A few weeks ago I was able to live out my life long dream of touring the set where all eight Harry Potter films were created. Not going to lie, it was one of the best days of my life…I was quoting lines from the books and movies the entire time and probably drove my friend Georgiana insane. But I have no shame when it comes to my obsession with the series. I have read the books and watched all of the movies literally too many times to count, so seeing where the magic was created and actually being on the set made the inner geek in me completely freak out (I only teared up like 3 times, I swear). So in case you can’t see the magic yourself, I thought I would share a bit of the tour with you all.
The tour is made up of Stage J and Stage K (coincidence, I think not) and a backlot at Warner Brother’s Studios in Leavesden and rightfully starts with a peek into the cupboard under the stairs where Harry slept at Number 4 Privet Drive and leads you into the Great Hall of Hogwarts, one of the most prominent and most filmed at locations in all of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Did you know that you can ACTUALLY have Christmas dinner in the Great Hall?! One of my life dreams…
The Great Hall is lined with robes worn by the cast from the four Hogwarts houses as well as several costumes of the Hogwarts professors. How cute are little Harry’s first Hogwarts robes?!
For Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it took ninety decorators one month to transform the Great Hall into the silvery ballroom which held the Yule Ball. They might actually hold a real life Yule Ball in the future and I will be booking my tickets as soon as they go on sale so that I can dance to The Weird Sisters and wear dress robes.
Unique gowns and robes were made for staff and students including Harry, Hermione, Viktor Krum, Cho Chang, and obviously Ron. Who could forget something so ghastly…
The very first password Harry used to enter the Gryffindor common room was ‘Caput Draconis’ (which of course, I mentioned to the Fat Lady before entering). Each portrait on the common room walls is of a previous Head of the House. There is even one of a young Professor McGonagall.
Everything in Gryffindor boys’ dormitory was handmade and personalized for each of the characters. As Harry, Ron, Dean, Seamus, and Neville grew up, the set decorators added posters and pennants of their favorite Quidditch teams (or soccer teams in Dean’s case). The only thing that proved to be a problem in the room as the boys grew up were the small beds. In the later films, the actors had to curl up so their feet wouldn’t hang over the edge of the bed.
After taking a peek in the Mirror of Erised to see my heart’s deepest desire (which wasn’t a pair of socks), I went down to the dungeons for a potions lesson with Professor Snape.
Each of the bottles lined on the shelves were delicately handwritten by the set decorators and filled with dried herbs, leaves, and bones from a local butcher shop.
To get a little fresh air after brewing potions, we decided to take the Weasley’s Ford Anglia out for a spin, which I proceeded to crash into the Whomping Willow. We were spotted by muggles but it wasn’t our fault honestly, the invisibility booster was faulty!
I was probably the most annoying person to go on this tour with. Literally I was line dropping every chance I got. When we went to the entrance of Dumbledore’s office I yelled ‘Sherbet Lemon’ before going in as if saying the correct password would magically cause the staircase to spiral and allow me to enter the Headmaster’s office…when in reality the set for Dumbledore’s study was five feet to the right and not up a spiral staircase at all. But hey, its fun to pretend (and even hope…I swear Errol was supposed to deliver my Hogwarts letter and got seriously lost…)
Dumbledore’s office is exactly what you would expect. Hundreds of books (old, English phonebooks rebound in leather) and magical objects and trinkets line the shelves of the study. The Memory Cabinet that contains memories from other wizards, magical creatures, and Dumbledore himself held over 800 handmade and hand-labeled glass vials. Tucked away in the second floor of the study is the most expensive prop that was ever created for the series: Dumbledore’s telescope. (It’s that sphere in the back on the second floor and you can actually sit in it and gaze at the stars. It’s a shame that it was only ever seen in the background.)
Throughout the tour, costumes worn by the cast are integrated into the sets. These costumes are from three Members of the original Order of the Phoenix: Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks, and Sirius Black.
After admiring the costumes of the Order Members, I spoke a little parseltongue and slipped down to the Chamber of Secrets. Most people think the door to the Chamber of Secrets was digitally created, but it was hand built by the Special Effects Department and a snake actually moves on a motor to unlock the door.
