How the Thinkwell Group conjured a "Making of Harry Potter" attraction for the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

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Between that basilisk in the basement, those pesky mountain trolls who wander in through open doors, not to mention the occasional dragon which slips its chain and then starts ripping up the roof of this famed castle, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has obviously previously had some problems with creatures. But who knew that the people who had been placed in charge of rebuilding the cinematic version of this iconic structure would then find themselves being out-foxed by a fox?
As Craig Hanna — the Chief Creative Officer of the Thinkwell Group — recently recalled on TEA Case Studies Day (which was held last month as part of the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual 2-day summit at the Disneyland Hotel), his company encountered some interesting animal-related issues while they were working on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter attraction.
To explain: The Hogwarts Castle model had always been considered the crown jewel of the Harry Potter production collection at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden. Originally built back in 2000 for the first film in this series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ,” it took 86 artists & crew members to construct this 1:24 scale recreation of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. And this 50 foot-tall model was then used repeatedly over the course of production on the next five “Potter” movies. (Only for “Deathly Hallows – Part 1 ” & “Part 2 ” did Warner Bros. finally switch over to a CG version of Hogwarts Castle. And even then the CG version of this massive structure was based on a digital scan of that over-sized model).
Anyway … When Warner Bros. and the Thinkwell Group began toying with the idea of building a Harry Potter production attraction at Leavesden (where all eight installments of this acclaimed film series had been shot over the course of a decade), they knew that they had to make use of this 1:24 scale version of Hogwarts Castle. But creating a space to properly present this massive model in (which — at that time — was being stored at nearby Shepperton Studios) was going to take some doing.
“We knew that we wanted the Hogwarts Castle model to be the culmination of the ‘Making of Harry Potter’ experience. So we purposefully built this room with a ramp that would come in high, give you this amazing dramatic vista of the castle model and then ramp through that space down to the bottom,” Hanna explained. “And because it had been chopped into little bits to store at Shepperton, they then had to bring the Hogwarts Castle model in in pieces. And because one wall of this building had been deliberately left open during the 32 days it took to load in & reassemble this massive model, a fox moved in.”
And how exactly did Craig know that a full-sized fox had moved into this 1:24 scale version of Hogwarts Castle? “We had fox prints all over the model,” Hanna laughed. “We were also doing some time lapse photography at this same time to capture the reassembling of this massive model. So someone went through the footage and stepped through it, frame by frame, knowing that they’d eventually find the culprit.”
And how then did the “Making of Harry Potter” construction team deal with their fox problem? “Warner Bros. brought in an animal control guy who put some frankfurters in the model and he eventually captured the booger,” Craig continued.
This animal control guy then took the fox away from Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden and released the animal in the Hertfordshire countryside. The only problem was that this animal control officer wasn’t taking this creature far enough away. Because — as Hanna explained ” … the fox kept coming back. So the joke around the construction site was that this guy was getting 100 quid per fox. Anyway, once we sealed the building, no more foxes.”
So when this fox-free attraction officially opened for business in March of 2012, what did the first visitors to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter discover? Something that was deliberately different from what Universal Creative had built in Orlando as part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure.
“Warners Bros said — right from the beginning as we were developing this attraction — that we’re not going magically into the movies. Here at Leavesden, we’re going to talk about the magic of the movies. And that was always the clear differentiator between what we were doing and what Universal Creative was developing for Orlando,” Craig said. “Which — I have to admit — did initially cause some frustration for the team at Thinkwell. They say things like ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we got to see Moaning Myrtle talking in a painting?’ And I’d then have to ask the team ‘Was that how it was done on the set? Because if it wasn’t, we can’t do that. We’re not making magic. We’re making movie magic.’ And that became the filter for everything.”
During the two years that Thinkwell worked with Warner Bros. on the design of the “Making of Harry Potter,” that was the central idea that Hanna and his team kept circling back on. That whatever was going to be put on display here at this 150,000 square-foot attraction had to be authentic to what was done during the production of the Harry Potter films. Which was very different from what Universal Creative was doing for its theme parks. Where the driving idea was that you’re living the movies.”
“Interestingly enough, we didn’t know what Universal was up with their Harry Potter project. Luckily the two experiences wound up being very complimentary. Theirs is such a fanciful experience. It’s what every Harry Potter fan wishes they could do in the real world. Walk into Hogsmeade Village as a magical person, get a wand and drink Butterbeer, do all those things,” Craig said. “But the real fans of the Potter films also want to see the authentic items that were used in the production of these movies. Which is why I’m constantly reading online about people who have visited both attractions and love them equally. They go to London and then Orlando or visa versa.”
And when I say authentic, I mean authentic. As part of his TEA Case Studies Day talk, Hanna fondly looked back on the very first time that he got to walk the sets of a Harry Potter movie at Leavesden Studio.
“This was back in 2007. I think the fourth film was in production at that time. And I remember thinking that you could just open this whole thing up to the public. Because everything that was being done for the Potter films was being done to an extraordinary level of detail,” Craig recalled. “We saw these absolutely amazing sets. We then went over to the art department & the creature shop, all of which was located right there onsite at Leavesden Studios and saw those beautiful sculpts and creatures being created. Wherever we turned, our jaws were just hitting the floor.”
