With London in Tier 3 is looking like my birthday this year won’t be half as fun as it was last year. The bar was already set pretty high – for my 29th birthday, Matt took me to see Christmas at Harry Potter Studios! Every winter from November through to January, The Making Of Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studio Tour in Watford goes all out with the Christmas decorations and the fake snow for a magical event called Hogwarts In The Snow.
I first visited Harry Potter Studios waaaay back in 2012 as a student (when I had red hair) with my cousin and auntie. I had just finished writing a dissertation about Harry Potter and it’s safe to say I was in full nerd mode.
Since then the studios have added loads of new props and sets, like the Forbidden Forest, Platform 9¾, and Gringotts Bank. I’d been keen to see these extra features for ages, and then one Christmas I saw on a blog these amazing photos of the Great Hall decked out for Christmas dinner. It was called Hogwarts in the Snow and you can bet it was fully booked. So the next summer I told Matt without any preamble, I want to go and see Hogwarts in the Snow for my birthday, and you need to book a few months in advance so get cracking.
What is Harry Potter Studios?
For ten years the Harry Potter film series was filmed north of London in a place called Leavesden. As the books were still being released while the films were being made, the production crew saved lots of the iconic sets, props and costumes that were created especially for the films – just in case they were ever needed later on in the series.
Once filming wrapped on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 in 2010, the production crew were left with thousands of intricate and beautifully-made artefacts, many of which wouldn’t have been saved on a typical production.
The team behind Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter wanted to preserve and showcase these iconic props, costumes and sets so that Harry Potter fans like me could experience the magic of filmmaking first-hand. Many of the original cast and crew returned to reassemble the sets and record their memories from filming, and on 31st March 2012, the Studio Tour opened its doors.
Right next to the working film studios where all eight Harry Potter films were made, the Studio Tour is your chance to explore two soundstages and a backlot filled with original sets, animatronic creatures and breathtaking special effects. You can find out where it is and how to get there over on their website.
So fast forward to 2019, Matt and I have taken the Overground to Watford Junction and then the official Harry Potter Knight Bus to the studios. We’ve had our tickets printed at the self service machines outside the entrance, and the magic of Christmas at Harry Potter Studios begins…
The entrance into the studios are just excellent – perfectly designed to amp up your excitement and give you a taste of what’s to come. A huge dragon hangs from the ceiling – specifically the Gringotts dragon from the last movie – and a wraparound screen shows main characters from the films with moving backgrounds. If you get there early like we did, there’s the Chocolate Frog Café, the Hub Café or Food Hall where you can grab food or drinks. There’s also the Studio Shop to explore, although you might want to save that for the end.
When your time slot arrives, you can join the queue into the Tour entrance, which snakes through a few rooms packed with props and mini sets to distract you from the wait, including Harry’s cupboard under the stairs from the first film. Finally, you will be ushered into the cinema, where you’ll watch Daniel Radcliffe welcome you to the studios. The screen rises, and the front doors to the Great Hall are revealed, decked with Christmas wreaths. If it’s your birthday, lucky you, you get to come forward and open the doors.
The Great Hall
As you step into the authentic Great Hall set, you’re welcomed with wreaths, garlands and trees topped with witches on miniature broomsticks. The long dining tables are dressed as they were for the Christmas feast in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, complete with SFX flaming Christmas puddings and prop versions of the mouth-watering roast turkeys, and hams studded with cherries.
Serving as the backdrop to some of the film series’ most iconic scenes such as the Yule Ball and the Battle of Hogwarts, the Great Hall was first built for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 2000 and was used as a key set for six more films. The spectacular Great Hall set includes the costumes of students from each Hogwarts house plus two large tables set for dinner; at the top of the room is the teachers’ table where the Hogwarts Professors sat.
The Great Hall set at the studios is home to some of the beautiful hand crafted props created for the Harry Potter film series including Professor Dumbledore’s lectern and the House Points Counter. Apparently, when the House Points Counter was first built, it caused a national shortage of Indian glass beads!
For Hogwarts in the Snow the Great Hall is fully decked out for The Yule Ball, including the costumes from the night. Costume Designer, Jany Temime designed over 300 costumes for the Yule Ball, a more formal style of wizard wear which required over 100 extra costume staff to help create. Hermione’s iconic gown was the biggest challenge. Taking three months to be created, the final dress was made of yards of pink silk and 12 metres of chiffon, layered to form a beautiful, romantic gown.
A kind of ‘Wizard’s Tuxedo’ was created for the Hogwarts boys in a satin silk while the Durmstrang students had military dress uniforms. Ron Weasley was the only exception with robes made from an old carpet fabric and acres of lace (gross).
