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A peek into Potter world 0

by Joe Utichi for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine

It was designed to look as if it hadn’t been dusted for centuries, but, like all movie sets, the Great Hall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was built in the expect­ation that it would be torn down in less than a year. Warner Bros had a good idea that Harry Potter might be a winner when it pressed ahead with plans to turn the first of JK Rowling’s family adventure stories, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, into a film. Even so, few could have expected that the sound stages of Leavesden Studios, near Watford, would be kept busy with the Potter series for the decade that followed. The Great Hall set remained standing on C Stage as eight films, by four directors, grossing a combined $7.7 billion, were shot.

This unprecedented continuity made the series one of the most ambitious productions ever to be mounted. Rowling had stipulated that the principal cast remain British, which may have scotched rumoured plans to shift production to eastern Europe midseries, and ensured that a decade of British talent, in front of and behind the camera, was trained and nurtured by Harry Potter. This year, Bafta awarded the series a special prize for outstanding British contribution to cinema — a contribution felt at all levels of our film industry.

With the series at an end, its American producers have decided to establish a permanent outpost in this country. At the newly renamed Warner Bros Studios, Leavesden, the nine existing sound stages are being stripped bare and refurbished. Leaking roofs and draughty corridors — barely touched since the site’s days as an RAF aerodrome during the second world war — are being replaced and modernised. It will be the first European base for a major Hollywood studio, and will play host to new film productions from next year.

Two new sound stages will house original sets, creatures, costumes and props from the Harry Potter series, as part of a studio-tour attraction that will be open to the public. With nine sound stages already in situ, it is by happy coincidence that the new ones are named J and K. And, unlike The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a theme park in Florida that acts as an illusory universe, The Making of Harry Potter promises to lift the veil on the mechanics of movie-making, showing visitors the plywood and plaster backs of the sets, as well as the complicated processes involved in realising the films’ special effects.

So, for the first time since it was built, the Great Hall set has been dismantled and rebuilt on J Stage, its tall walls squeezed through the new sound stage’s doors with just inches of clearance. It will be the first thing visitors see as they enter the attraction — and few film sets, at any budget level, can match it for impact. Based on the dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, it is 120ft long and 40ft wide. Rowling once said that walking through it was like walking inside her own head, although the production designer, Stuart Craig, demurs. “I’ve always felt quite apologetic about it, as it’s really only half the set,” he laughs. “The ceiling is so tall, and so elaborately detailed, with its hammer beams and dragon figures, and all that is missing. The most spectacular part was exten­ded with computer graphics.”

“I’ve stood in a wood at night, watching a dragon set fire to things. You could feel the heat, and it was magical – I will never forget that moment.”Craig is overseeing the curation of the new attraction, along with many of the films’ original art-department heads. The set decorator, Stephenie McMillan, will ensure that the slavish attention to detail — down to the boxes of Cheeri Owls cereal at the Great Hall’s breakfast tables — will be on display. The special make-up effects artist, Nick Dudman, will present a collection of his creature designs, and the special-effects supervisor, John Richardson, is making magical objects move as they did on screen.

Richardson’s team was responsible for effects that were achieved practically — a surprisingly high number of the films’ magical moments. These included Professor Lupin’s trunk, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — which had the wonderfully convenient feature of being able to pack itself — and the brilliant inventions put to work in Mrs Weasley’s kitchen, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, among them automatic chopping boards and self-cleaning frying pans. Every single movie has involved different characters to create, so it’s never been boring

Richardson faces some of the greatest challenges in mounting the exhibition. “On a movie set, you get one of these props all set up to work, it does its job, then you have a team of guys to go in to reset it for the next take,” he explains. “For the tour, we have to have it reset itself every time. We’re having to be a little bit cleverer. We’ll also put mirrors behind it, so the audience will be able to see the mechanics that go into making it work.”

With inventions such as these, The Burrow — home to Mrs ­Weasley and her family — typifies the warmly idiosyncratic world of Rowling’s creation and the artistry that went into realising it on film.

The set sits at unusual angles, suggesting decades of attempts at magical extension to fit the Weasleys’ ever-growing brood. And it is filled with wizardly bric-a-brac — much of it specially created for the films — suggesting a home, rather than a house, and one that feels wonderfully snug, despite the family’s limited finances. “We decorated the house on the basis that their colour was orange, and that everything in their home would have come from a skip or a charity shop,” McMillan says. “Thinking about the characters, and putting these sorts of details in, is dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”

For Dudman, the challenge of Harry Potter lay in realising a menagerie of magical monsters. Some were variations on familiar creatures of myth, such as mermaids, centaurs and goblins; others had to be freshly imagined from the descriptions in Rowling’s text, including thestrals, acromantulas and dementors. “Every single movie has involved different characters to create, so it’s never been boring,” he says. His creatures workshop is full of oddities, as his team busy themselves shampooing the hair of an eerily realistic silicone corpse and reviving the furry legs of Aragog, the giant spider. Shelves full of prosthetic goblin heads keep a watchful eye on their work.

Dudman has fond memories of the production. “I’ve stood in a wood at night, watching a dragon set fire to things. You could feel the heat, and it was magical — I will never forget that moment.” That particular creation came to Leicester Square, in London, for the premiere of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “I did the risk assessment for the council. They said, ‘What is it you want to put in Leicester Square?’ I said, ‘A 40ft fire-breathing dragon.’ They said, ‘Is it dangerous?’ I said, ‘It’s a fire-breathing dragon.’ It only caught fire once, but it was incredible.”

One of Dudman’s similarly incendiary creations, Fawkes the phoenix, is at home in Albus Dumbledore’s office, which first appeared in The Chamber of Secrets. It is Craig’s favourite set. “You can see the three little cantilevered turrets on the castle exterior,” he says. “Looking at that model, we knew the headmaster’s office had to be there — the king of the castle. Inventing the interior space was interesting. It’s like an eyrie.” The unusual architecture allowed Craig to include a small room at the rear of the set that was barely glimpsed on screen, a cosy retreat decorated with McMillan’s character-driven curios, and something visitors to the attraction will be able to discover properly for the first time.

For a decade, the artists of the Harry Potter franchise worked tirelessly to inject the films with these barely glimpsed intricacies. Given the success of the films, critically and commercially, there is no doubt that this attention to detail provides the depth necessary believably to realise Rowling’s world. The Making of Harry Potter may reveal some of the tricks of cinema, but it seems certain to introduce the public to the real wizardry of film-making.  

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