It is a good time to be a fan of the boy wizard right now. Earlier in the week, the eBook versions of all seven Harry Potter novels were finally made available through the pottermore.com website, and this weekend the doors of The Making of Harry Potter studio tour will at last be opened with a star-studded red carpet event at the Leavesden Studios where all eight movies were made.
From 1939 until 1994 the Leavesden Aerodrome was home to a local airfield and factory, producing fighter planes during the Second World War and Rolls-Royce aircraft engine in later years. The factory closed in 1994 and the hangars were transformed into soundstages and construction workshops, the airfield turned into a fully functioning backlot and the new center for film production in the UK was born. It was home for many film production, including several James Bond movies, before a relatively new production company came there to make a film about young boy who discovers he is a wizard on his 11th birthday.
Over the next ten years, the cast and crew of over 3,000 in total inhabited more and more of the Leavesden studios as the popularity of the books and films grew and grew. The three young stars lived there, grew up there, went to school there and turned into adults on those stages. When all the films were completed the future of the studio complex was very uncertain until Warner Brothers decided to invest a huge amount of money in both the local area and the British film industry in general, by turning part of the site into London’s newest tourist attraction, The Warner Brothers Studio Tour, whilst keeping plenty of other stages and studios around to be used as the base for their UK film productions. They hired Thinkwell, an experiential design and development firm based in Burbank, who also created the opening event for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, to design and produce the tour taking the iconic sets, costumes, props and creatures, and creating an authentic, immersive behind-the-scenes look at how the films were made. It’s taken nearly two years to get there, but it finally opens to the public this weekend.
The tour is based around a timed entry system. You have to buy your tickets in advance (£28 for adults and £21 for children) and then turn up within your 30 minute slot, but after that you can spend as long as you like wandering around. The journey begins in the foyer, with a flying Ford Anglia hanging from the ceiling and the walls decorated with huge photos of the cast, together with a few props. A small queue forms as everyone in your time slot gathers together by the set of the cupboard under the stairs, and after a while we were ushered into a room with several vertical TV screens showing Potter movie posters from around the world. Before long the screens began to show a short video sequence showing the rise of Harry’s popularity, how the production team came across the stories, and the tremendous success of the books and films worldwide.
From here we were moved into a mini cinema and shown a short film introduced by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, talking about their experiences growing up on a film set for ten years, with plenty of behind the scenes footage and clips of the best action sequences from all eight films. They were standing in front of the main doors to the Great Hall and when they’d finished, they walked in through the doors and invited us to follow them. Everyone expected to be led off through another little door into the next room, but no. The cinema screen slowly rolled up to the ceiling and revealed the actual main doors to the Great Hall, complete with all the stone statues and intricate carvings. What a way to begin the tour!
Our guide led us through into the Great Hall and he was very keen to impart on us that we were now walking on the actual stone floor used in the films and seeing the actual tables where the actors ate their feasts, wearing the actual costumes on the dummies down each side of the hall. And very impressive it was too, the attention to detail is incredible. Each of the Flambeaux on the walls are carved and painted to perfection and represent one of the Houses of Hogwarts. The water jugs topped with golden pig heads, the huge, blackened fireplace and the aged murals on the stone walls all look so realistic even up close. At the end of the hall is of course the teachers’ table area, filled with more amazing costumes for the likes of Professors Dumbledore, Snape, McGonagall, Moody, Trelawney and Flitwick, as well as Hagrid and Filch too.
The guide gave us another little speech about the tour and I was relived to hear that it was a free for all from this point on. We walked out of the Great Hall and into the first of two vast sound stages. All the children were given a ‘Passport’ at the beginning of the tour which contained a quiz question on each page, with the answer to be found somewhere around the tour, and spaces to collect six embossed stamps from certain sections. There was also the obligatory ‘treasure hunt’ game telling us the locations of 15 Golden Snitches for us to spot as you wander around. I think this became my daughter’s favorite part of the tour. She’s only six at the moment and has so far only read/seen the first book/movie, so it gave her a way to connect with things she hasn’t actually seen in the later films. Some of the snitches are a bit tricky to find, but there are plenty of helpful staff members around to drop the odd hint if you’re a bit stuck.
There really is so much to see that I couldn’t possibly list it all here, and I ended up taking so many photos that it’s probably easier to just look at them all over on Flickr or in the slideshow at the end of the post. We saw the full sets for the Gryffindor Common Room and Dormitory, Dumbledore’s Office, the Potions Classroom, Hagrid’s Hut, the Burrow’s Kitchen and parts of the Ministry of Magic, including Umbridge’s gaudy pink and feline office. Every one of them was filled to the brim with props and costumes and there were staff on hand eager to tell us little facts about their allotted section.
A few of the more interesting ones included:
- The dormitory beds had to be extended in the later films as the boys got bigger and bigger. By the end, they had to lie in them with their legs folded up and be shot from the waist up.
- On wall of the Gryffindor Common Room you can see a painting of Professor McGonagall as a young woman.
- The books that line the shelves of Dumbledore’s Office are mostly phone directories and there are 48 portraits of former headmasters on its walls.
