Twenty minutes outside London in Leavesden, England, the recently opened Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter™ is housed in two large purpose-built soundstages and a backlot.
This unique attraction is designed as a self-guided walking tour through exhibits of costumes, animatronics, special effects, props, and actual sets—including the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s Office, and Diagon Alley—that were created for the Harry Potter films.
The attraction designers, LA-based Thinkwell Group, worked with Warner Bros. to showcase the production materials from these beloved films in a compelling experience. Thinkwell CCO and executive creative director Craig Hanna explains, “The original project thesis from start to finish remained: There was a lot of magic on the screen, but the real magic happened behind the camera. This is a place where you really see how the movies were made—the real Harry Potter. If it couldn’t be physically seen through the camera, you wouldn’t see it here.”
The film’s executive producer David Heyman and production designer Stuart Craig also worked on the attraction. “We really were just the custodians of the filmmakers’ work; we organized it into a guest attraction,” says Hanna. “It’s all their art and passion that makes everything in this attraction look so great. As much as you see on film, you don’t appreciate it or see the richness of detail that you see in person.”
Upon arriving at Leavesden during production of the sixth film, the Thinkwell team found that the filmmakers, over the years of production, had produced and saved all things Potter in almost 200 shipping containers and an enormous flight shed. “It was a treasure trove for us,” comments Hanna, “but it also made this one of the most difficult attractions to design because of the organic nature of the endless discoveries we made over four years. The final selections came down to the most beloved, iconic sets and the reality of the space we actually had.”
One of the most surprising discoveries was the 1/24th scale Hogwarts Castle model used for filming shots of the school that audiences had probably thought were CGI. “Many people with the movie didn’t even know the model existed,” says Thinkwell producer/project director Cynthia Blackstone. “It is meticulously made and was in 19 major pieces with additional spires on top. You don’t even know how to describe it when you first see it; it’s stunning.”
Thinkwell designed a show-stopping moment when guests initially see the intricate 70’x70’x26′ model. “We really wanted people to come into a vista point, high over that model, and then be able to walk down a ramp that wraps all the way around it so guests get to see the detail on all sides,” says Hanna. “We start the ramp in Diagon Alley and then continue it through the production design artwork presented in a contemporary gallery style, finally ending up in the model room.”
Kevin Burke of Polaris Studio consulted on the show/facility design. “Laying out the 1:20 shallow ramp system and incorporating it through Diagon Alley and the model room was challenging but well worth the effort,” he says. “As guests come around the turn to the first view of the Hogwarts model, it is really such a ‘wow’ moment. From the time guests enter Diagon Alley, which we widened for guest flow, until the time they enter the overlook in the model room, they have risen 10′; however, they have traversed 260′ with the 1:20 rise and the landings. It was really a team effort to accomplish. We literally had to build our way out of the model room.”
Blackstone recalls the complex plan, noting the team had to wrap the model and move it from Shepperton to Leavesden. “Then we cut 3′ off to lower the base, rewrapped it, and moved it a second time to the flight shed,” she says. “We built three walls of the room, built the start of the ramp, put up the pipe grid and an overhead maintenance basket crane, moved the wrapped model into position in this active construction site, completed the ramp, closed the fourth building wall, and then finally, holding our breath, unwrapped the model, which was in perfect condition. It took seven-months to finish that sequence, and that model is never again moving.”
Building the Hogwarts model into the room meant no second thoughts on the layout. “The orientation was an important consideration,” Burke adds. “It’s really cool that guests see it from 360°, but two views stand out as the must-haves. The first is when guests come out on that top gallery and get an overview of the castle. The second great view, and Stuart Craig’s favorite, is when you get down to the bottom of the model, and you are looking back up at Hogwarts. It is the view you remember from the films.
“I went over during filming to see firsthand how the sets were lit, what the angles were, and what they were doing for colors,” says Michael Finney, the lighting designer and facility project manager for Thinkwell Group for Warner Bros. Studio Tour The Making of Harry Potter. “Having [the films’ production designer] Stuart Craig involved in the attraction was a huge benefit to my understanding how best to recreate the feel of the film lighting while balancing the needs of the attraction. He was so generous and collaborative, as were all the filmmakers involved.”
Finney tried to use the original placement of fixtures, even though he was using different fixture types. “Stuart and I talked early on about where I could go with a sharper edge than on the films,” he explains. “We felt since this was three-dimensional, and people would be so close to it, that a more theatrical look would be acceptable. Instead of using a softlight, I used an LED flood, which has more definition on the edges.” In fact, Finney doesn’t use any standard incandescent sources, even in the practicals. The entire attraction uses only LED or metal halide sources, so the energy consumption is incredibly low, and it cuts down on IR and UV.
Finney wanted his design to capture the filmmakers’ intentions for the look of the different sets since lighting was an important part of the production design. “When you look at the Great Hall in the films, there’s a particular kind of silver-blue light that you see,” says Finney. “That was a tough one at first, but looking at the films, it is actually lit low on the windows shining up, not the standard way of lighting a window from above. On a set like the Potions Classroom, the lights were actually behind the camera, so again, I went back to the film. I found that the apparent room light was coming in behind the windows and doors, so I put lights behind the windows and doors. It evokes the lighting look from the film, but it is achieved in a different way.”
