Simon and I have been Harry Potter fans since the spring of 2001, when we read our first audio book during a road trip. Since then, we’ve read all seven books, and watched six of the eight films. So it should come as no surprise that we jumped at the chance to indulge ourselves in the Warner Brothers Studio Tour while we were in England last month.
We were fortunate to have been offered a private guided tour of the studio where most of the filming was done. Our guide, Chloe, a delightful young lady, was incredibly knowledgable regarding the details of how the magic of making all eight films was achieved.
There are two studios, J and K, plus an outdoor area. The recommended time to complete the tour is about three hours, but thanks to Chloe’s patience in giving detailed explanations and answering all our many questions, we stumbled through the exit five hours later, exhausted, but smiling.
Following two brief introductory films, we found ourselves standing in the Great Hall. It was there that I began to have total recall of scenes from the books and films. This lasted for the duration of our visit. So engrossing were the things we learned there were times when I almost forgot where I was.
To describe everything we saw and learned about the sets, props, costumes, models, structures and techniques that brought Rowling’s story and characters to life would take a Hagrid-size chunk of space. So I’m going to tease you with some of the highlights of our experience, and try to do them justice. Besides, I really want you to see this for yourselves!
The Greatness of the Great Hall
This is one of the largest sets on the lot, and it was Harry’s first real glimpse of his new life. It was here that many fun and important events took place over pumpkin juice breakfasts and celebratory feasts Although, in the films, most of those delicious offerings were actually made of resin.
Chloe told us that at the start of filming, all the furniture was new. So the young extras who helped populate Hogwarts were encouraged to perpetrate mild forms of vandalism, such as writing their names on the tables, and otherwise leaving their marks. No doubt, the children had few problems helping create a typical boarding school dining room atmosphere.
Much attention was paid to making scenes look as close as possible to those described in the books. For example, the beautiful floating candles that hovered above the tables were originally real. They were suspended by wires, which were digitally removed to give the illusion that they were up there on their own. As clever as the technique was, a safety concern quickly arose. Heat from the flames occasionally burned through the wires, causing candles to fall onto tables. After the first film, the floating candles were created digitally.
The Great Hall was also used for the ball scene in the fourth film, the “Goblet of Fire”. We were able to see the ice sculpture, which was inspired by the Pavilion in Brighton, which was in turn inspired by the Taj Mahal. There was an array of the cakes, chocolate mice and other extravagant confections, of which most had been prepared by bakers and not elves. The chocolate swan cake was particularly spectacular. Although edible at the time, It probably would take some serious magic to make them fit for human consumption nearly a decade later, no matter how well they’ve been preserved.
J. K. Rowling is a true genius, with an incredibly vivid imagination. Her descriptions have the power to put the reader right in the middle of the action. One of her best-known creations is the game of Quiddich. Although not the least bit athletic, I’d love nothing more than to climb onto a broom and take off into the sky in pursuit of the ever-illusive golden snitch, Quiddich is something at which I think I could be quite brilliant, as long as the snitch had an audible beacon inserted inside.
Unfortunately, Quiddich, as it’s played in the books, simply can’t be adapted to be played in real life. Unless, of course, you are a special effects genius. The Quiddich players mounted their brooms and performed their actions in front of a green screen. In post production, the visual-effects team would replace the original background with the appropriate digital-backdrop.
Children and adults alike can actually do this, and have their picture taken. This was a popular activity when we were there, and lots of aspiring Quiddich players went home with a truly unique souvenir.
Snape’s Big, Fat Classroom
It’s not hard to imagine that at least one of Professor Snape’s potions could make objects grow in size. But in the case of his classroom, the magic came courtesy of the set designers. As filming of the eight “Harry Potter” movies progressed. Expansion of the set became necessary in order to accommodate hundreds of extras. Chloe walked to the back of the set, and called to me. I could gauge by the sound of her voice how large this space really was in comparison to the compact classroom I had imagined. This had to be done in order to film the classroom scenes effectively.
According to Chloe, there were over 500 hand-labeled glass bottles lining the walls of Snape’s classroom. What was in those bottles? It seemed the producers had a field day, bringing all sorts of strange items. There was everything, from tufts of hair to guts and/or bones from helpful butchers.