- Many of the potion bottles on the wall are filled with plastic animals from Regent’s Park Zoo and baked bones from a butcher’s shop.
- The Burrow set has a few of the special mechanical effects set up in it. By pointing a special wand at the right place you can make knitting knit itself, a knife chop carrots and activate the self washing frying pan.
There are props everywhere, ranging from huge skeletons to small items of jewelry. Cabinets containing all of the Horcruxes, another with the Philosopher’s stone (Sorcerer’s stone for you US readers), a Remembrall, a Deluminator, etc., plus one more with the Tri-Wizard cup and a Golden Egg. There was a giant cage in the middle, so chock full of golden skeletons, goblets, chandeliers, wands and the cutest suit of armor I’ve ever seen (it was for a house elf), that it looked like the Room of Requirement. There was another huge glass case containing the wands of 24 of the major characters – less than 1 percent of the total number of wands made for the films! Larger items were placed around the edges of the sets and included the Mirror of Erised, the painting of the Fat Lady, and ornate doors to a Gringott’s vault and to the Chamber of Secrets. The level of detail in these last two was just astonishing – many people assumed the snakes moving on the Chamber of Secrets door were CG because of their complexity, but they’re actually real and cast in metal and resin. There was a whole wall dedicated to the paintings produced to decorate the walls of Hogwarts, some of which are actually of the producers and designers of the movies.
Underneath the giant swinging pendulum of the Hogwarts castle clock there are several huge touch screens containing an interactive Marauders Map, which opens up to reveal the grounds of Hogwarts and with behind the scenes facts, photos and information about some of the sets that are not featured in the tour. Elsewhere another multi-touch interactive activity allows you to work as part of a post-production team to edit together a short scene by combining some movie footage with sound, music and visual effects.
There are sections of the soundstage dedicated to various movie-making crafts. The hair and makeup section has loads of wigs and some odd product placement, as well as details of how the make-up is applied. The costumes section has plenty of sketches and photos of the outfits being designed and worn. There’s a nice bit showing how they keep the ‘Breakdown’ of a costume in stages – four identical outfits, with each one progressively more worn out. Also on display are the fabulous hats, shoes and uniform of the wizards from Beauxbatons Academy of Magic – designed by milliner to royalty and celebrities Philip Treacy. The animal department shows that they need many similar-looking animals for each role to keep them looking the right age – there were four Hedwigs, nine Fangs and more than a dozen rats, plus an animatronic one, for Scabbers.
My favorite one though has to be the Graphic Design department. The quote on the board next to the glass case says it all: “This was a graphic designer’s dream: An extraordinary opportunity to be creative.” Miraphora Mina, Eduardo Lima and Ruth Winick got to spend their working days creating thousands of fantastic designs, most of which are only seen fleetingly in the films but add so much to the overall feel of them. Some of my faves include editions of The Quibbler and The Daily Prophet, packaging for the Weasleys’ joke products, the Yule Ball invitations, books covers (for such tomes as ‘Hogwarts, A History’ and ‘The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore’) and the intricate Marauder’s Map – which has tiny little pop-up style staircase cut into it. They also designed all the crests for both Hogwarts and the four houses. Hanging above the display case is the gigantic Black family tree tapestry from Grimmauld place.
The last section in this first sound stage is dedicated to the Special Effects department. There are three huge screens running videos of the craftsmen at work showing all their tricks and techniques, from the greenscreen footage and CGI work through to the final shots. Several huge props are on display attached to their motion rigs, including the Gringott’s vault cart and Mad-Eye Moody’s recumbent broomstick. However, the best bit of this section is tucked away in a separate room and allows you to have a go on a broomstick or drive the Ford Anglia yourself. You get to sit on a broomstick (or green box for the Ford Anglia), and the monitors around show you superimposed onto footage of London streets, the river Thames, the Hogwarts Express and the castle itself. You get to whiz around for a couple of minutes before they take a still photo of you and send you through to the tills. I was hoping to be able to take home a DVD of the footage or maybe have it emailed to me, but for some bizarre reason they don’t have the rights to do that! So you have to make do with the photos, which were £18 for the three we brought. As this was a preview day the queues weren’t too bad at all, but I dread to think what it will be like on a busy day.
We’re about halfway around the tour now and the next part to visit is the backlot – an open air section between the two soundstages where you can grab some much needed refreshments, including the much sought after Butterbeers! They were a bit on the pricey side, £2.95 for a half-pint plastic cup (not even fancy steins like in the Florida theme park), but boy did they taste nice! A kind of butterscotch flavored cream soda, topped with a creamy marshmallow sauce – I could have drunk about five and kept thinking about them all day long. Again though, I think the tiny refreshment stand will be swamped on a busy day, but maybe they’re planning to add some more units later. We got to drink our Butterbeers sitting on the actual benches used in the Great Hall and gaze out over the Knight Bus, another Ford Anglia, Hagrid’s motorbike/sidecar (both of which you can sit in), the Riddle family tombstone and a section of the rickety wooden Hogwarts bridge. Over the other side was the Potter’s burnt out cottage from Godric’s Hollow and number 4 Privet Drive. For the first movie they used a real street in the town that I grew up in, Bracknell, but for later films they recreated the street on the backlot.