The next stop was one of my favorites. I popped over to Malfoy Manor for a spot of dinner with Voldy and his Death Eaters. What I loved most about visiting this set was that in addition to recreating the scene with the costumes and props, a video played next to the set that flicked between pre and post production filming so that you can see exactly what the scene looked like as they were filming compared to how it actually appears in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I. For this scene Nagini was captured on film in several variations: an actual snake and several life size replicas. In the film, she is augmented with a digital version created by the Special Effects Team.
I left my suspenseful meeting with the Dark Lord and his followers at Malfoy Manor and took the Floo Network to the Ministry of Magic. I somehow ended up in the most horrid of offices belonging to a certain Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic and ex-High Inquisitor…Honestly I would rather live in the Chamber of Secrets than have her office…
To make it to the backlot for some butterbeer, I ran through Platform 9 3/4 at full speed and boarded the Hogwarts Express.
I made my way through the train until I found Harry and Ron in their compartment with a stash of Honeydukes sweets.
After a ride on the Hogwarts Express, we signaled for the Knight Bus (which promptly caused me to fall over, leading Stan to snicker and ask “‘Choo fall over for?”). We paid our eleven sickles each and made two stops at Number 4 Privet Drive and Godric’s Hollow to get a glimpse at where Harry grew up and where he was born.
In Hagrid-like style, we left Godric’s Hollow on his enchanted motorbike and flew to the Three Broomsticks for a few rounds of butterbeer and butterbeer ice cream.
Having our fill, we headed over to second part of the tour to learn about the creatures, makeup, prosthetics, storyboarding, and model making and to also take a stroll down a particular street to pick up all of our “bits and bobs for doing wizardry”.
From Aunt Marge to Aragog and the Basilisk, Stage K is full of monsters, even including an animatronic Monsters Book of Monsters. Monsters are not the only things that live here, shelves and shelves hold prosthetics for the goblins of Gringotts and all of the other magical creatures in the Wizarding World. A life size version of Dobby is also on display and was used during filming for the actors to work with, then was digitally altered by the Visual Effects Department in post production to make him lifelike.
After our Care of Magical Creatures lesson, we went for a stroll down Diagon Alley to pick up a new wand at Ollivanders (mine snapped when driving/flying the Weasley’s Ford Anglia earlier) and to grab some Skiving Snackboxes at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. Fun fact: the Diagon Alley set was re-dressed to be used as the village of Hogsmeade in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The tour culminates with a behind the scenes preview of how the wizarding world was actually created from the absolute beginning with storyboards, sketches, illustrations, plans, elevations, and mini models of buildings and props. It was fascinating to see how everything was made starting from scratch.
I couldn’t stop staring at the mini model of the castle, wishing so much to see the real thing. Tearing myself away from the cardboard construction, I moved on to the next room, not knowing what to expect as the tour came to an end…
My wish came true.
The Art Department created an intricately detailed model of the Hogwarts castle. Every courtyard, tower, and turret were filmed and enhanced with digital effects to create realistic views of the school of witchcraft and wizardry and were built to replicate the castle locations where scenes from the movies were shot. Footage of the model was edited in post production to create realistic pans and views of the exterior of the school. It took eighty six artists and crew members to build the Hogwarts castle.
Everything in the model is perfectly hand sculpted to scale and real gravel and plants were used to create rockwork, boulders, landscaping, and trees. The model makers installed more than 300 fibre optic lights in the castle to simulate lanterns and torches and even give the illusion of students passing through the corridors. The lights throughout the room shift from day to night so you can see the beauty of the castle from every time of day.
There could not have been a more perfect way to end my tour of the studio. It honestly was a completely magical day and will forever remain one of my favorite experiences. To be totally corny, I am forever thankful and grateful to J.K. Rowling and Warner Brother’s Studios for bringing the magic of Harry Potter and the Wizarding World to life. Now off to binge watch all eight movies and read the books for the millionth time…
“The stories we love best do live in us forever, so whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”