At the back of the Great Hall, especially for Hogwarts in the Snow, you’ll find the full set for the Yule Ball, with frozen orchestra equipment and elaborate drinks table.
After leaving the Great Hall, you’ll enter the largest room on the tour, appropriately named The Big Room, full of sets from across the full span of movies, from Hogwarts classrooms to the Burrow.
So much is packed into this room. On display you’ll find Harry’s invisibility cloak, which obviously features prominently in the films. Several different cloaks were made, including a version with a green fabric lining which meant the Visual Effects Department could make Harry and his friends invisible in post-production. The cloak that can be seen at the Studio Tour was created from a special velvet fabric and printed Celtic symbols and ancient runes onto it by the Costume Department.
Among the Hogwarts rooms on display are the Gryffindor Common Room, the Prefects’ Bathroom, Hagrid’s Hut and Snape’s Potions Dungeon. Over 950 potion jars line the walls of the classroom, each with unique props kept inside them including baked animal bones from a local butcher shop, dried leaves, herbs and shrunken heads made by the props department. Each jar features a label hand designed by Graphic Design duo MinaLima.
In the Big Room you’ll also find the Green Screen experience, where you can queue to ride a broomstick over London, just like the cast did during filming. After putting on a Hogwarts robe, you can climb on to a broomstick and get your picture taken with the full SFX treatment.
Matt’s favourite part of the tour was Dumbledore’s Office, fully decked out with all the props and costumes from the films.
Nearly 900 memory vials and labels were created for the cabinet that can be found in Professor Dumbledore’s office. Each label was hand-designed by the Graphics Department before being sent to the Props team who would put the label into place on each vial.
Dark Arts and the Forbidden Forest
Next up on the tour is The Forbidden Forest. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone the forest was a combination of location and studio shooting. This moved entirely to the Studio for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in order to house Aragog’s lair and continued to grow throughout the film series. While shooting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, scenic artists created backdrops that were up to six hundred feet in length. The Forbidden Forest seen at the Studio Tour is filled with 19 trees each with a diameter of over 12 feet.
In the Forbidden Forest section you’ll find two creatures – Aragog and Buckbeak. Three life-size animatronic versions of Buckbeak the Hippogriff were created for the Harry Potter film series: one standing, another rearing and a third lying down. When creating the models of Buckbeak, each feather had to be individually inserted and glued by the Creature Effects team who were busy adding feathers right up until the final moment Buckbeak was needed on set for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The designers of Buckbeak took inspiration from real birds, specifically the Golden Eagle for the creature’s profile. They also consulted with vets and physiologists when looking at the proportions of Buckbeak’s legs and wings.
This section took my breath away. Platform 9¾ from Kings Cross is one of the newer additions to the tour. Most of the scenes that take place on Platform 9¾ were actually shot on location at King’s Cross Station in London, however, during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, part of the station platform was recreated on a soundstage at Leavesden, complete with the track and the train.
The Hogwarts Express provided the background for the very first shot ever captured for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and then, ten years later, for the very last shot of the entire series in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. The real locomotive and passenger carriages were used on locations throughout the UK to create the exterior views of the train while a special interior carriage set (built on the soundstages at Leavesden) was used for all of the scenes that take place inside the train. Visual effects artists replaced the green screen background in the windows with moving backdrops and special effects like hopping Chocolate Frogs and flying Dementors.
After another queue you can experience how scenes inside the Hogwarts Express were filmed by stepping into one of the carriages and reliving the journey to Hogwarts complete with moving scenery outside the windows.
Between the Platform 9¾ set and the area called the Backlot, you’ll find Backlot Café, which marks the half way point of the Studio Tour, where you can order a frothy Butterbeer; a non-alcoholic drink that tastes a bit like shortbread and butterscotch.
That’s right, you’re only halfway through! The Backlot is fully outside, and houses a variety of the exterior sets from the Harry Potter film series including Mr Weasley’s Ford Anglia, 4 Privet Drive and the Hogwarts bridge.
During Hogwarts in the Snow, the bridge is treated to a constant flurry of fake snow, which looks amazing in the mystical purple lighting against the dark wintry sky.
The Knight Bus
The three story Knight Bus towers over the Backlot. There’s grill over the entrance so you can’t go all the way inside, but you can peek inside and check out the four poster beds and chandelier, and of course pose for a pic.
The first time I visited Harry Potter Studios back in 2012, you couldn’t go inside Privet Drive. Well now you can! The house is only a 2/3 scale model, so it is a bit cramped. But you can see the living room with all the letters flying out of the fireplace which is pretty cool.
This was my favourite room in the whole tour. I think I actually gasped when I rounded the corner and the huge room appeared before me, glittering with chandeliers and lights reflecting in all the surfaces. This amazing marble masterpiece is in fact made of paper – can you believe it??
