Harry Potter at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: Could it be Magic?

Warner Bros. Studio is about to throw open its doors to the most successful film series of all time: Harry Potter. From March 31st up to 5,000 Potter fans a day will be apparating to Leavesden, North London, to see behind the scenes of Hogwarts. At a cost of £100 million to produce, and with prices for a family of four at £83, expectations of the Tour will be high.

We were lucky enough to go along to the soft opening with the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). The Blooloop party of two had a Potter obsessive (me) and a Potter ignoramus. Both of us were blown away. In the words of Ron Weasley, “Bloody Hell” – it’s fantastic.

Themed attraction or museum?

The title of the Tour is “Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: the making of Harry Potter”, and it really is about the making of the films not an immersive experience about being a student at Hogwarts. In fact it has more similarities to a museum visit rather than a themed attraction, after all Harry Potter’s magical world is real in the imaginations of millions of children and adults and has been painstakingly recreated on film.

The convergence of the publication and filming of the books means that unusually for a book adaptation there is nothing in the films that jars with the image of the books in the reader’s mind. This is a testament to JK Rowling’s protection of her creation but also Warner Bros.’ enormous budget and brilliant team who have lovingly and obsessively brought Rowling’s vision for the big screen over 10 years of filming.

Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando is fun and a magnificent achievement that set a new benchmark in themed design and production, but this is really something else. This is the place where Harry Potter came to life. The attention to detail leaves you wondering how the people who have designed and made the sets, props, animals and costumes will be able to work happily on any other project ever again. The experience reminded of me of the first time I saw Google Maps, and wondered in awe as I zoomed down from a full screen view of the earth to see my Mum’s boyfriend walking along outside her house in his favourite purple sweater.

In the introductory film Daniel Radcliffe tells us that we will learn the secrets behind the special effects: “You’ll never look at Quidditch the same way again”. For me however, it wasn’t the special effects that took my breath away – I had guessed flying broomsticks might owe something to green screens – it was the things that I thought were done with CGI wizardry that were actually real, together with the beautiful artistry and craftsmanship that had gone into every tiny element of every scene.

A few examples of the incredible details that we enjoyed were:

  • The Visual Effects Department filmed 40 kittens to get footage for the kitten plates on the wall in Umbridge’s office.
  • The Ministry of Magic sets are beautiful, from the vibrant tiled areas on the fireplaces and office towers to the magnificent Magic is Might statue.
  • The creatures were incredibly life-like and in particular the bowing animatronic model of Buckbeak looked like it could get up and fly away.
  • The working model of the snake door at the Chamber of Secrets.
  • The Special Effects Department created magical household items, like a self-scrubbing frying pan and magical knitting needles for the background of the Weasley’s house.
  • The huge model of Hogwarts castle was built to 1:24 scale by 86 artists and crewmembers.
  • The architectural set and prop designs, artistic impressions and intricate white card models bring home the level of work and artistry that went into bringing the books to life.

The Tour

California based, themed attraction design experts, The Thinkwell Group, have created a very stylish, sophisticated tour. You feel you’re at the high end of the attractions market from the chic café and Starbucks outlet that wouldn’t look out of place at an art gallery, to the comfy seats in the cinema.

There are so many incredible elements that it must have been a struggle to decide which bits to leave out and how to present the ones left in without crowding, but the Thinkwell team have done a great job and the tour is visually stunning. For me some of the many highlights of the tour itself aside from the amazing sets and props themselves included:

  • The moment when the cinema screen is taken away to reveal the doors to the Great Hall at Hogwarts.
  • Broomstick flying against a green screen.
  • Waving wands at the Burrow to magically do the ironing.
  • The brilliant video clips of Warwick Davis in the Creatures area.
  • Effective lighting throughout including the shadows thrown by the Hungarian Horntail and the variable lighting on the Hogwarts castle model.
  • The displays tracking the creative process behind the sets and props, from sketches to models to the final film.
  • The whole presentation of the huge set of the exterior of Hogwarts castle took everyone’s breath away.

Comments from other TEA members we toured with were glowing but as to be expected with a gaggle of industry experts, potential areas for improvement were noted. There was a need for more direction from the guides to get visitors through the attraction at the same time imparting their knowledge. A basic guide map would have been useful. The outdoor area seemed underused. The queuing area included Harry’s cupboard under the stairs, but seemed a missed opportunity to include more props or film clips to build anticipation.

To be fair this was a soft opening and I felt that we rushed round in two hours and could have easily spent another hour or two really appreciating the information on offer. I really valued being able to progress through the amazing sets at my own pace and double back for another look. There will be an audio guide narrated by Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) available, and I would definitely use that when I go again.

I did also feel sympathy for the tour guides. They may have been a little reticent to approach us and reel off their facts because so many people going through that night had worked on the project. The guides that I spoke to had some interesting things to say and were very personable.

Overall these are minor points that are sure to be sorted out.

I heard many people “oohing” at the prices in the gift shop but for me that wasn’t particularly a problem. The quality of the merchandising is, like the franchise itself, well above average. I wince but don’t begrudge paying for a toy that has real quality and authenticity and will be loved for years.

At Universal Studios Resort, the merchandising of Potter has been a huge success story. Universal’s theme park merchandise revenues rose a staggering 104% in the first quarter after the Wizarding World opened compared to the same period in the previous year. Part of the experience is taking away some magic, although it is difficult to imagine who is going to buy Voldemort’s robes for £218.95.