One of Rowling’s characters that most of us loved to hate was the pink cardigan wearing Professor Delores Umbridge. She was crafty, self-serving, cruel and a power-hungry control freak. And those were just her good qualities. We saw her office, which was decorated all in – you guessed it – pink. As she grew more powerful the wardrobe people made her pink costume more intense in color. Umbridge actually reminded me of the executive director of one of my former employers. When the fifth Harry Potter book, “The Order of the Phoenix” came out, it was like having to deal with a witch night and day.
But I digress. The cat plates in Umbridge’s office didn’t come out of the box like that. Pictures of real cats were carefully applied to plain plates.
Most of what we saw was located in studio J. After a short break, Chloe showed us the front of #4 Privet Drive, where Harry spent his first 11 years, and several summer holidays, in total misery. The door opened to show what looks like a typical house interior, but it was a two-dimensional painting. The indoor scenes were actually shot in the studio.
But if we thought we had seen some wonders, Studio K kicked the wonder meter up a couple of notches.
After Chloe warned me that the surface under foot was about to change, we stepped on to the cobblestones that were Diagon Alley. This was where Harry acquired his wand, Headwig, his snowy owl, and where his wizarding adventures began in earnest. The street was lined on both sides with facades; the apothecary, an ice cream shop, the Leaky Cauldron Pub, Ollivander’s, where Harry’s wand chose him, and other familiar venues.
When the Hogwarts students went into Hogsmeade for butter beer, Diagon Alley was transformed with different storefronts, such as Honeydukes.
Meanwhile, back at Diagon Alley, Chloe told us that Ollivander’s contained 17,000 hand-painted and decorated wand boxes. Too bad the Death Eaters had to blow it up.
All of the 3,000 wands that were used during the filming, were specially designed to match the personality of its bearer.
Later, I had a field day in the gift shop, where our resourceful Chloe took us when the official tour was over, so I could handle wands, and see how well they were crafted to suit certain characters.
Simon took a picture of Chloe holding Snape’s wand with a lily carved into part of its design. Snape’s wand with a lily on it? If you have to ask that question, you’ll have to read the books and/or see the films.
A Grand Finale on Steroids
For those who like to save the best for last, The Harry Potter Tour more than fits the bill. After showing us posters, drawings and other elements that went into designing and creating everything needed to make eight block-buster films, Chloe led us to a massive room. In the center of the room stood the most breath-taking highlight of our entire visit. Looming above us was a 30-foot tall detailed model of Hogwarts castle, which was used for those spectacular sweeping shots. It took 86 artists seven months to construct this magnificent tribute to Rowling’s fertile imagination. The castle’s windows were lit by 399 tiny fiber-optic lights that were used for night scenes. The castle itself is made of fiberglass and driftwood, but the gravel and plants used for the landscape are real.
Chloe read me the description in detail, along with the facts and stats. As she read, my mind began to form a picture of how I had always imagined the castle to be. Closing my eyes, I could actually see the outlines of the giant structure. The only way I can describe what was happening to me is to say that my entire being was filled with the awesomeness and grandeur of what stood in front of me.
But Wait, There’s More
I wish I could tell you the details of how some of the creatures were made to move, how some of the more exotic characters were made to look the way they did, how the Weasley house was made to look crooked, and so much more. We now have a deep appreciation for the amount of talent, passion and commitment that is visible everywhere we went. Hundreds of highly trained, brilliant individuals designed sets, made costumes, procured or made props, trained animals, fabricated magical creatures and performed a thousand other jobs in order to bring the product of J. K. Rowling’s fertile imagination to the big screen.
This five-hour experience was a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the amazing world of Harry Potter film-making that will never grow old. If you don’t believe in magic, take a walk in our footsteps, and you will believe!
I can’t leave the amazing world in which we spent five enchanted hours without saying a heart-filled thank you from Simon, Otto and me. Sarah Mitchell, PR and Communications Co-ordinator, Warner Bros. Studio Tour, London, arranged for us to take the personally guided tour, and her efforts will always be appreciated. Chloe O’Sullivan spent almost an entire day sharing the secrets that made the Harry Potter films so realistic and fun. She was nothing less than phenomenal, and we will never forget the tremendous gift of her time, knowledge and sense of fun she shared with us.
The Warner Brother Studio is located approximately 22 miles northwest of Central London. For more information about the Harry Potter Studio Tour, visit www.wbstudiotour.co.uk