Tuesday, May 26, 2015

All Aboard The Harry Potter Studio Tour

Harry Potter Tour
I recently took the Harry Potter Studio Tour at Leavesden, visiting the 80-hectare studio complex which was used for filming the Harry Potter series of films. The tour might sound like a three hour trivia odyssey for Potter fans, but in fact it turned out to be as good an introduction to the art, craft and science of visual effects film-making as almost any amount of classroom instruction - and far more fun.

I was expecting something fun but superfluous - much like the studio tours you might expect at the Disney Parks - long on Hollywood razzmatazz, and short on actual information about how films get made.  But the tour at Leavesden is exceptionally well put together, and incredibly informative about how this ground-breaking series of films was brought to the screen.

Hogwarts dining hall
Highlights include the Hogwarts dining hall, a set that was used throughout the series of films and therefore built to withstand a lot of time, wear and tear. The whole set feels incredibly solid - they even put down real flagstones.

Diagon Alley

You can wander through Diagon Alley too.  Whoever designed and dressed these sets clearly had huge fun. The visual style of the film is a sort of nostalgic trip back to the 1950s - but with added magic. It is a world that is old-fashioned and new-fangled all at the same time, both familiar and unfamiliar.

Hogwarts Express
You can also climb aboard the Hogwarts Express, whose old-school slam-door carriages (similar ones were still in use when I went up to university in the early 1980s) are decorated with scenes from the various films.

The displays are genuinely revealing about how the movies were made.  At Bucks we tend to focus on digital effects, but it is very clear that the special effects team on the series did an impressive job, and plenty of old-school non-digital physical effects used on set long before digital artists got started.
Below you can see one of the goblin masks, used to create the goblins at Gringotts bank. The actors had the latex head masks painstaking attached to their faces in an hours-long makeup process that made the mask a living part of the actors own faces.

Goblin mask
There was also a sophisticated head used for Hagrid, so that - in wide shots at least - the actors could wear a huge giant suit with a fake head on top, and look just like Robbie Coltrane.

Robbie Coltrane's head. In latex.
Needless to say, there are plenty of opportunities to spend money on broomstick rides, and have yourself filmed expensively against a green screen background, but luckily there's no pressure to sign up. Throughout the tour you can take as many pictures as you want, completely free. No-one minds - in fact they expect it.

You can even film yourself at Platform 9 and 3/4, next to the Hogwarts Express, steaming away in the background.

You can meet the Hippogriff, which turns out to have been a special effect, that is to say a carefully feathered animatronic creature, which moves under guidance from hidden controls.

Dragon heads peer down at you from the ceilings, and you realise how much work went into the creation of so many different monsters and creatures. Most impressive of all is the scale model of Hogwarts, created by the model department at Cinesite (though none of the companies which worked on the films get a credit).

Scale model of Hogwarts
For anyone who is curious to know how visual effects movies get put together, the tour is an education. It's really a masterclass in modern film-making, disguised as a Hollywood tour.

I can't think of a better way to introduce students of animation to the world in visual effects in film.


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