Movie Thoughts: The Making of Harry Potter

Back in 2015, I made the impulsive decision to travel to England for a day to visit Banksy’s Dismaland art exhibit, but my entry was timed, so I opted for an evening visit. This meant I had time to kill prior to heading out to Weston Super-Mare and the Tropicana to be bemused. Fortunately, a little giant thing was on the way: The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden.

This post isn’t about that visit. It’s about the followup visit I would take a year later when I had a little more time and was in England specifically for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

With that, let’s get started, and by the way, this post has a lot of media, so grab a beverage.

Warner Brothers Leavesden is a hop, skip and a jump away from London via the M1 and as such, there’s no excuse to not visit if you’re going to be in London for other reasons. I recommend driving but you do see numerous tour busses hauling sheeple out there to visit.

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The Entrance to Warner Brothers Leavesden

I had to reserve my tickets in advance, which is a simple enough process, and once inside I entered a lobby where you can see pictures of the actors and a Ford Anglia hanging from the ceiling, and then entered a queue and await your scheduled entry to the exhibit. We all then proceeded through a serpentine line, passing by Harry’s bed under the stairs before making our way into another waiting room where the walls were lined with vertically mounted TV’s and where a guide reminded us that everything we were about to see was actually used in the productions of the numerous Harry Potter films…..unlike certain unnamed theme parks across the pond. Seeing as how I relish in authenticity, I loved this little jab.

We then watched a short film (synchronized videos across all the screens in the room) on the back story related to the acquisition of the Harry Potter novels for film and then were ushered into yet another room, this time, a theater actually. There was another film, and following this, we were directed into Hogwarts dining hall and it was absolutely amazing to experience. It’s also worth noting that the way they transitioned us from the film to the dining hall is superbly well done. The guides gave everyone a brief spiel on the background of the dining hall (still resplendent in all of its furnishings and with costumes from most of the key professors from the films on display), before being left to our own devices to explore the rest of the exhibition on our own and at our own pace.

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The Great Dining Hall at Hogwarts

Walking through a passageway from the dining hall, took me into areas that displayed numerous interior sets as well as exterior facades, and one thing that was interesting was the fact that the films used old school movie effects trickery alongside modern CG. The roof of Hogwarts dining hall in fact, was a forced perspective miniature hung in front of the camera…which now hung from the rafters parallel to the back side of the dining hall set I had just exited.

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Various Sets

From there, I moved further along, visiting sets such as the sleeping quarters of Gryffindor, more forced-perspective hallway sets, an arrangement of all the important wands used by the wizards, the potions classroom,  and even an utterly massive full-size clock from Hogwarts’ exterior. And then there was Dumbledore’s study in all of its glory. What a set indeed. They had even constructed and decorated the lower levels which I don’t recall having ever seen in the movies, and unfortunately, there was no easy way to see any of that short of sticking one’s camera up to a tiny stain glass window on the back side of the set (with no obvious indicators of what was on the other side) to snap a photo and hope that something came out…which I did, and which did. You can see that despite no detail being spared in the design and construction of this set, they didn’t do anything to the back side of Dumbledore’s desk. It’s pretty plain back there. This tiny stain glass window was on the back side of an unlit area of the tour that nobody was bothering to visit as it was just a rounded corner of unremarkable plaster held up by trusses, and the more exciting stuff appeared to be behind it in the form of Hagrid’s hut and a display of various green screen elements including one of the Gringot’s rail cars and some motorcycles, among other effects props on display.

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Dumbledore’s Study and other key sets

From the green screen area, I moved on to areas devoted to the darker aspects of the Harry Potter films (ie Slytherin and the dark arts and all that jazz). Following the dark stuff, I came upon facades from the Ministry of Magic, which, up close and personal, looked so interesting as curved sheets of fiberglass painted in a pattern of gradients to represent these surreal looking bricks on screen. Old school moviemaking at its finest!!

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Slytherin, Dark Arts, and the Ministry of Magic

At this point there was an interactive photo opp, and restrooms. I used the restrooms, and then proceeded to the Kings Cross station where the original Hogwarts Express was in station along with the process rail cars used for filming interiors. This was also the mid-way point as there was a gift shop that sold merchandise unique to this point in the tour, and a cafe that didn’t warrant me taking pictures of.

After making my way through the dining area (there was nothing on the menu that appealed to me), I made my way outside to a courtyard that contained the triple-decker bus, an additional Ford Anglia and Hagrid’s motorcycle and sidecar, and the facade for the Dursley residence (along with an interior), among other set pieces. There was even the perilous bridge to Hogwarts that people could walk along.

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Exterior sets and the Hogwarts Express

Moving on from the courtyard, I made my way into the next area of the tour, which focused on practical and makeup effects and wow were there a lot. Once again, old school brute force techniques were used to pull off certain effects, including an incredibly detailed animatronic Hagrid head that was used in scenes were Hagrid had to interact in a scene with normally sized people (Robbie Coltrane is big…but not that big).  They put this thing on top of a stunt actor (who missed his calling as an NBA star apparently) and sidestepped digital compositing of Coltrane with others altogether. I also got to see Aragog, and who doesn’t like seeing gigantic animatronic spiders, am I right? Then with all the creature and makeup and practical effects out of the way, I found myself in Diagon Alley. THE Diagon Alley…not some theme park across the Atlantic’s. This was awesome (well the whole experience was) and getting to walk up to Olivander’s Wand Shop and look in was a sight unto itself. At the start of Diagon Alley, they had plunked down the entrance to Gringot’s bank. Odd placement…but hey, you know, it’s magic, so whatever.

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Makeup effects and Diagon Alley

From here, I proceeded to an area dealing with much of the preproduction and art design work that went into visualizing these films in advance and there were several architectural paper models of various sets on display, including one of Hogwarts which in turn led into a room where the Hogwarts filming miniature was displayed in all its glory with a somewhat epic (if cheesy) musical score filled the room and the lighting transitioned through several different color schemes. I think the intent was to go from day to night, but I’m not sure it was successful. The “night” recipe was just really blue. Of course the up close detail on this model was phenomenal and not to be believed…nor of course, was the gift shop I exited through, which had some of the best associated merchandise I have ever seen. JK Rowling has done some amazing things and I’m happy to see that there is no aspect of her worlds that she doesn’t allow to cheap out in any way.

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Production Design and Hogwarts Castle

You keep on doing it right Ms Rowling. Keep on doing it right…

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