February 2015 | Rebecca Rego Barry

"The Making of Harry Potter:" A Visit to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

Guest Post by Catherine Batac Walder

For our first visit to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, "The Making of Harry Potter," we thought it would be quite an experience to also see Hogwarts in the snow. Weekend tickets for this seasonal event appeared to be sold out. We checked for changes every week and finally saw an availability for January 31. (One thing about visiting the studios is you can't just turn up and buy tickets; another is, since it's mostly a self-guided tour, it's best to get a morning slot so as not to feel rushed as there is so much to take in. Visitors do stay around for hours and so afternoons can get really crowded.)

Walder2_Harry Potter studio.JPGInside a mandrake.

Much has been said about the ten years and all the work it took to make the eight Harry Potter films; for example, how props were painstakingly made by hand. Everything on display at the studios is original--costumes, sets, and props. Some of the creatures were huge, like Aragog the spider, which was covered by hand with yak hair, sisal, and hemp from brooms. The spider was so complex that it required nearly 100 technicians to operate it.

There are two soundstages, J and K, and a backlot. We spent a lot of time exploring the sets in J: Hagrid's hut, the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore's office, among others. Many of these were built to scale, while special "forced perspective" techniques were used for the other sets, such as the hallway at the wizard pub and inn, to make them appear much longer. Studio K housed the bigger sets, such as Diagon Alley and Hogwarts Castle.

Walder1_Harry Potter studio.JPGThe Monster Book of Monsters

For someone not entirely familiar with filmmaking, the surprise was those scenes in the film that I thought were computer-generated imagery but were actually mechanical effects. The visuals used in The Burrow (Weasley home), e.g., the knife chopping on its own, all used special mechanical effects. As did the mandrakes and The Monster Book of Monsters. A guide showed us how to work the machine that produced Harry's footprints in the snow while he was wearing the invisibility cloak.

Walder3_Harry Potter studio.JPGThe device used to make the snow footprints of an invisible Harry.

As expected, the merchandise at the studio shop was a little overpriced. There were items of very good quality but you wouldn't really expect one to pay much just for a plastic broomstick. Speaking of broomsticks, our daughter was surprisingly cooperative during the broomstick flight experience that we did pay for the photos and video as souvenirs (convincing ourselves that we wouldn't be able to get this anywhere else, and considering that she is under five and was admitted to the tour for free).

Walder4_Harry Potter studio.JPGThe wand shop where each box bears the name of one of the more than 4,000 people who worked on the Harry Potter motion pictures.

Sometimes, imagining a story and sharing it with an audience of one is fulfilling enough; J. K. Rowling was able to achieve this millions of times over, allowing other people to create with her. It is fascinating to learn that the Hogwarts 'portraits' are of the filmmaking staff and their families, and such aspects of the film make it the filmmakers' own, not the author's, as these were obviously not the faces Rowling had imagined. While it's true that there is always that case of an author not fully agreeing with what is brought to screen, the makers of the Harry Potter films shared Rowling's imagined world to a large extent, making the stories accessible to a wider audience and possibly more fantastical for a lot of people.

The Hogwarts model covered in snow, along with the Christmas decorations, were up till February 1. February 5 saw the first-ever Harry Potter Book Night. On March 19, Warner Bros. Studio Tour London will be opening a 20,000-ft. expansion, including the original Hogwarts Express steam engine and a recreation of Platform 9¾.

--Catherine Batac Walder is a writer living in the UK. She has blogged for us recently about Richard Adams and the Oxford Literary Festival.

Images: Credit: Catherine Batac Walder.