Review: Warner Bros Studio Tour: The Making Of Harry Potter
It’s hard to believe that Harry Potter is now 30 years old. Or at least Daniel Radcliffe is. But the films that made him a household name first came out in 2001 with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It very nearly didn’t happen, JK Rowling was on book 3 of her series and there was no interest from any of the big film studios. The first book sat on a shelf at Warner Bros waiting to be read. And waited. And waited. And then got picked up by an assistant who told her boss it was worth making into a film. Not just a film, but the most successful book-based film franchise in history, Lord of the Rings notwithstanding. You would be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of 30 who hasn’t seen the films or read the books, or any parents under 50 for that matter. One of the things that makes the books so powerful is that they are designed to be read at the age of the main character. The writing style ages with the reader, with each book growing as the reader grows older. So you start reading the first book as a 10 year old, and by the time you finish book 7 you’re 17 or 18 years old and have grown up with Harry Potter. It may be for this reason that Harry Potter has succeeded where so many other film franchises have failed. The Golden Compass, Eragon, Cirque du Freak, and so many more that just never made it past the first film, despite promising so much.
One other reason the films have managed to become so big is Warner Bros. Books are notoriously difficult to convert to the big screen, but with Harry Potter the studio played every ace in the pack. They were also shrewd enough to realise that the public wanted to see the actual film making process itself. It’s for this reason that the Harry Potter Studio Tour is actually held at Warner Bros Studios, near Watford. While the studio itself is still active, with Warner Bros still making films at the site, the studio tour takes over 2 of the sound stages on the site. Visitors to the studio tour can choose from the standard tour and hire the digital guides that tell them what each area is about, or if you’re feeling flush you can go for the Deluxe package that includes a personalised tour, photos and videos, a meal in the main food hall, butterbeer, and guide book. The guided tour is a 2 hour whistlestop tour of the highlights, accessed via the secret passageways of Hogwarts. Okay, you avoid the queues for the main attraction by being taken through the employee side entrance. In our case we had the slightly hyperactive and incredibly knowledgeable Ginny (no relation to the Weasleys) as our guide. Without going into too much detail you’ll be told lots of secrets, such as how Dumbledore was first cast, how Alan Rickman was persuaded to play the role of Professor Snape, and why he was able to have so much creative control over his character, and who broke the most, and least, wands during filming. Even for the most diehard Potterheads there are things to learn.
Once the guided tour is finished it’s time for food, and then you’re let back into the tour, via the secret passage again, to take your time and really look at everything. We managed to catch the tour on the last day of the Dark Arts Halloween event, so throughout the tour Deatheaters were stalking the guests, and for those remembering to bring their wands with them there was the chance to duel with them. As part of the event there was also a workshop by the creators of the Deatheater masks showing the extraordinary attention to detail put into each mask and the different methods for creating them. The props you see, and indeed many of the sets and models, are the actual ones used in the films. From costumes to potions, books to masks, almost everything you see was in the films. New for this year is Gringott’s Bank, with many of the original pieces from the film, but of course not an entirely original set given that the original was destroyed by a dragon in the films. It’s still an impressive sight and you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference from the stage set and the inspiration for the set, Australia House in London. With the sheer amount of props and sets to look at you’d be best setting aside several hours, on top of the 2 hours for the guided tour. 3 hours aren’t enough, and even 5 hours seems short. A word of caution though, if you have the guided tour pay special attention to the photo and video opportunities, you’ll more than likely only get one chance to get your photos and videos taken when you go back in so choose carefully.
By the end of the tour you’ll have seen much of Hogwarts itself, the haunted forest, Platform 9 3/4, Gringott’s, Diagon Alley, before reaching the finale. The model created for the films of Hogwart’s itself. To say it’s impressive is an understatement, with 35 man years of work in building it, every single brick and shingle hand painted, and lit from the inside using fibreoptic cables. Surrounding the model are interactive displays where you can learn more, and the lighting changes so you can see how it would look at all times of the day. Then it’s out through the gift shop and back to where you started, under the giant dragon hanging above the food hall entrance.
While prices are steep, especially if you decide to go Deluxe, what you actually get from the experience is unique. Forget making of DVDs, this is a tour where you get to see the actual sights and sounds from the films. It’s not just for Potterheads either, there’s something for everyone with an insight into the film making industry like no other. From set design, to special effects, it’s all laid bare for you. Expect a few characters to turn up, at least on the screens, to help in explaining the processes involved. It’s one reason why so many return year after year, along with the yearly additions to the sound stages. Who knows what you’ll see next time you go, or what secrets you missed last time.