Casting a spell is a more athletic pursuit than you might think.
I know this because I’ve spent the last five minutes with possibly the world’s only ‘wand combat expert’, the man who, using influences from ballet to kung fu, taught the actors in the Harry Potter films exactly how best to physically execute a spell.
A former dancer, Paul Harris was given the credit ‘wand combat’ on the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix after producer David Barron decided that ‘choreographer’ might imply dancing. “There was no dancing,” explains Harris “…and we feared that people would think I was being credited for a scene that had been cut so we went for ‘wand combat’ instead.”
This forthcoming February half-term (16th to 24th February) will see Wand Week at the Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, some 20 miles north of London.
A ‘motley collection’ of Death Eaters, as they are described in the book, all personally trained by Harris, will be teaching visitors at the attraction how to administer a spell just like Harry, Malefoy and co.
It’s not as easy as you think…there are lunges, pliés and wrist-twists involved and a definite nod to fencing moves.
“Lift the wand, you’re going to kneecap her holding it like that,” Harris barks as I let the wand dip below our intended target, an innocent bystander.
After a decade of working on BBC period dramas, Bleak House included, Harris took a call from Harry Potter director David Yates in the middle of 2006.
The remit was simple: create ‘one movement for one spell’.
Harris began and the art of wand combat was quickly established with wizarding duels that would see different characters adopting different styles of combat.
“The parameters ranged from ‘just pointing the wand’ to ‘being so good that you don’t need a wand’ and that’s what I worked within. All the principal actors were great, they all executed (the wand combat) perfectly in the roles that they were playing.”
The technique used by Harris was then applied to all of the subsequent Potter films.
During Wand Week, fans will learn how to flourish the magic stick just so and get behind-the-scenes information on how the fight scenes from the films were brought to life.
Original designs, moulds and concept art behind the wands will be on display outside Mr Ollivander’s Wand Shop on the attraction’s thoroughfare Diagon Alley.
Those who miss Wand Week are unlikely to be disappointed with a regular visit though. Since opening last spring, the Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter has been a resounding hit.
When you leave the M25 and catch sight of the Studios not long after, it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t a theme park experience.
Warner Bros. bought the former Leavesden Studios and Aerodrome in 2010 and subsequently spent £100million revamping it.
The aircraft hangars are now indoor studios – Tom Cruise recently shot scenes from forthcoming sci-fi film All You Need Is Kill here – and there’s a sizeable backlot for outdoor work.
For Harry Potter fans, it’s also the keeper of a thousand secrets – and many of the sets used – from the blockbuster series.
A cinema showing an introductory film starring Harry, Hermione and Weasley kicks off the self-guided tour. After creaking through the doors of the life-size Great Hall – complete with real York flagstone floor – you’re then left to wander at pleasure through a warren of insights.
How did Hagrid reach his lofty seven-and-a-half feet in height? Easy, 6ft 10ins former England rugby union player Martin Bayfield made up most of the height, with an animatronic head adding in the rest. How many people passed through hair and make-up during filming? Eight hundred, a day.
Cinematic wizardry such as ‘forced perspective’ and ‘green screening’ are explained including in-depth breakdowns of how famous scenes came to be.
The breathtaking broom flight over London in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix involved Daniel Radcliffe filming on a motorised broom in the ‘G-stage’ (short for Green Stage) while boats, helicopters and stationary cameras on London’s bridges brought the capital to life. The footage was then reeled in behind the actor.
Other popular sets include Dumbledore’s Office, the Gryffindor Common Room and the Ministry of Magic. An outdoor backlot area is home to, among other things, the triple-decker purple Knight Bus and the pedestrian looking No. 4 Privet Drive where the Dursleys, Harry’s relatives, lived.
It’s also the spot where visitors can wet their whistle on a glass of butter beer. At £2.95 a pop, it isn’t cheap but this (very sweet) secret-recipe buttery nectar is hugely popular.
The Studio Tour is heaven-sent for Potter geeks but is also a celebration of the largely British cast and crew. Many of the 350 hand-painted portraits that filled the walls of Hogwarts in the films featured actual faces of people who worked on the films. And the Wand Tribute Room at the tour’s end has 17,000 wand boxes, all with individual names of crew on them.
The attention to detail is mind-boggling from the copies of magazine The Quibbler (described as ‘The Wizarding World’s Alternative Voice’) to the scale white-card location models and lipstick cameras (literally, tiny cameras) that were used to plan set builds and perfect shooting angles.
After a waltz down Diagon Alley, where the Slug and Jiggers apothecary, Wiseacres Wizardry Equipment and Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes jostle for space, visitors find themselves face to face with a 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts Castle, a design feat which involved 40 artists and crew and 50 sculptors.
Leaving the crowds at the studio behind, I felt compelled to watch the wand scenes in the Harry Potter films all over again.
Your average cinema-goer would never envisage just how much work went into adapting JK Rowling’s hit books for the big screen but this tour goes a long way in helping to explain.
Of course, the die-hard fans who visit Leavesden will simply love being immersed in all things Potter (a tour takes around two and a half hours but visitors have been known to stay here for the entire day before).
For the more casual fan, it’s a fascinating showcase of British film talent at its most prodigious. Hollywood, eat your heart out. Now, stand back, there’s a spell to cast…
Wand Week will take place from Saturday 16th to Sunday 24th February. Admission for Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter costs £29 for adults and £21.50 for children or £85 for a family of four, visit www.wbstudiotour.co.uk for more information. Tickets must be booked in advance.