Anyone traveling for the first time on the early morning train from London Euston Station to Watford Junction on the outskirts of the city would be in for a surprise. Sitting beside the smart-suited passengers are giddy adults and children wrapped in long black robes and thick scarves even when the sun is shining outside.
It appears that the passengers wearing the abaya were on a pilgrimage and there is good reason for that. At the end of the line is the only world tour behind the scenes of the Harry Potter films. It’s located inside two large cream-colored buildings in historic Leavesden Studios where Potter’s flicks were filmed alongside other films, including Wonder Woman 1984, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and last year’s Fast & Furious movie F9.
Huge fans flock to the tour from all over the world dressed as the boy wizard and fellow students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They are now in place, thanks to the advent of the latest installment in the Potter series – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.
Fueled by everything from merchandise to video games, stage show and amusement park rides, they premiered in the US in 2010. It angered then-mayor of London, Boris Johnson, as Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling was born in England and all the films were shot. there.
In a newspaper article, Johnson urged Potter fans to write “to the great JK herself. Bring Harry home to Britain” and a spokesperson for his office added that “if a company comes up with serious plans for a similar theme park in London, the mayor would be interested to hear it.” It prompted Warner to wave its magic wand, and in March 2012, it opened the doors to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London. Fans come there not only in full formal attire to show their appreciation for the Potter stories but also for some extreme escapism.
Once the huge wooden doors at the entrance are opened, guests plunge into the Great Hall, famous in the movies for its floating candles. The seats inside are lined with the festive feast, which appears to be enchanted as smoke billows from under the cauldron seemingly out of nowhere. This is just the beginning.
Can you imagine staring inside Harry’s dormitory at Hogwarts? He’s also on the tour. As with the full-size carriages of the Hogwarts Express steam train used in the movies. Guests can walk through them before strolling down the winding Diagon Alley with its colorful, towering character models embedded in the shaky buildings. Just like in an actual movie set, instructions are written on the back of the interfaces to show how they fit together.
At the touch of a button, many groups come to life. An iron seems to move on its own in Harry’s friend Ron Weasley’s house and booths seem to slip out of the bag of Hogwarts teacher Remus Lupine in an effect you’d think was generated by a computer when you saw it on the silver screen. Other exhibits are more interactive.
One allows guests to control a computer-generated character by moving their hands and arms while the other digitally introduces visitors to the back of a broomstick. The original movie props are within walking distance so that you can take amazing selfies with them. There are costumes, wigs and of course wands. Rows and rows of them. Each item is meticulously labeled with details of the movie it was used in, the character who used it, and even the fictional materials it’s supposed to be made of.
Next to the props are panels with profiles of the production team and screens showing interviews with them about the film-making process. They even reveal tricks of the trade, like how to create an algae effect by blowing green sawdust onto sticky artificial trees. It makes you feel like a director in the making, and even if you’re not a Potter geek, it’s hard not to be charmed by the attention to detail. The tour saves the best until the end.
The epilogue begins when guests are escorted into a dimly lit room filled with frighteningly realistic rubber costumes of orcs. In the movies they run the offices of the illustrious Gringotts Wizarding Bank under their leader, British actor Warwick Davis. A video of him plays on a screen next to the frightening set of prosthetics and he explains how to make them. Each hair strand is stitched and you can get close enough to see them all. Even the wrinkles in their foreheads are visible, which quickly want to move on.
As you approach the corner of the dingy room, there is a wonderful sense of disclosure as visitors suddenly find themselves in the bright and airy full-size Gringotts foyer. An intricate tiled floor and golden columns rise to the ceiling where sparkling chandeliers hang. Just like in the movies, goblins with feathers in hand sit on wooden desks that line the walls and there are gates at the end of the room that lead into the cellar.
Hidden within are the treasures of the evil witch Bellatrix Lestrange, played on screen by Helena Bonham Carter. A total of 210,000 coins have been created to fill the safe in the last two Potter films alone, and they seem to outshine tour visitors in a fun picture.
The mountain of coins is quite elusive, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find that the coins get smaller the higher you go in the pile. Known as forced perspective, it’s a movie-making trick that makes the stack appear to be rising higher than it actually is. It was the brainchild of Academy Award-winning production designer Stuart Craig who worked on the Potter film series as did tour building director Paul Hayes and publicist Pierre Bohanna.
