It's still more or less a building site, but last week I donned hard hat, hobnail boots and hi-vis vest* to visit what's officially called the Warner Bros Studio Tour London - The Making Of Harry Potter, in development now at Leavesden Studios. So here's what I learned from the day, and what you can expect come next spring when the attraction opens to the public.
First of all, this is not The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter. There won't be butterbeer on sale in the cafe and it isn't about immersion in the fantastical world of Potter or people running about in robes organising Quidditch games (or whatever. Empire budgets have not yet allowed me a jaunt to Orlando to find out for sure). This is more about the techniques behind the film, a tribute to the immensely talented artists and craftspeople who built the sets for the eight films and brought JK Rowling's books to life. It's about giving everybody a chance to experience what only a handful of lucky journalists and visitors have seen so far: the sheer scale and scope of the effort involved in this old-fashioned filmmaking triumph, made on vast sets with beautifully detailed touches. In these days of green screen and CG, after all, it's increasingly rare to find anything on this scale, and the fact that Potter endured for a decade means that these sets were built more sturdily and permanently than most others - ace production designer Stuart Craig, the man who built the world of Potter, still considers the money he spent on a real stone floor for the Great Hall one of the best investments ever, since it stood up to ten years of filming.
But this is about reality, not magic. So while you will see the Great Hall and its spectacular entrance all as it appeared on the screen, you'll also be able to see behind those walls, the plaster and timber exposing it as an artificial construct (see below). You'll see a scale model of the ceiling (the real one is left open for lights) that you can walk under, and there'll be photo opportunities at the gates of the school. It's probably, therefore, not one for very little kids who might be traumatised to learn that it isn't all really real.
The specially-built locations for the tour, on J Stage and K Stage, are enormous, cavernous spaces (see header above), but they're going to be pretty much crammed full of the sets from the films. J Stage alone will hold the Great Hall, the Potions room, Dumbledore's office, the gates, the Gryffindor Common Room and boys' dorm, the Burrow, the Ministry of Magic (well, part of it; it's huge), props displays, green screen displays, biographical info on the crew, and more. Outside you'll be able to see the likes of Privet Drive and the Hogwarts Bridge (which must have miraculously survived being blown up in Part VIII), while K Stage will hold, I hear, Diagon Alley and much more. Even if you've visited the Harry Potter Exhibition as it's travelled the world (just wrapped up in Times Square in NYC, alas) this is on a whole other scale, and conservatively about a bajillion times bigger.
Props and artificial characters are even now being gussied up in the old Creature Shop, and then boxed and stored in a temporary structure before they're put into place for the displays planned. Even as we speak, individual hairs are being tweezed back into Aragog's legs, to make the giant spider as frightening realistic as possible when he goes on display, and I saw visual effects guru John Richardson hard at work making a few displays magically interactive (ever fancied flicking a wand and making magic happen? Well OK thenI) and providing wheelchair access to the Ford Anglia that played a role in Chamber Of Secrets, for maxmium photo-op fun.
The sets have been moved over to their new home from the older part of Leavesden, which is currently being gutted and turned into a state of the art studio, with a roof that doesn't leak and mod-cons like heat and air conditioning** - as well as all the technical support and know-how so that filmmakers will be able to do pretty much anything there. But the process of moving everything to its new home is a painstaking and laborious one: the Great Hall alone took three weeks, and Dumbledore's office is still being touched up and cleaned in its new home before it can be dressed up again and his shelves filled with books once more (see below, with the Pensieve in the middle).
What's nice about all this is that they're not just aiming it all at Potter fans. This is one for movie lovers too, designed to show what can be accomplished with old-fashioned sets and state-of-the-art effects. It's also a celebration of the oft-overlooked genius of people like the aforementioned Richardson and Craig, and their crews, the technical and artistic talents behind the scenes who brought the world's biggest franchise to life. And that is something genuinely new in this country, and very much worth celebrating. After all, time and again big-name directors say that they love working in the UK because of our great crews and talented department heads; here's a chance to see why that is.
We'll have more behind-the-scenes on this nearer to opening time next Spring. Tickets go on sale from October 13, and will only be on sale in advance, online, not at the site on the day. Expect it to be big.
*It's a hot look. I reckon everyone will be wearing it next season.
** When we asked Emma Watson what the most difficult location in all the shoot was, she jokingly answered, "Leavesden!" because the former aircraft factory used to get so cold in winter. But no longer!
megank13 Posted on Monday October 3, 2011, 14:56
I have got to get a ticket to this....I'm sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo excited about it all. I'm a huge HP fan & a HUGE film fan..so this is combining the two really :D I hope I manage to get a ticket
FanaticalAboutFilm Posted on Monday October 3, 2011, 17:30
Looks very impressive, would love to go there!! However, I thought the Great Hall scenes were actually filmed in Christ Church College in Oxford and not on film set... Just wondering about that because I was once at Christ Church and up to now in the believe of having visited parts of "Hogwarts"... (it was great, by the way! feels so real!) So, did I misunderstand something?
benthemitchell Posted on Tuesday October 4, 2011, 09:23
Helen, if you do get the chance, I absolutely recommend The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Queuing for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was an experience in itself, let alone being an absolutely fantastic ride! And butterbeer is delicious!
I'm definitely going to try to get tickets to this though. It looks absolutely fascinating. And if there's good wheelchair access, as you stated, I'm sure my sister will join me for a great day out.
machten Posted on Wednesday October 5, 2011, 02:39
FanaticalAboutFilm: The Great Hall has always been a set at Leavesden. It was based on the dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, but they never filmed on location there. There was a big article about it all in the Sunday Times this week.
They may have used the cloisters there in the first film, though, so if you saw that you can still say you walked around hogwarts!
FanaticalAboutFilm Posted on Wednesday October 5, 2011, 11:08
Oh, I see... well, I've seen the cloisters as well, so I guess I have no reason to be dissapointed - was still a great experiance. Thanks for the info, machten! :)
Helen OHara Posted on Wednesday October 5, 2011, 12:00
It's not the cloisters they use; it's the landing and stairs just outside Hall in Christ Church that appear in the first film. You'll recognise them when you watch the movie: it's just before the sorting hat scene. There's a bit with Draco talking to Harry and (I think) Neville and his toad there. The ceiling is this perpendicular Gothic bit of fanned gorgeousness, so it's easy to spot those scenes. The cloisters seen in the early films were, I think, either Lincoln cathedral or Magdalen college. Christchurch is a bit later, and its main quad is open.
FanaticalAboutFilm Posted on Tuesday November 29, 2011, 13:12
Thanks the enlightenment, dear Helen!! I guess now I really know everything about the scenes filmed at Christ Church college ;)