It is a good time to be a fan of the boy wizard right now. Earlier in the week, the eBook versions of all seven Harry Potter novels were finally made available through the pottermore.com website, and this weekend the doors of The Making of Harry Potter studio tour will at last be opened with a star-studded red carpet event at the Leavesden Studios where all eight movies were made (you can watch a live stream of the event here).
From 1939 until 1994 the Leavesden Aerodrome was home to a local airfield and factory, producing fighter planes during the Second World War and Rolls-Royce aircraft engine in later years. The factory closed in 1994 and the hangars were transformed into soundstages and construction workshops, the airfield turned into a fully functioning backlot and the new center for film production in the UK was born. It was home for many film production, including several James Bond movies, before a relatively new production company came there to make a film about young boy who discovers he is a wizard on his 11th birthday.
Over the next ten years, the cast and crew of over 3,000 in total inhabited more and more of the Leavesden studios as the popularity of the books and films grew and grew. The three young stars lived there, grew up there, went to school there and turned into adults on those stages. When all the films were completed the future of the studio complex was very uncertain until Warner Brothers decided to invest a huge amount of money in both the local area and the British film industry in general, by turning part of the site into London’s newest tourist attraction, The Warner Brothers Studio Tour, whilst keeping plenty of other stages and studios around to be used as the base for their UK film productions. They hired Thinkwell, an experiential design and development firm based in Burbank, who also created the opening event for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, to design and produce the tour taking the iconic sets, costumes, props and creatures, and creating an authentic, immersive behind-the-scenes look at how the films were made. It’s taken nearly two years to get there, but it finally opens to the public this weekend.
The tour is based around a timed entry system. You have to buy your tickets in advance (£28 for adults and £21 for children) and then turn up within your 30 minute slot, but after that you can spend as long as you like wandering around. The journey begins in the foyer, with a flying Ford Anglia hanging from the ceiling and the walls decorated with huge photos of the cast, together with a few props. A small queue forms as everyone in your time slot gathers together by the set of the cupboard under the stairs, and after a while we were ushered into a room with several vertical TV screens showing Potter movie posters from around the world. Before long the screens began to show a short video sequence showing the rise of Harry’s popularity, how the production team came across the stories, and the tremendous success of the books and films worldwide.
From here we were moved into a mini cinema and shown a short film introduced by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, talking about their experiences growing up on a film set for ten years, with plenty of behind the scenes footage and clips of the best action sequences from all eight films. They were standing in front of the main doors to the Great Hall and when they’d finished, they walked in through the doors and invited us to follow them. Everyone expected to be led off through another little door into the next room, but no. The cinema screen slowly rolled up to the ceiling and revealed the actual main doors to the Great Hall, complete with all the stone statues and intricate carvings. What a way to begin the tour!
Our guide led us through into the Great Hall and he was very keen to impart on us that we were now walking on the actual stone floor used in the films and seeing the actual tables where the actors ate their feasts, wearing the actual costumes on the dummies down each side of the hall. And very impressive it was too, the attention to detail is incredible. Each of the Flambeaux on the walls are carved and painted to perfection and represent one of the Houses of Hogwarts. The water jugs topped with golden pig heads, the huge, blackened fireplace and the aged murals on the stone walls all look so realistic even up close. At the end of the hall is of course the teachers’ table area, filled with more amazing costumes for the likes of Professors Dumbledore, Snape, McGonagall, Moody, Trelawney and Flitwick, as well as Hagrid and Filch too.
The guide gave us another little speech about the tour and I was relived to hear that it was a free for all from this point on. We walked out of the Great Hall and into the first of two vast sound stages. All the children were given a ‘Passport’ at the beginning of the tour which contained a quiz question on each page, with the answer to be found somewhere around the tour, and spaces to collect six embossed stamps from certain sections. There was also the obligatory ‘treasure hunt’ game telling us the locations of 15 Golden Snitches for us to spot as you wander around. I think this became my daughter’s favorite part of the tour. She’s only six at the moment and has so far only read/seen the first book/movie, so it gave her a way to connect with things she hasn’t actually seen in the later films. Some of the snitches are a bit tricky to find, but there are plenty of helpful staff members around to drop the odd hint if you’re a bit stuck.