Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the first book in the Harry Potter series written by J. K. Rowling. Since then, what began as a bottom-of-the-shelf novel has become an international sensation that is unlikely to fade from society any time soon. Three years after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published, a film production team discovered the story of the young boy who discovers he is a wizard and developed an idea for a film. Filming began in 2000 at a studio in Leavesden on the outskirts of London, a town that has become a significant location on the map.
Warner Bros. Studio is situated on the old land belonging to Leavesden Aerodrome, an airfield that produced fighter planes during World War II and, later, Rolls-Royce aircraft engines. After closing in 1994, the hangars were converted to create suitable soundstages and recording rooms, which would eventually become home to the Harry Potter film cast and crew for over ten years. Now that all eight Harry Potter films have been produced, the studio has converted the place into a shrine-like museum for Potter fans to visit. Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter reveals the secrets and unbelievable talents of the various departments involved with the biggest film series in history.
Arriving at the studios near Watford is an exciting experience for all Harry Potter fans. Before entering the building, there are photo opportunities with statues of giant chess pieces that featured in the first film and enlarged posters and newspapers containing articles from the fictional publications in the wizarding world. After getting through security checks, visitors can spend some time (potentially hours) in the huge, unfortunately overpriced, gift shop whilst they await their timed entry to the studio. As the ticket holders queue up to enter the magical world of Harry Potter, the smallest set in the films, the cupboard under the stairs, provides a teaser of the delights to come.
After a brief introductory film, visitors assemble in front of a large set of doors, which are eventually pushed open (either by a member of staff or a lucky visitor who is celebrating a birthday) in a way that is comparable with Harry’s first experience of the room on the other side. This is the Great Hall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where students have their meals or magnificent feasts and balls. With huge, arched windows, real flagstones, brick walls and enormous torch holders, the hall resembles the inside of an ancient church or Westminster Hall in London.
The Great Hall is set up with two of the four lengthy tables, which the students sit at, and the staff table at the top. Models of eight of the adults stand in front of the latter as though welcoming visitors to Hogwarts. Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster, is positioned behind his golden owl podium, poised to give one of his memorable speeches.
Missing from the hall, however, is the enchanted ceiling that enthrals first years on their arrival at Hogwarts. Instead, scaffolding and lighting fixtures fill the space, which, in the films, were replaced with computer-generated visual effects to give the sense of a neverending night sky or fill the hall with floating candles.
Once visitors have left the Great Hall, they can view the rest of the studio at their own pace. Staff encourage everyone to take their time because, being a one-way tour, it is not possible to return to sections. In order to see everything, visitors are advised to be prepared to stay for three hours, although most people spend many more hours there.
A great number of film settings are on show, fully intact as they would have been during filming. These are surprisingly smaller than the films suggest and it is the clever skills of the cameramen that make the rooms or locations look bigger. The Gryffindor Boys’ Dormitory looks particularly tiny with child-size beds that were originally built for the 11-year old actors, forgetting that they would grow up to be gangly adolescents.
Gryffindor was one of the four houses students were sorted into on their first day at Hogwarts. Throughout Harry’s education, he shared a dormitory with his best friend Ron Weasley and three other boys, Neville Longbottom and Dean Thomas, whose initials can be seen on the trunks underneath their respective beds, and Seamus Finnigan. In the set next door, the Gryffindor Common Room shows the cosy area where Harry, Ron and their friend Hermione Granger would sit to relax or do their homework at the end of the school day. Decorated mostly in red (the house colour), the set decorators sourced medieval-looking tapestries to adorn the walls, old carpets and worn armchairs. Since none of the other house dormitories or common rooms appear in the films, there are no sets to reveal how the rest of the students lived.
The film sets of a couple of other rooms from Hogwarts are included in the tour, Dumbledore’s Office and the Potions Classroom. Dumbledore had a private office at the top of one of Hogwarts’ highest towers. It was only accessible through a secret stairwell, which was protected by a stone Griffin. Phenomenally, designers created this sculpted staircase, which, after the correct password was given, would rise out of a 12ft-hole in the ground.
Dumbledore’s office contains a huge collection of items that reflect the professor’s personality. Fascinated with the night sky, many references to astronomy can be seen around the room. There are also many mythical and fictional artefacts that are a key part of the Harry Potter stories. These include the Sword of Gryffindor and the memory cabinet.
The hundreds of books that line the shelves around Dumbledore’s desk are actually old British phonebooks covered in leather-like materials to give the impression of ancient tomes. Also in abundance are portraits of former headmasters. During production, these portraits numbered 48 and were often paintings of crew members dressed up to look like wizards.
The Potions Classroom set is also jampacked with props, particularly jars, of which there are hundreds. In the story, potions lessons were held in a dark classroom within the school’s dungeon, therefore, designers needed to make the set look as gloomy and dusty as possible.