From Harry Potter first discovering Diagon Alley to the famous trio escaping on a Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon in their quest for a Horcrux, Gringotts Wizarding Bank played an important role in the Harry Potter film series. The newest expansion allows visitors to walk through the wizarding bank of Gringotts, the Lestrange vault, a gallery of goblins and so much more.
Lined by towering marble pillars, the grand banking hall is decorated with three magnificent crystal chandeliers and finished with real brass leaf. Inkwells, quills, ledgers and piles of Galleons, Sickles and Knuts complete the goblin tellers’ desks as seen on screen. The Prop-making Department, led by Pierre Bohanna, created over 210,000 coins for the final two films alone.
Gringotts Wizarding Bank is famously run by goblins. Walking through the imposing marble columns, discover the costumes and prosthetics belonging to Bogrod, Griphook and many other goblin bankers. Each prosthetic mask took weeks to create, with every hair individually inserted and veins painstakingly painted by hand. It took four hours to transform actor Warwick Davis into Griphook in the films which included him wearing black contact lenses and dentures with extremely sharp teeth to complete the goblin look.
Once through the banking hall of Gringotts, enter the depths of the Lestrange Vault used to store the treasures of Bellatrix Lestrange including the Sword of Gryffindor and Helga Hufflepuff’s Cup, one of Voldemort’s many Horcruxes. During filming 38,000 pieces of rubberised treasure were created for the Lestrange vault including 7,014 Hufflepuff Cups.
The 16,500sqft Gringotts Wizarding Bank expansion is the Studio Tour’s biggest addition to date and has been designed and built by many of the original crew members who worked on the films.
The Diagon Alley set constantly changed throughout the film series. Since its construction, walls have shifted, shop fronts have moved and entire buildings have been carefully tweaked, leaning just slightly, to create the street that is seen in the films. Many of the Diagon Alley set pieces were also re-dressed for use in the village of Hogsmeade for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The original design of the street combined the rich details from the Harry Potter books with inspiration from the streets described in the works of Charles Dickens.
Diagon Alley is home to not only Gringotts Bank, Flourish and Blotts and Mr Mulpepper’s Apothecary but also the dusty Ollivanders wand shop, where Harry’s wand famously chose him. The shop was home to more than 17,000 individually labelled wand boxes during filming.
Stocking everything from Extendable Ears to fireworks, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes was designed to look like an 18th century storefront and took more than three months to build — and much of that time was spent constructing the 20 foot mannequin above the main entrance. 120 different products were designed by concept artists, each with nods to Fred and George’s mischievous sense of humour. The Puking Pastilles dispenser that can be seen at the Studio Tour was created by Head Propmaker Pierre Bohanna and was designed to be funny and disgusting at the same time.
The Model Room
The climax of the tour and the jewel in the crown of the art department is the intricately detailed model of Hogwarts castle. I’m not joking, the first time I saw this in 2012 I started crying. With the lighting and the music playing, I found it so emotional seeing the whole of Hogwarts laid out before you.
Built for the first film by a team of 86 artists and crewmembers, the model’s every courtyard, tower and turret were filmed and enhanced with digital effects to create unforgettably realistic views of the magical school. Footage of this meticulously built model was combined with digital effects to create unforgettably realistic views of the exterior of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
To make Hogwarts appear even more realistic, artists rebuilt miniature versions of courtyards from Alnwick Castle and Durham Cathedral, where scenes from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were shot. The Hogwarts landscape is inspired by the Highlands of Scotland, including the regions of Glen Nevis, Glen Coe and Loch Shiel. Model makers installed more than 2,500 fibre optic lights, which simulate lanterns and torches and even gave the illusion of students passing through the hallways. Artists also used real gravel for rockwork and boulders, and real plants for landscaping and trees. The work on the model was so extensive that if one was to add all the man hours that have gone into building and reworking the model, it would come to over 74 years.
During production, many different types of ‘snow’ were used for Hogwarts in winter, each selected for its ability to crunch under foot, float like falling flakes or glisten in the light like ice, but never melt. During filming, a member of the crew climbed aboard an elevated work platform and sprinkled the mixture of granulated paper and grains of salt onto the model by hand with a sieve – like dusting sugar onto a cake. The same process takes place at the Studio Tour every festive season. What a perfect way to round off Hogwarts in the snow.
Of course on your way out you have the enormous studio shop, with room after room of every souvenir and memorabilia under the sun. Since it was my birthday, Matt bought me a small golden time turner necklace and a fridge magnet.
What an absolutely magical way to spend a birthday. If you haven’t been to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour in a few years, I really recommend you go back during Hogwarts in the Snow to see all the new features and get the added bonus of everything Christmas at Harry Potter Studios has to offer.