Do You Believe in Magic?

Warner Bros. unveils Harry Potter movie studio in London

As with the novels, the Harry Potter films have captured the imagination of millions of people worldwide. Now “Muggles” and movie fans alike can go behind the scenes at the “Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter,” which opened March 31 (www.wbstudiotour.co.uk). Whether setting foot in Diagon Alley or peeking into Hagrid’s Hut, for the first time people can explore the sets and props at the place where all eight films were made: Leavesden Studios.

Warner Bros. spent £100 million (US$155 million) developing the movie studios and visitor attraction at the former aerodrome, north of London. Within two mustard-yellow hangars, named J and K, the movie magic awaits. A pre-show film sets the scene as Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint share their memories of filming at Leavesden before disappearing through the Great Hall. There are gasps from the audience as the cinema screen rises to reveal the Great Hall doors behind. The audience then enters with the words, “Welcome to Hogwarts,” ringing in their ears. It is a fantastic reminder that they are stepping behind the camera into the filmmakers’ world, with everything still a hot set, ready for the next take.

“The content is so genuine and unique, and that’s the key to this product,” says Sarah Roots, vice president of the Studio Tour. “With it comes the craftsmanship, the history, and the stories which have made this project special. Our staff pick up on all the great stories that bring the sets and props to life, like the bead counter hourglasses containing the ‘points’ that the school houses win or loose, which sparked a national beads shortage. We’re lucky enough to have staff who were extras on the films, so they bring their experiences, as well.”

Inside the Great Hall, our guide, Elise, explains that we are following in the footsteps of the cast and crew as we walk along the York stone floor, which has stood up to a decade of wear and tear. The familiarity of the hall spreads from the 100-foot oak tables and smoke-blackened fireplace to the house robes on display, including Harry’s first Gryffindor uniform. It is only when you look up at the lighting rig that the illusion ends. We learn that magical ceiling started out with hundreds of candles suspended on wires, which had to be replaced digitally when the real ones started falling down.

After a short introductory talk, we are left to wander freely through the attraction. On average, people spend three hours visiting, but many could happily spend four to five hours there. Visitor numbers are limited to 5,000 people a day, and a timed entry system means the tour never feels overcrowded. Prebooking is compulsory, which sets it apart from other UK attractions: “It’s been great for opening because it’s given us the opportunity to pre-plan,” says Roots. Tickets went on sale in October, and the Studio Tour sold out in its opening month (April), while most attractions suffered with a wet Easter. Advanced bookings look equally promising. Tickets are priced at £28 (US$43) for adults, £21 (US$32) for children, and £83 (US$128) for a family of four; thus visitors’ expectations are naturally high.

According to the films’ production designer, Stuart Craig, “The designer’s job is to provide a place that tells the story,” and Thinkwell Group has done the filmmakers proud, creating an attraction that comprehensively charts Harry Potter’s journey from page to screen. It is coherent, visually rich, well-paced tour that reflects the spirit of the movies and the people who worked on them.

The exhibits run the gamut of the film franchise, from production design, to art direction, hair and makeup, special effects, visual effects, set construction, and props. The sets and props are astonishing in their detail, prompting widespread admiration from visitors amazed at the thought and time invested in their production.

There is the wel-worn Gryffindor Common Room, with its red and gold tapestries, slouchy sofa, and threadbare rugs. An Invisibility Cloak printed with Celtic symbols features green lining, which allowed the visual effects team to make Harry vanish. In the boys’ snug dormitory, it is revealed that directors had to come up with new angles to stop audiences from realizing the actors had grown bigger than their beds.

We are treated to the sight of self-stirring cauldrons in the cavernous Potion Room, as well as Dumbledore’s turreted office where the Sorting Hat sizes up newcomers peering into the Memory Cabinet. Diagon Alley is a treasure house of Potter landmarks, from the dusty, wand-stacked windows at Ollivanders to the Weasleys’ distinctively orange Wizard Wheezes shop. Attention to detail is evident everywhere. Sights range from the “Wanted” posters for Bellatrix Lestrange and Harry Potter, to the shop signs forbidding the sale of unicorn blood.

Videos featuring crew members such as set decorator Stephanie McMillan and special effects guru John Richardson punctuate the tour, outlining what is involved in dressing the sets and building fire-breathing dragons. As Radcliffe says, “You’ll never look at Quidditch the same way again,” after seeing the green-screen technology and broomsticks on motion bases. Nevertheless, people are prepared to wait 45 minutes to jump on a broomstick for their green-screen photo opportunity (priced at £128/US$19).

On a studio tour, guests are inevitably held at arm’s length from the sets and props. Guides such as Alex – sporting a Deathly Hallows tattoo – do a great job of sharing their passion for the Potterverse with visitors. However, there is room for more interaction. In the Creature Shop, people are enchanted by the mandrake puppet, which they can make squirm with the touch of a button, and the beautifully animated Buckbeak, which bows to them. Imagine being able to handle selected prosthetics and props, or putting together film clips.

Roots is exploring the possibility of staff doing presentations to larger groups. Children are given passports with spaces to collect stamps and Golden Snitches to spot. Visitors can also explore touchscreen Marauder’s Maps and a digital guide that is available for an extra charge.

There are plans afoot for the outdoor Backlot, where you will find the Knight Bus, Privet Drive, and Hogwarts Bridge: “We’re going to open up the bridge to visitors, which will make that more engaging and add value,” says Roots. Like Diagon Alley itself, which has changed continually since its construction, the Studi Tour will evolve.

“It’s pretty dynamic and we’re looking at things that will enhance the experience without major capital change within the attraction,” says Roots. “Later, we’ll want to create a reason to revisit. In the longer term, we’ll possibly introduce something else from the Warner Bros. portfolio. We’ve got the benefit of having seasonal content, so we may consider putting snow on Hogwarts model at Christmas. Also, we have the props from the Yule Ball, so there are opportunities to lots of things with the sets.”

Everybody has a personal favorite on the tour. For me, it is the Hogwarts castle model, which produces plenty of Ron Weasley-style “bloody hell” exclamations. Photos cannot capture the scope and realism of this structure. Built to a 1:24 scale, it measures more than 50 feet across and twinkles with 2,500 fiber-optic lights as the lighting system cycles from day to night. Witnessing the changeover is an emotional moment for many visitors.

Before exiting through a roaring trade in Chocolate Frogs, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, and Gryffindor scarves (£24.95/US$38), at giant Honeydukes gift shop, we pass through what looks like Ollivanders’ wand emporium. In a touching tribute, each box bears the name of one of the 4,000 people who worked on the movies. By revealing the filmmakers’ secrets, a project like this sometimes runs the risk of diluting the magic. Instead, the “Warner Bros. London Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter” has conjured up a deeper connection with the characters, the cast, and the crew who took us on this magical adventure.

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