Hagrid’s Hut is also an impressive set, as is the kitchen of Ron Weasley’s house. Rubeus Hagrid was the groundskeeper at Hogwarts and lived in a hut separate from the main castle. Since he was a half-giant, the contents of his hut needed to reflect his size, therefore, large furniture and props were produced. It was also rather crowded and full of cages containing real and fictional animals. On the other hand, The Burrow, belonging to the Weasleys, was a far more cosy set. Although much of the set contains typical items from the homes of “normal” people (or Muggles) many of them have been enchanted (or mechanised). Visitors can make the pans wash themselves, the iron move independently and knitting needles weave wool together by waving their hands over touch-sensitive pads.
Other sets include the green and red-bricked Ministry of Magic, the evil Professor Umbridge’s office, and the sinister Malfoy Manor. Although these were only small, many dedicated hours were taken to make them perfect for the various films. The fireplaces within the Ministry of Magic reached almost 30-feet high and were based on buildings that existed in Victorian London.
Up until this point in the tour, the sets had been rather small, however, three rather large and extremely impressive scenes soon follow. The first is the Forbidden Forest, which, as the name suggests, is a dangerous wooded area on the border of the school grounds. During the first film, scenes were shot on location at Black Park in Buckinghamshire, however, this often caused problems, for instance, unreliable weather, so the production team built their own in Leavesden instead. The tree trunks were built on a monumental scale, sometimes reaching 14-feet wide.
Parents of young children need to be aware that the Forbidden Forest set is particularly dark and involves smoke machines, scary noises and enormous spiders that dangle from the trees. Fortunately, the spiders are not real and are only physical animatronics, but that does not make them look any less terrifying, particularly the 18-foot spider hiding under the tree roots.
The next major set was only used during the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. This was Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, where students board the train, the Hogwarts Express, on 1st September to take them to school. For the first seven films, any scenes involving the platform were filmed at King’s Cross Station, but for ease of filming, a platform complete with track and train was produced for the very last parts of the series.
On this set, visitors can photograph each other pretending to run through the wall like the characters do in the films in order to access the platform, although, the most exciting part is climbing inside the carriage of the Hogwarts Express. The bright red train has become one of the most iconic vehicles within the film industry, however, it already had a long history prior to Harry Potter. This Great Western Railway 4900 Class 5972 Olton Hall locomotive was once a passenger carriage, the very first to traverse all the different lines in England. The steam engine began work in 1937 and retired in 1963 until it found fame on screen.
Inside one of the carriages, different compartments are set up to show how they appeared in each film. Although the decoration remained the same, the contents differed as the characters got older, beginning with sweet wrappers and ending with more grown-up-looking luggage. At the back of the train, the popular sweets trolley can be seen packed full of magical looking confectionary.
Eventually, the tour leads to the most impressive of all the Harry Potter sets, Diagon Alley. In the books and films, Diagon Alley is a magic town hidden within the City of London. Only witches and wizards can access the alley and students go there every summer to buy their books and equipment for the new school year. The set is built to look and feel like an actual street with buildings on either side. Fans will be thrilled to see shops such as Gringotts Bank, Olivander’s, Flourish and Blotts and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Set designers were inspired by scenes described in the works of Charles Dickens, therefore, walking along Diagon Alley also feels a little like going back in time.
Due to their nature, not all the film sets are inside. Within the backlot of the studio, where the animal actors once lived, are a few more important locations featured in the films. Although Harry’s home, or rather the home of his horrible Uncle, Aunt and cousin, was usually shot on location, a replica of his house on Privet Drive was also built. Visitors can enter the building and peak into the lounge, which shows the state of the room when thousands of letters inviting Harry to attend Hogwarts flew down the chimney.
Parked outside the house is another famous vehicle from the series, which appeared in the third film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Unlike the Hogwarts Express, which was a preexisting train, the Knight Bus was created specifically for the film. In the story, Harry takes the Knight Bus to London when he runs away from home. Being a magical bus, only wizards and witches can see it; it can also change shape and travel at illegal speeds in order to navigate the busy streets.
Designers built the bright purple bus from pieces of vintage London double-deckers. Due to having three floors, the Knight Bus reaches 22-feet and is significantly thinner than average buses. Although visitors cannot board the bus, they can peer into the rear end to see the peculiar interior.
One thing that can be physically experienced is walking across a section of the Hogwarts Bridge. J. K. Rowling never wrote about this bridge, however, it was added to the script for the third film and appeared in several thereafter. Only one section was ever built, the rest being computer-generated, but there is enough for visitors to get a sense of the rickety wooden structure. Made from old-looking wood complete with roofing (a blessing if it is raining), the Hogwarts Bridge is an impressive feat of architecture.