Passing by some of the giant chess pieces from the first movie, we enter the second sound stage and I was slightly freaked out by the first thing I saw: John Cleese’s head on a spike! Of course, it was really Nearly Headless Nick’s head sitting up there next to a whole row of goblins and other strange creatures. A series of video screens here show what it was like to work in the creature shop, introduced by Warwick Davies who cleverly leads you from one screen to the next, past models of Fawkes, a snapping Monster Book of Monsters and a giant animatronic head of Hagrid. In the next room is the life size (i.e., ENORMOUS!) model of Aragog the spider and one of three animatronic Buckbeak models. For most of the time he sits there motionless, but occasionally he gently springs to life and looks at you, seeming like he wants to have a little chat.
Walking around the corner transports you into another world entirely. The dark lighting and cobbled street can only mean one thing – you have entered Diagon Alley. All of the shops have been rebuilt using the original sets – Flourish & Blotts, Eeylops Owl Emporium, Potage’s Cauldron Shop and of course Ollivander’s Wand Shop are there and every one of them is crammed full of detail. At the top end of the street stands Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, its bright orange shopfront standing out from the crowd of blackness, and featuring the moving model of one of the red-haired twins doffing his hat, bursting out of the windows. The major downside to how great all of the shops look is the fact that you can’t go inside them, pick up their wares, hand over your money and walk out again – you have to wait until you get to the gift shop for that!
At the end of Diagon Alley we move into another completely contrasting world – the art and design department. No more dark and dingy walls at all sort of strange angles, all covered in dust and cobwebs. No, here everything is pristine and white. The clean walls are covered with precision architectural drawings, where even the handwriting is a work of art. Here we see incredibly detailed plans, accurate down to the millimeter, for many of the props and sets we’ve already seen on rest of the tour, including the cute House Elf armor and Gringott’s vault cart. A grey draftsman’s table serves as a projection screen for another video, introduced by Emma Watson, praising the hard work of the art department, with sections especially designed to be shown on certain areas of the table – like photos being shown on a picture frame. Further around the slowly rising path are walls full of concept paintings and artwork. There are also intricate cardboard models of Hogsmead and the Hogwarts Castle – which has every brick marked out on it. I’d heard about the famous Hogwarts and was very impressed with all the work that had been put into it.
Turns out I was only looking at a model of the model though. The reason we had been slowly rising became apparent as we entered the next room, coming out onto the second floor. There, spread over at least 15 square meters was the most complex, elaborate, and bewildering model I have ever seen. I think jaw landed somewhere on the lower floor, and even though I was with my daughter I could help but let out an expletive in the style of Robin from the ’60s TV Batman show. The thing is monumental, built to a 1:24 scale and it has a bigger footprint than my house. Every brick, tree, boulder and bush is either a real piece of rock or shrubbery, or has been lovingly hand sculpted and painted by the team of 86 artists over the course of 8 years, all based on the original concept art produced by Stuart Craig and his team. It was built for the first film and has been used in every one since. Most of the times you see the castle on screen, it’s this model. Parts of it were deliberately made to look like the locations used for some of exterior filming, such as Alnwick Castle and Durham Cathedral. Other parts of it were never seen directly on film, such as the boathouse which looks very different when it finally makes its appearance at the end of the saga. Around the edges of the walkway there are several interactive touch screens offering facts about the model’s construction and close up photos of parts of it. The whole thing is so incredible that I had to walk around it several times just to take it all in.
The last part of the tour is a fitting tribute to the crew and cast of the most popular film franchise of all time. A, much tidier recreation of the interior of Ollivander’s Wand shop, with over 3,000 wand boxes lining its shelves – one for every single person who worked on the films. Visual Effects Supervisor John Moffat is right next to Daniel Radcliffe, Transportation Driver Adalberto Da Silva is just above Gary Oldman. I know a couple of people who worked on the films at various stages, but unfortunately I couldn’t find their boxes – there were just too many! It’s a great way to finish off an incredible ode to the amazing creativity of the UK film industry.
Of course, that’s not the end though. You have to exit through the gift shop, and a very well stocked shop it is too. Prices are comparable to those in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida – that is to say, expensive! Replicas of the main characters’ wands are £25, official wizard robes are £75 (for something you can get on Amazon for around 20 to 40 bucks). But that’s peanuts compared to the replica of Hermione’s Yule Ball gown for £249 or Dumbledore’s robes for a mere £499! There are plenty of more reasonably priced T-Shirts, jumpers, ties, scarves, gloves, badges, toys and Lego sets to help separate you from you money though, as well as Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (in the same packaging that was used in the film) – but I haven’t dared try them yet for the fear of getting the vomit flavored one! Alas, there were no take home Butterbeer packs though.
The Making of Harry Potter makes a wonderful day out for any fan of the books and films, and indeed, any fan of the movie-making process in general. Warner Brothers says the tour should take about three hours to wander around – we were there for four and a half and I could have stayed much, much longer, there was just so much to see. As soon as we got home, we had to dig out the box set and watch the next film – and I wanted to watch all of them back to back, just to try and spot all the amazing things we’d seen.