On many of the sets, Finney created cues to move through several looks since many of the sets’ moods changed through the series of films. “For Diagon Alley, we do a transition so you get an afternoon moving through a nighttime look, which I love,” he says. “It was an incredible set to light, and I wanted to really show the craftsmanship and detail work that is so beautiful; every practical lamp on the street works. Each store is lit as its own entity. Within the transition to evening, Gringotts Bank goes a little colder; Scribbulus goes a little more blue-green; and Ollivanders Wand Shop in daylight has highlights of gold and red.”
No transition cue is as breathtaking as the entire day sequence Finney created for the stunning Hogwarts Castle model. “It isn’t simply day-to-night,” explains Finney. “It really is the sun moving across the model from one side to the other and setting with the shadows and the blues as the moon moves across. From beginning to end, it takes about 5½ minutes for the 24-hour cycle, which is also cued to the music. We didn’t make it easy on ourselves, but I’m so proud of that design. After a week of planning and three days of programming, we had to go back for three more days planning and another 1½ days programming to put it to the music.” Finney gives major credit to programmer Jim Beagley and the team from White Light. Lighting control is via two ETC Eos Remote Processor Units, while a Medialon show controller calls up macros on the Eos.
The audio and video portion of Warner Bros. Studio Tour The Making Of Harry Potter, as well as show control integration, were led by Vikram Kirby, who is sound, video, control designer with Thinkwell Group. He and audio designers Colbert Davis and Kari Seekins worked closely with systems integrators at Electrosonic for this portion of the project.
Kirby’s challenge was to create an audio environment that worked for both the attraction and the movie property, including the incorporation of the background music (BGM) throughout the two studio buildings. “We wanted placemaking in a way that felt authentic to the movies,” Kirby explains. “The nuance to this project is that it’s not a theme park. We wanted to present movie soundtracks at the quality level, but also the volume level, that would not be distracting. Compared to a standard BGM system, even though our operating level is fairly reasonable—we’re in the high 60s, low 70s in terms of target sound pressure level—we used much higher quality componentry because we needed that extended frequency response for it not to render like a tinny ringtone feel.”
Kirby used BSS Audio’s Soundweb London for audio control. “We used a redundant mirrored-pair of computers, running [Figure 53] QLab and feeding digitally into the BSS Soundweb, which is directly controlled by London Architect,” explains Kirby. It is a large audio system with a number of rack rooms with a large number of outputs to control across the two buildings. “With the combination of all of the processing and the sheer size of it, we were at or near capacity just in the responsiveness of programming,” says Kirby. “The software works very, very well. It’s transparent to the user; all of the functions worked as they should.”
The day-to-day audio operations are controlled from the Medialon system. “It sends Ethernet instructions to the Soundweb,” adds Kirby. “Out in the spaces, we have Medialon touch panels that are interfaced to the main Medialon system. Hosts can go to any of the touch panels to change levels to adjust for room occupancy or change wireless mic selections in a zone. The Medialon Showmaster show controller is very flexible.”
In the main room, the many sets and displays comprise hundreds of audio outputs, but Kirby came up with a method to mitigate any conflicts. “We drive every single output discretely,” he explains. “That meant we could use both level and tonality to contour the transitions between zones. There’s no physical isolation between those places; we used different areas of sound and then treated the buffer zones like noise masking. We were able to use a cross-point matrix to really shape how different adjacent sounds blended together in the speakers that were dividing the zones.”
For speaker choices, Kirby and Davis went with a very large Meyer Sound installation, supplemented with JBL speakers. “We used the new Meyer Cinema Acheron line of products in the opening screening theatre,” comments Kirby. “I am very happy with the 48V Meyer loudspeakers, which let us use self-powered loudspeakers for the BGM. We used the remotely powered systems, so we were able to cut down on infrastructure costs because we could power all of the speakers with a single cable from the rack room, instead of pulling AC power to each location. Plus they’re high performance.”
One of the areas that the audio team worked on extensively was the onsite mix. “I am very pleased with the mix, and I really need to extend credit to Kari,” says Kirby. “I made several trips over there, but she stayed for a fairly long duration mixing onsite to achieve what we did. Throughout the entire project, I feel we accomplished what we set out to do, and I’m happy with all aspects of the audio, control, and the video systems.”
In the end, this unique studio tour captures the feeling of being on the film’s soundstage. It really celebrates the making of Harry Potter, the artistry of the different departments, and the incredible workmanship, as much as it captures the excitement of visiting the sets. It brings guests into the experience of making the movies as well as enjoying the fantasy of standing in the middle of the actual Great Hall.
“We all felt incredibly honored to be brought into the Harry Potter family,” concludes Hanna. “It has been such a joy to work on this project and work with these extraordinarily talented filmmakers and genuinely sweet people. There is no end to my admiration for the artistry and craftsmanship put into even the smallest detail that was built, sewn, fabricated, or drawn by the Harry Potter team.”