But what genuinely excited Hanna about the potential of building a ‘Making of Harry Potter’ exhibit right there onsite at Leavesden Studios was the already-created assets that he and his team would then be able to build this attraction around.
“You have to understand that — after Warner Bros. acquired the movie rights for the Harry Potter books in 1998 and then settled on Leavesden Studios as the place in the UK where they then wanted to shoot these movies — the executives at Warner Bros. did this very smart thing. They told the Potter production team that ‘We don’t know what’s coming up in the upcoming books from J.K. Rowling. So you’d better save everything so that we can then save some money if we need to reuse that set, prop or costume again in another movie further on down the road,’ ” Craig explained. “So there were hundreds of these Harry Potter-related shipping containers onsite at Leavesden Studios. And every one we opened up was a treasure trove.”
Which — in a weird sort of way — having so much authentic Harry Potter movie material to chose from actually made things harder for the folks from Thinkwell.
“It’s amazing how many beautiful, extraordinary things we agonized over. I mean, you can pick through the Potter films yourself and then think about what props & sets that you’d like to see on display in an exhibit like this,” Hanna said. “Me personally, I wanted put the entire Weasley Burrow in there so badly. I wanted to do a walk-thru of this whole set from the films so that everyone could then see how wonky everything was in the Weasley household. But I only got to put in a tiny piece of that set.”
“I also wanted to include the Shell Cottage from ‘Deathly Hallows,’ which was this amazing set that was made entirely out of these gorgeous real sea shells,” Craig continued. “But it was Potter executive producer David Heyman who actually talked us out of doing that. Arguing that — since the Shell Cottage was really only going to be onscreen for 30 seconds or so in ‘Deathly Hallows’ — we shouldn’t make that set, as pretty as it might be, part of the display. That we should go more for the more iconic settings. The places that fans of the Harry Potter film series would genuinely love to visit.”
Which — obviously — included the Great Hall at Hogwarts Castle. Back in 2000, this was one of the very first sets built for the Harry Potter film series. And since production designer Stuart Craig knew that the filmmakers would be shooting scenes in this 120 feet long by 40 feet wide space for the next 10 years, he had the floor of this set made out of genuine York Stone.
“And when it came time to transfer the Great Hall set over to its original soundstage at Leavesden to the ‘Making of Harry Potter’ attraction … Well, we numbered each of those York Stones and then carefully noted where it was located on the floor on the Great Hall set. And then those stones were placed in the exact same spot on the floor of the Great Hall display that we were creating for the attraction. That’s an example of how obsessive we were when it came to getting the detail just right for this ‘Making of Harry Potter’ exhibit,” Craig enthused.
Of course, what helped with getting all of the details right for Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter was that — when the crew from Thinkwell were temporarily stumped by something — all Hanna & his crew had to do was hike across the Leavesden lot. Where they could then consult with the artists & technicians who’s actually been on set and/or behind the camera when these various Potter movies were being shot.
“The Heads of Departments at Leavesden have helped with every aspect of the ‘Making of Harry Potter’ attraction and they continue to help us with the attraction. It’s a real tribute to their artistry & dedication that this display is as authentic as it is,” Craig continued.
And to pay tribute to those Heads of Departments — not to mention the 3000 other people who worked on all 8 of the “Harry Potter” films over the past ten years … Well, that’s why the folks at Thinkwell decided to turn the final scene of this attraction into a very special version of Ollivander’s wand shop.
“There are over 3000 wand boxes on display in our version of Ollivander’s. And on the label of each of these boxes is the name of someone who worked on the Harry Potter movies,” Hanna explained. “Now we thought that people would just stroll through this space. But — as it turns out — so many people in the UK had friends or family who worked on these films that they then linger in Ollivander’s, looking for the wand box with their friend or family members name on it. Which is why we’ve now got an actor stationed in this part of the exhibit who’s memorized where a lot of the wand boxes are located. And he then helps visitors find the wand boxes that they’re looking for.”
And speaking of visitors … Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter certainly has become a hit with visitors to the UK. Even though there are no walk-up tickets sold to this attraction (all visits to the Leavesden lot have to be pre-booked in advance), the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London still managed to welcome its one millionth visitor within nine months of its March 2012 opening.
What’s more, people who have visited this 150,000 square foot display just been raving about the overall experience. How — thanks to the way people are plussed through the attraction (i.e. Every half hour, a new group of 125 people are allowed to enter the “Making of Harry Potter.” And only 5000 tickets total are sold each day) — you never feel rushed or crowded. Throughout most of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London (with the possible exception of the Great Hall. Which — because this space served as the opening scene / introduction to the attraction — guests have just a half an hour to explore the displays located here) you can linger as long as you want at any of the exhibits and displays.
In fact, there’s such good buzz these days about Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter that word got back to Buckingham Palace. Which is why — just last week — Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry made a special trip out to Leavesden just so they could spend some time exploring Diagon Alley (or at least the sets that were used when the “Potter” filmmakers were shooting scenes set in & around Diagon Alley) as well as trying their hands at wielding a wand.
So does it please Hanna that the project that he and his team at Thinkwell worked on for 5 years has been so enthusiastically embraced by the royals & Harry Potter fans alike?
“I’m just glad that I got the chance to work on this little-known IP and help bring it to everyone’s attention,” Craig said in conclusion, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
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