It is not only film sets that make up the Harry Potter studio tour. As already mentioned, models of the characters feature within some of the settings, for instance, the Death Eaters seated around the table in Malfoy Manor. There are also other displays of models dotted around dressed up in various costumes. Within the Great Hall at the beginning of the tour, models of the majority of Hogwarts staff stand together dressed in the typical costume they wore throughout the eight films. Around the sides of the hall are figures dressed in Hogwarts uniforms and robes. Each house has bands of different colours running through the material: Gryffindor red, Ravenclaw blue, Hufflepuff yellow, and Slytherin green.
After leaving the hall, the elaborate costumes that featured during the Yule Ball scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are on display. Visitors are particularly drawn to Hermione Granger’s impressive pink gown, which fans can buy replicas of in the gift shop although, these are really expensive. The casual clothes that Harry and his friends wore are also exhibited, showing how their appearance changed as they got older.
Some may wonder why there are two models of the headmaster Albus Dumbledore wearing vastly different robes. The reason for this is the original actor, Richard Harris (1930-2002), died between films two and three. When Michael Gambon (b1940) took over the role, instead of trying to force him into the medieval-style clothing that Harris wore, the costume department gave Dumbledore a quirky make-over.
Only devoted fans would have noticed Imelda Staunton’s (b1956) wardrobe change during her role as the notorious Dolores Umbridge. With an inclination for the colour pink, her wardrobe got pinker and pinker as her power grew. Three outfits can be seen in her equally pink office during the tour.
By the time the final film had concluded in 2011, the prop department had either made or purchased over 5,000 pieces of furniture, 12,000 books, and 40,000 packaging designs. Tens of thousands more props were also used in the films that do not fall into those three categories and a great number of them are on show around the tour. For some props, Victorian style objects were purchased with the intention of adapting them to look like a wizard’s device, whereas, others were built entirely from scratch.
The amount of work the prop department, graphics department and artists did for the Harry Potter series is absolutely phenomenal. They were all extremely dedicated members of the crew and spent hours making objects that barely had any screen time. Some of the most impressive are the Goblet of Fire carved from the trunk of an English Elm; doors, such as the Gringotts Vault Door, which was full of motorised moving parts; and the Magic is Might statue carved from foam and painted to look like stone.
Other props that were vital to the making of Harry Potter include wands and broomsticks. Each character had a unique wand meaning the prop department produced over 3,000 throughout the filming process. These were made from various materials, such as wood, plastic, and rubber, and were intricately carved so that each one had its own distinct look.
The broomsticks, on the other hand, were less prevalent in the films, most frequently appearing during a game of Quidditch – a wizarding sport. As a result, the prop department did not need as many brooms as they did wands, however, they needed to be carefully designed. Not only did the brooms need to be sturdy enough to take the weight of the actors, they needed to be light enough for an owl to carry; most of the animal scenes were not computer generated, they involved many, well-trained creatures. Three of the brooms are in a display cabinet to show the range of designs. These are named Nimbus 2000, Nimbus 2001, and Firebolt.
After visitors have perused the Quidditch equipment, there is the option of “riding” a broom themselves. Dressed in Hogwarts robes, individuals can sit on a stationary broom in front of a green screen to have their photograph taken. During the printing process, the screen is replaced with a Harry Potter scene background, which makes a lovely memento of the day.
Towards the end of the tour, after everyone has had a chance to try a glass of Butterbeer or some Butterbeer flavoured ice cream, the secrets of the magical creatures in the Harry Potter films are revealed. From actors wearing prosthetic make-up to robots built from steel and foam, the Creature Effects team used every technique imaginable. A lot of computer-generated technology was needed to produce the final, moving shots of the creature, which, in itself, is like a type of magic.
The curators of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour saved the best part to the very end. Described as the “crown jewel of the Art Department” a huge model of the Hogwarts castle fills an entire room. Viewed from a balcony as well as at ground level, the hyperrealistic model is absolutely breathtaking. The construction of the model took almost 100 pairs of hands to complete and was fitted with over 300 fibre optic lights. Everything is built to scale and includes bits of gravel and real plants to make it look as authentic as possible.
For footage involving the exterior of the castle, the filming department combined shots of the model with digital effects to make it look like a real, fully functioning castle. This alone sums up the extent the studio workers were willing to go to make Harry Potter the perfect fantasy film series.
The Warner Bros. Studio Tour has won many awards including Best UK Attraction 2017 and Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence 2017. It cost £41 (adults; children are £33) to enter, which may seem like an enormous fee, however, it is worth every penny. Families can spend the entire day at the studio, either having lunch in the cafe two-thirds of the way through or at the restaurant at the beginning/end of the tour. All the staff are extremely helpful and jump at the chance to reveal further information about objects on display. Whether you are an avid fan or fairly new to the Harry Potter world, you are guaranteed to have a magical day.