But has it got legs?

A few people I spoke to questioned whether the Tour will be able to attract repeat visitors or even to continue in the future when no further Potter books or films will be written.

If you have kids you will know that Potter is now embedded in childhood memories that will be cherished for life, and will be passed on for at least another generation given the right amount of promotion for the films and development of accompanying video games. This level of affection for a character is enjoyed by very few brands and will not disappear overnight. JK Rowling is launching an eagerly awaited website for fans of the Potter books, Pottermore, in April 2012. It promises to offer a connection to Rowling herself and a wealth of additional information and interactive activities which will keep fans bonded with Potter for years to come.

It is a shame that the true Potter experts are still too young to work on the Tour. The guides had had to cram in just two months, facts that every school child has at their fingertips. A guide I spoke to mixed up Bellatrix with Narcissa. Come March 31st they had better be ready for thousands of ten year olds who could pass degrees in Potter. I look forward to seeing how the tour develops when those who have discovered Potter as children grow up and take over.

You could argue that the studio visit is really for true aficionados and therefore has a limited appeal. However the “limit” of the appeal is huge – the readers of the roughly 500 million books sold who will be clamouring to see Hogwarts.

What about repeat visitors? Well that depends on how the tour develops. There are rumours of Warner Bros. plans for the Tour’s future including more brands from their stable, interactive rides and a hotel.

Where do we go from here?

For me I felt that the Tour at times was aimed at slightly the wrong audience. An illustration of this is the pre –show video clips (positioned high up on the walls well above the heads of children) featuring the producers of the Potter films. Fascinating background information for film buffs but not perhaps for the majority of visitors who will be tweens/teens.

JK Rowling is quoted in the official guide as saying, “The stories we love best do live in us forever, so whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”

That is the reason we’re here – we’re coming home to Hogwarts. (In fact you could almost separate the visitors between those who well up when they read Rowling’s quote and those who don’t and send them on two different tours.) True Potter devotees want to see Rowling, Harry’s real mother, telling us about her inspiration and love for her creation. Or the cast members we’ve grown older watching, sharing their experiences of growing up on a magical film set.

I would have liked the videos to be more like the pre-show queue for the Shuttle Launch Experience where it is the astronauts, not Mission Control, who tell us what it’s like to live in space. Visitors will want to know what it feels like to pretend to be a wizard and save the world from Voldemort, not how the film rights were negotiated.

This brings me back to my initial impression of this being a stunningly beautiful, classy but ultimately rather reserved museum. Warner Bros. are relying on the Potter fans’ adoration of the films to be satisfied with observing from a distance, but all museums today know that they must take the next step to reach out to visitors and turn a tour into an experience. The good news is that Warner Bros. have a significant advantage over those trying to bring history to life: they already have all the artifacts under one roof, the protagonists are alive and we can even watch feature length films and read the definitive text. Unlike crusty old museums, the film studio machine must have the resources and marketing whizz to engage their young i-generation fans through social media.

I found it interesting that where the exhibits did not perhaps have that immediate visual “wow” factor, for instance the set designs and models, there were some nice inventive presentations showing the progression from artist’s sketch to the final film. Similarly in the Creatures area the videos including charismatic Warwick Davis talking to the Head of Creatures really enhanced the displays. I was surprised generally by how little footage of the films themselves were actually used and in fact that other character actors from the films hadn’t been called upon. The format of an actor talking to a technical expert worked well.

There are so many opportunities to develop the exhibits further it’s exciting to think how this tour might evolve: the mirror of Erised – it could show your true desire; the Marauders Map surely must be a base for a game or even a tour guide; you could find the Horcruxes for a competition; take a ride on the Knight Bus or the Ford Anglia; bow to the Hippogriff; repot a Mandrake; summon your own Patronus; be sorted by the Sorting Hat; create your own magical creature; or even the staple of all museums – low budget dressing up. A 4D cinema experience has to be on the cards.

In the café I would have liked to swap the lovely but anonymous interior for a school hall or even the Leaky Cauldron, and replaced paninis with the Blyton boarding school food that Rowling conjures up, all washed down with butterbeer.

The shy guides are great, but they will never be able to match the visitors in terms of their encyclopaedic Potter knowledge, so why not have actors in character and Hogwarts robes to entertain and bring the experience to life?

I’m not looking for reinterpretation so much as engagement – it all feels very respectfully restrained.

It’s a Wrap

This is a fabulous tour that will delight all Potter fans lucky enough to enjoy it. I should say that my quibbles should not weigh too heavily against the fact that I loved the Tour, and come from being a nerdy Potter fan who just greedily wants more and to get closer. I’m so looking forward to going back with my kids, enjoying their amazement and spending more time exploring the details that I missed the first time.

Starting from this fantastic base it will be fascinating to see how the Tour will develop. The possibilities are endless. Rowling has created a world with colour, humour, character and detail that has been brought to life by the incredibly talented film crew and is now presented to the public through high quality, thoughtful work from Thinkwell. The raw materials are all there, I can’t wait to see how this will look as even more magic gets sprinkled over them in the coming years.

Wingardium Leviosa – I’m sure it will take off!

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