When visitors leave the treasure behind, they enter a collection, which forms a stark contrast to the shimmering lobby. It is based on the events of the last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, in which a dragon known as Ukraine’s Iron Billy destroys the banking hall. On the tour, a high-resolution screen was seamlessly integrated into an elaborate flaming array of smashed floor tiles and cracked pillars to make it appear as if a dragon was emerging from the mist and breathing fire. It took more than a wave of a wand to bring the scene to life.
“It’s been two years from the initial idea to opening day,” says Michael Feeney, chief technology officer and director of special projects at Thinkwell Group, the design experts behind the tour. Thinkwell has brought up attractions in theme parks around the world, including Universal Studios in Orlando and Warner Bros. World in Abu Dhabi. Finney says the filmmakers’ participation had a magical touch to the tour.
“The key was to have the ruined banking hall work with teams Stuart Craig and Paul Hayes to design and develop items for the ‘destroyed’ set, which were not actually destroyed, but were made to look what they are.” He adds that the screen behind the set “creates the illusion of a contiguous space with physical integration into the media”. “The look and feel of the projected environment had to be tuned to look just right from an architectural point of view as well as lighting, smoke effects, etc.” It was back to old-fashioned trial and error.
“Acquiring image views to projection required a great deal of pre-positioning, location testing, media modification, and then several passes to get the projectors to mix the media with the physical set,” says Feeney. In short, the projectors had to be positioned just right so that the seam between the physical assembly and the screen behind it would be invisible to visitors. Finney adds that “the controlled use of atmospheric fog and haze helps blend foreground and background elements.” Thinkwell also used Hollywood hoaxes to pull it off.
“There is half a physical chandelier hanging right in front of the projection screen. We didn’t have enough space for the rear projection, so we had to work very carefully with the filmmaking team to get the chandelier as close as possible to the screen so it casts as little shadows as possible. This took a lot of fine-tuning to get there. to the right form.” Even that wasn’t enough.
“We finally had animators on the film crew draw the line between the set and the image shown,” says Finney. “We’ve also had a long collaboration with Double Negative, the visual effects studio that originally brought the Ukrainian Ironbelly to life on screen, to reconstruct the origins of the dragon, then craft the performance of the dragon itself using computer-generated animation.
The tour took advantage of the fact that Potter’s books were still being released when the films were made. It made filmmakers hesitant to destroy sets, as often happens in the film industry, because they knew they might be needed again.
Gringotts are built using original fixed pieces while pieces that have not stood the test of time are recreated using original molds and production techniques. Surprisingly, despite its astonishingly detailed appearance, the intricate floor of the Banks Hall is not the one used in the films as it was not designed to withstand the heavy traffic of guests streaming through the tour gates. The tour attracts about two million guests annually and casts a powerful spell on Warner’s earnings.
Warner owns the house of the tour in Leavesden Studios and according to its latest financial statements, in the year ended December 31, 2020, it generated 475.6 million dirhams (£103.3 million) in revenue which is down 47 per cent from the previous year due to the pandemic. Despite this drop, he finished the year with a net profit of Dh48.8m (£10.6m).
The tour generates 46 percent of Leavesden’s revenue, with the rest coming from the studio itself. Since the tour opened in 2012, it has generated total revenue of Dh3.3bn (£711.3m) driving a profit of Dh1.1bn (£234m) to Warner. Calculations show that the tour and studio buildings are valued at Dh1.2 billion (£263.1m) with contents worth another Dh165.3m (£35.9m). A number of tricks up his sleeve during the pandemic have helped him.
There are no tours, and therefore no queues. Moreover, the only way to get in is to book a ticket so the numbers can be managed carefully. This improves safety and the exclusive guest experience as it is. The tour is the only one of its kind in the world so there is no shortage of interest. Although a peer opened in 2023 in Japan, it is far from competitive.
However, the tour is not resting on its laurels and will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year with the opening of a new district in July. This will take guests inside a giant greenhouse filled with enchanted plants that have been revived in pottery films partially using CG animation. The tour will recreate the zoo with models and guests will be able to take out a potted mandrake as Harry and his friends do on screen.
The secret to success, Vinny says, is to ensure that guests don’t know how to create the effects. “I would say the secret to using any kind of technology is to make it disappear, and for visitors to lose themselves in such a way that they don’t think at all about how to create the experience.” Now that’s really magic.
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