and control failures. Cycling given groups of fixtures in a sequence makes it clear when there’s a lamp outage, while control failures are highlighted by cycling through colour settings on the LED units – if a fixture is in the wrong colour or a group fails to come up, then there’s a control fault. There are also a series of monthly, quarterly and yearly physical inspections.
The team worked hard to ensure equipment is easily accessible for maintenance. “I actually had to abandon a couple of positions that I really wanted to use because there simply wouldn’t have been decent access after the installation was done,” says Finney.
What Finney describes as “a holdover from the days of incandescent lamps,” the programme has 95 per cent as full on for the LED fixtures. “I don’t have any definitive proof that this will or will not help the fixture life,” he says, “but it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.”
Planning also involved leaving a deliberate amount of spare capacity in both the power panels and control conduits for future changes, be they to the exhibits or the technology. In the short term, this helps to prevent overstressing components, says Finney, and in the long term it allows room to expand or implement changes in a more managed way. “This is something a lot of people choose to save money on, but Warner Bros was a client that immediately bought into the concept of future-proofing its facility.”
Supplier Details
White Light Key supplier
ETC Source Four HID ERS and HID Jr ERS, Selador Pearl CE LED, Sensor 3 Power Control Systems (dimming and switching), EOS
Lighting Control Console, EOS Remote Processor Unit
Leader Light LL Stage Wash RGBAW and AW LED wash fixtures
Martin Professional Exterior 400 and 420 LED accent fixtures
Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast Power Core and ColorBlast 6 and 12 LED wash and accent fixtures
Storm Lighting Metal halide track heads
Altman DMX Smart Track LED, Spectra PAR 100 LED, SSW-IQ38-50 LED track head and IQ38 track head (retrofit with LED PAR)
The original planned power consumption for the exhibition areas was around 340kW (estimated using California energy guidelines) but the final design maximum was just under 269kW (32W/m2), including display items that incorporate lighting elements. The final operating load is approximately 154kW, rising to just over 156kW on grey days or at night (19W/m2).
“We’ve heard from operations that the overall facility is significantly more efficient with regards to lighting-related requirements than originally estimated,” says Michael Finney, project lead and director of special projects at Thinkwell Group. “Part of that is direct loads from the fixtures and part of it is the secondary cooling loads, both in the exhibit areas and in the control/electrical rooms.”
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