Of the plentiful and diverse geekdoms out there, few have captured hearts and imaginations more than Harry Potter. In the late 90s, the book series took off, reigniting the love of reading for kids and adults alike. Even as technology became more sophisticated and widely available to younger kids (ie, middle-schoolers having iPhones while I waited to the ripe old age of 23 to get mine. Not bitter), bookstores across the world were packed for midnight book releases. Having been to a few myself, they were a distinct privilege to participate in and revel in the dedication and creativity of so many other Potterheads.
While the books were magical enough, the subsequent film franchise brought them to life, allowing fans to watch Harry’s story unfold and bring the fan-girling to a whole new dimension. Not only could we see Harry’s world, but also we could dress up as Hogwarts students (team Ravenclaw, ftw), buy wands, drink Butterbeer and step a little further into being part of the world we Muggles so dearly loved.
So when my trip to London came around, visiting the Warner Brothers Studio Tour was a no-brainer. About an hour’s drive north on London, the Harry Potter studios are located in Leavesden. Plenty of touring companies offer bus rides there from London, so getting there is pretty easy if you want to make a trip up.
While the studio looked pretty industrial from the outside, we were introduced to bits and pieces of the inner world of Harry Potter right away. As we patiently waited in line, we got to see Harry’s cupboard under the stairs from Number 4 Privet Drive. According to my sister, the rent for a similar size apartment would run upwards of $1200 in New York City. I don’t doubt that.
Once we got in, we viewed a brief film featuring Daniel Radclifffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, who spoke about how Leavesden was home for them for 10 years and what is was like growing up on set. They are about the same age as me, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like to work on such an elaborate project, go to school, and spend a decade on this insane adventure. But, neither of them went the Lindsanity route and we are blessed with the perfection that is Emma Watson, so kudos for all of them for turning out as great people and being so receptive to the fans reveling in what was much of their childhood.
After the film, the screen was pulled up, revealing the doors to the Great Hall, through which we would all be entering the set. As far as who got to open the actual doors, the tour guide invited whomever’s birthday was that day to open them. Pro-tip: if you don’t care about integrity and the feelings of children, lie and say it’s your birthday to get it.
We then entered the Great Hall in the same fashion and awe that the first years had when they first arrived at Hogwarts. I have to say; it was pretty surreal being in the same room in which so many iconic scenes were filmed. Each house table was indicated (I got my Ravenclaw pics!) and lining the perimeter of the room were some of the famous costumes from the duration of the films. I think one of the things I appreciated most throughout the tour was that they had mannequins in costume placed where they would have stood or sat in a particular scene; rather than having just the set, they really brought the scene to life and added perspective as to where everybody and everything was during filming. At the head of the Great Hall stood Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, Snape, Mad-Eye Moody and a few other professors. We also got to see Neville’s iconic battle outfit (ie, a button-up sweater, as defeating the Dark Lord would necessitate).
As we exited the Great Hall, we saw a myriad of props, costumes, and sets about which I could ramble on for days on end, so I’ll let my pictures speak for themselves. I will say that my favorites were Dumbledore’s Office, the Gryffindor common room, and the dining room in Malfoy Manor where Nagini om noms Charity Burbage. For some of the bigger sets, videos were included that showed how particular scenes were filmed (ie, the Charity Burbage scene).
Fairly new to the tour was the Forbidden Forest, which has just opened up in March. Even with a hundred other people in there with us, the set did an amazing job creating a cold, eerie feeling. Spiders and other creatures lurked around, (including a bowing Buckbeak, ready to make your acquaintance) and if you weren’t careful, you got up-and-center with this charming fellow:
I unfortunately wasn’t able to get good pictures of it, but towards the end, you were able to see Harry’s stag patronus, which lightened the mood considerably.
Through the forest led to Platform 9 ¾, the Dursely home at Number Four Privet Drive, and the Potters’ house (which is a Pokestop, fyi). For those needing a break, Inferi lurked outside the restrooms (ambiance, you see) and the cafeteria was right after, where Butterbeer and Butterbeer ice cream were served. If memory serves, it is the only place outside of Universal Studios that serves it, so we were sure to get some. My family visited Universal Studios a few years ago, and both the Butterbeer and ice cream were welcome treats on a hot Florida day. But a cold, rainy day in London? Didn’t care, had some anyway and it was still just as delicious.
The next couple exhibits featured Diagon Alley and the art departments, where much of the “behind the scenes” preparation took place. To be honest, this isn’t really a department I’ve thought much about; for me, special effects, set design, and costuming were at the forefront of my mind when thinking about how the movies were put together. However, the art departments gave me a new appreciation for all the other elements of design that went into creating the films. The disembodied head of Grawp, thestrals, and animatronic defeated Voldemort baby brought home the level of detail needed to make these fantastic creatures look and move realistically. The scale model section featured original art prints of many of designers, and showcased the intricacy of creating what would become massive sets.
As we turned the corner, we were greeted with one of the art department’s tremendous feats: a gigantic model of Hogwarts. Seeing it in its entirety was (no pun intended) spellbinding. Every inch of this model had been thought out; the mountains, the lights within, and every part of the castle mentioned in the books was there, plus more. I think it was this moment that really gelled the tour experience for me; the sheer amount of work, planning, and talent that was needed to create the movie franchise was overwhelming. While I, as an audience member, waited for sneak peaks and movie screenings, so much was going on in the meantime to make the films as believable and magical as possible of which I only had a vague idea.
The final part of the tour was a room in Ollivander’s wand shop, but instead of wands for purchase, the wand boxes featured all the names of the people involved in the creation of the Harry Potter films. I thought this was an incredibly thoughtful tribute to those worked on set, however big or small their role. Shoot, even if I were just the water girl (or similar task on set), I would have loved to be part of the experience. While we largely credit JK Rowling, the actors, and directors with making the movies into these cinematic accomplishments, many other hands were involved in bringing these films to life.
Having worked on plays in school, I thought of something one of my teachers said about not revealing too much about what goes on behind the scenes in order to preserve the “magic of the theater”; I guess her idea was that if it was broken down too much, the audience wouldn’t be as impressed or engrossed in the production. I will have to disagree with her. If anything, seeing how everything works made me appreciate the end product more. To bring a fantasy world to life is no easy task, and the Harry Potter crew did an amazing job doing so. I feel more inspired to watch the movies over again and see all the elements I was able to experience in person. While waving my wand and saying “wingardium leviosa” might not get me far in this world, the tremendous effort to make the world of Harry Potter come to life is nothing short of magic.
Featured image credit: one of the artist’s depiction of the trio in the Battle of Hogwarts aftermath. If this was a print for sale, I’d be all over it